Locked Up in America: The Essay in the Age of Mass Incarceration

By Ben MerrimanOctober 8, 2015

Fourth City by Doran Larson

PROPORTIONALLY and in absolute numbers, the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. But too few Americans think about the social costs of mass incarceration. Prisoners are hidden from public view, politically invisible and, in many cases, formally disenfranchised. In place of actual information about life in and after prison, Americans largely subsist on grotesque stereotypes about what prisons are like and how people find themselves inside. On the rare occasions when writing by American prisoners finds its way into print, it often presents a very narrow range of experience.

Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America is therefore an important work. Its editorial team, headed by Doran Larson, a professor of English at Hamilton College, issued calls for submissions throughout America’s prison system. The essays address a wide range of topics about prison life written by the people who know it best. The contributors are black, white, and Latino, male and female, gay and straight, cis and trans. Some are former offenders who have been released, and some are on death row. The topics range from the difficulty of acquiring hearing aid batteries to political economy. The anthology’s title indicates that the incarcerated population, if viewed as a single community, would be the fourth-largest city in the United States. The sections of the book extend this conceit by describing the prison world as a city with its own history, norms, and dysfunctions. Of course, one book can no more describe all of the prison system than one book could exhaustively describe the life of a major city like Chicago or Philadelphia. But Fourth City comes much closer to a representative view of incarceration in America than most previous anthologies of prison writing.

The view is not pleasant. Fourth City’s contributors tell us that life in American prison is ugly, violent, and monotonous. Above all, it is unfair: prisoners are dealt with capriciously, and the stigma and injury of imprisonment does not end with their eventual release. As contributor Kenneth E. Hartman notes of California, “In my state, an admittedly extreme example, on any given day about half the prison population are parole violators, a majority of whom have broken no law, but rather violated one of the vast web of confusing and devious tripwire rules they must navigate on the other side of the fences.” Some of the anthology’s most poignant essays describe the harm that incarceration does to families: Linda Field and Andrew R. Suhamit Jr. both write movingly about trying to maintain ties with their young children while serving long sentences.

A lengthy discussion of all the bad things visited upon prisoners is to be expected in such writing. What is more striking is the ordinary life described in the essays: tales of prisoners’ difficulties obtaining postage stamps or vegan food, or staying sober; stories about fighting and avoiding fights, finding a boyfriend and breaking up, chatting with a guard about the presidential race, or swapping Seinfeld quotes with another inmate. In place of hard-boiled stereotypes, the authors of Fourth City present an everyday world filled with actual people. This description of the everyday is the main editorial goal of the book. The writing sometimes lacks polish — due in part to the fact the editors had little opportunity to correspond with the contributors, and therefore could not put the pieces through successive rounds of revision — but it always rings true.


Fourth City is undoubtedly interesting, and an uninformed, unincarcerated public would likely benefit itself, and perhaps prisoners, by reading it. To the extent that it intervenes in an ongoing public debate about prisons, it does so by providing space for prisoners themselves to enter the discussion. In this sense, the book can be understood as a literary response to the growing scientific literature on mass incarceration, which includes popular books such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, as well as scholarly work by sociologists like Bruce Western, Loïc Wacquant, and Devah Pager. In many ways, of course, prisoners have a better grasp of mass incarceration than even the most educated outsiders, and it’s for this reason, Larson suggests, that the social scientists should not have the last word: “[Fourth City’s] premise is that American prison writers […] remain our permanent vanguard in understanding whether the violence meted out by the law achieves order in the name, or at the expense, of justice.”

