Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, by Marie Gottschalk

Angelia Wilson on a prison system that has eroded democratic institutions and exacerbated social injustices

January 29, 2015

This is not an easy read. Even for a hardened academic, the details, while eye-opening, are (politically) soul-destroying: one in 23 American adults is in jail, prison, on probation, immigrant detention, or other government supervision. One in 40 has been denied voting rights temporarily or permanently because of a criminal conviction. One in 10 children has had an incarcerated parent. The US, with 5 per cent of the world’s population, has one-third of the world’s 625,000 imprisoned women and girls. Its incarceration rate is the world’s highest and rivals that of Soviet citizens sent to the Gulag under Stalin. One in four US workers is engaged in “guard labour”.

According to legal scholar Michelle Alexander, this “new Jim Crow” has more African Americans under correctional control today than were enslaved a decade before the Civil War. But for Marie Gottschalk, focusing only on race obscures how the wider political economy – the job market, income/wealth inequalities, assault on the organised labour and public sector services and “deep penetration of neoliberalism” – has eroded democratic institutions and exacerbated “pathologies of inequalities”.

Recent bipartisan cooperation among divergent groups such as the Cato Institute and the NAACP frames the carceral state as an “economic problem” – mass incarceration costs money; therefore reform is needed. If the problem is economic, then solutions must be economic.

Levying fees for meals, housing, visits to the doctor, underwear and tampons is justified with “inmates don’t have a constitutional right to underwear”. Where fees go unpaid, family members are imprisoned – not because of non-payment but for contempt of court for failing to comply with a court order to pay the fee. Prisons double as factories that produce everything from stationery to vegetables; inmates are often unpaid and not protected by health and safety laws. Excriminals in most states have no right to welfare or unemployment benefits, health services or public housing. Surprised? Don’t be. Recidivism is good for business.

Caught documents the escalation of privatisation, from Arizona’s attempt to build a prison across the border in Mexico where overhead costs are cheaper, to “bed brokering”, where officials use inmate placement services such as to ensure full occupancy. From Anson, Texas, to Ferguson, Missouri, sheriffs build bigger jails, rent “extra” beds to state prisons and then pocket the money in “honey holes” to purchase tanks, drones and military equipment for local police.

Gottschalk is not wrong – it’s the political economy, stupid. Using only the “economic frame” limits reform possibilities to those that meet financial cost-benefit criteria. The relentless wall of facts she accumulates in support of her argument is impressive (nearly 2,000 footnotes). Unfortunately, as a reader dragging myself to the final chapter in search of hope or resolution, there is little on offer: retroactive sentencing reform, political tackling of “root causes” of crime including the tangled web of race and class and increasingly high levels of inequality. Mobilising the public is one possibility, but with the invisibility of privatisation – hidden from public state budgets, a complete lack of regulation or inspection – combined with the silencing of ex-inmates by laws preventing protests over prison conditions, change appears impossible.

Everyone touched by the American carceral state lives this life. Everyone not touched by the American carceral state should read this book. And then stop feigning surprise over torture at Guantanamo Bay.

Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics

By Marie Gottschalk
Princeton University Press, 496pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691164052
Published 7 January 2015

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