However, the varied content of Fourth City indirectly points to reasons why social scientists have occupied such a large place in the discussion of prisons: the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the United States is complicated and dull, and the complicated and dull are a sociological specialty. (This is not at all an insult: thinking through things too overwhelming or boring for other people to bother with is an important scholarly service.) The massive growth in the prison population since the 1970s is the result of a variety of legal reforms, judicial rulings, and bureaucratic practices operating across many jurisdictions over a period of many decades. These changes include formal constraints on judges, such as mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws, but also an informal pattern of expansion in the discretion of prosecutors and their readiness to seek long sentences. These modern developments have also interacted, unpredictably, with older legal structures, such as the bail system, whose history stretches back nearly a thousand years. The resulting terrain is uneven: the incarceration rate in Louisiana, to take an extreme example, is 10 times that of Maine. The voices represented in Fourth City also point to substantial differences in the basic freedoms available to prisoners in different states. (It appears that many states prevented prisoners from submitting contributions, or perhaps did not even allow them to know that contributions were being solicited.)

Though Nelson Rockefeller’s 1973 drug laws are often cited as an important catalyst for the current prison regime, no one person or set of policies is to blame. The historical record suggests that short-term political expedience, rather than any definite long-term goal, has often been the source of harsher laws. Though many people profit directly or indirectly from mass incarceration, prominent public figures have not defended it on principle in the way that politicians like George Wallace defended segregation. Nor is opposition to the current state of the prison system only a concern of the left: many conservatives object to mass incarceration on fiscal or religious grounds. Newt Gingrich, for instance, was a vocal supporter of California’s Proposition 47, which instituted less severe penalties for nonviolent property and drug crimes, and in the last month several Republican presidential candidates have voiced opposition to the high rates of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. In short, the United States, unlike the totalitarian countries to which it is sometimes compared, has imprisoned millions without any clearly defined ideology or social goal.

Not everyone would agree with the above assessment. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent, much-discussed Atlantic article “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” connects the phenomenon to the legacy of centuries of racial injustice and discrimination in America. Many, including Coates and Alexander, argue that racism has been the primary rationale as well as the historical cause for mass incarceration, and in important respects this is undoubtedly true. African-American men are incarcerated at a rate more than six times higher than that of white men, a point that is deservedly central to critiques of mass incarceration. Economic inequality, much of it a byproduct of past and present racial injustice, plays a decisive role in determining who winds up in prison; so, too, does the conduct and misconduct of local police departments. Still, unlike Jim Crow, racial supremacism has not been an overt rationale for increased imprisonment, and in the past fifty years the American prison population has swelled across all racial and ethnic groups. Critics like Alexander and Coates argue that, from a moral point of view, the overt justification scarcely matters: the effects fall disproportionately upon African Americans, thus making mass incarceration, de facto if not de jure, an example of state-sanctioned racism. Morally, I wholly agree. However, the difference does matter when it comes to the practical political possibilities of dismantling mass incarceration. The legal architecture of Jim Crow was constructed quickly and purposefully, and enjoyed systematic Constitutional protection; massive social resistance and fundamental changes in US law were required to dismantle it. Mass incarceration, by contrast, is the product of a host of customs old and new, including many informal practices with little or no foundation or protection in law. On the one hand, this makes it difficult to argue that the American prison system acts as a monolithic institutional oppressor of black people, and to criticize it accordingly. But, on the other, the legal fragility of many of the bases of mass incarceration may also make it possible to knock down the prisons brick by brick.

In the absence of a coherent ideological opponent or an orderly set of historical causes, describing the phenomenon of mass incarceration requires organizing a welter of detail. To fully grasp the enormity of the prison system and begin to attack it, we need social science. The social consequences of imprisonment are so extensive that they seem to demand statistical rather than personal description. But where the concrete political end of decreasing the prison population is concerned, impersonal measures of injury and principled arguments may be less valuable than direct testimony and the empathy it stirs. Fourth City, by allowing prisoners to express their own ordinary humanity, offers a potent weapon in this fight. To quote Kenneth E. Hartman, currently serving life without parole in California, once more: “The trouble with prison is, indeed, prison itself […]. The idea that by humiliating and brutalizing damaged people some possible good could result is simply absurd […]. It has never worked. It is not working now. It will never work.”


Ben Merriman is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago.

LARB Contributor

Ben Merriman — a sociologist by training — is an assistant professor at the School of Public Affairs & Administration at the University of Kansas.


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