Between the Pen and the Protest

By Stephen LurieFebruary 4, 2015

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

THERE IS NO CLEARER example of a state enmeshed with, and subject to the phenomena of, imprisonment as the United States of the 20th and 21st centuries. The US incarcerates, and subjects to supervisional control, a greater number of people, and sometimes a greater proportion of its residents, than any state in any period — including those whose image is synonymous with the lockdown, such as Stalin’s Russia, Il’s North Korea, and antebellum America. The so-called “prison state” — also referred to as the carceral state — is one where the apparatus of governance is largely composed of, and beholden to, the penal sector.

Yet, for the first time in at least thirty years, the immense scale and reach of this system is finally gaining its own notoriety. Thanks to repeated incidents at the front lines of the prison state — where police officers initiate the chain of state control — the shrinking proportion of Americans normally immunized from direct contact with the prison state have been exposed to its footprint on a variety of communities, from Ferguson, to Cleveland, to New York City. Whereas the last public discourse on policing and prison, in the 1970s and 1980s, swirled around the need to crack down on crime and drugs, our new moment demands answers on how to dismantle that same system.

Pursuing that answer has been both performative and analytic, popular and academic. While massive protest marches have sprung up around the country, a corresponding rush of writing, research, and elite deliberation (public and private) have also sought to condemn the prison state and suggest a path forward. Few, whether in the street, column, or TV studio, have appropriately diagnosed the nature of the carceral quagmire. Moreover, the discussions of the street and in text can’t be taken in isolation: both are attempting to form and finesse the cause and narrative for political change.

At the height of this discursive moment — and the perpetual crisis of mass incarceration — is an attempt at a comprehensive guide, Marie Gottschalk’s Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics (Princeton University Press, December 2014). Gottschalk’s second book on the topic, published in recent weeks, could hardly be timelier. Unlike many titles in the field, Caught sets out to catalog and trace the prison state in its entirety, without preference to a certain lens (race, like for Michelle Alexander; poverty and welfare, for Loic Wacquant; or a part to explain the whole such as Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson). It intends to tell us not just what has and is going wrong, but why it is, has been, and will be so difficult to remedy — and to do so with a deep rigor and discerning eye for misperceptions and common reductions of complex problems.

Given that approach and the pressing contemporary context, it’s hard to ignore that it is a book diametrically opposed, in form and content, to the other model of this rebellious moment: the protest. Reading one and witnessing the other captures the essential divide over reform narratives and beckons us into that gap: neither will be sufficient alone to take on the quintessential prison state. Gottschalk prompts this question in the introduction: “The real challenge is figuring out how to create a political environment that is more receptive to such reforms and how to make the far-reaching consequences of the carceral state into a leading political and public policy issue.”

In Gottschalk’s analysis and blueprint of the prison state, two messages are sketched time after time: that certain popular narratives have misled us about what’s gone wrong, and that the prison state is even stronger, more intractable, and more insulated than we commonly believe. These theses are rebukes to both the prevailing wisdom among elite observers, and the popular narratives they promulgate to the masses. And, on both counts, Caught proves devastatingly persuasive. The problems are worse than we thought, and the solutions less compelling.

Pursuing an accurate accounting of the prison state means Gottschalk doesn’t show lenience to the pet theories of the left or right. She starts by eviscerating the newly popular idea among fiscal conservatives (and hopeful liberals) that mass incarceration is simply too financially costly to continue. A recent swell of interest around Rand Paul, Charles Koch, and the Right on Crime group has popularized the notion that getting serious about government spending means getting serious about the prison state. Surveying the developments in prison life across the nation, Gottschalk concludes that the cost of prison life is just shifted onto inmates when times get tough — and that the incentive to trim spending won’t fundamentally reduce incarceration. Instead, state and private prisons find new sources of revenue by increasing the sub-minimum wage work of inmates for outside contracts, utilizing inmates to make up for staffing shortcuts, cutting health and dental care services, and even removing scheduled meals from weekend diets (a less appealing brunch). Moreover, Gottschalk notes, the role of the private prison industry helps buttress the failures of the state without reducing the toll on those subject to it. She is careful to dispel the myth that the private prison industry is responsible for the massive growth of incarceration (it’s still comparatively small), while illustrating how the incorporation of business interests is “helping the carceral state adapt to shifting political and economic circumstances.” Financial worries aren’t killing the prison state, she asserts, they are just making it more adaptable.

Liberals have sought to frame the crisis in human terms, rather than economic ones, but it doesn’t mean their analyses have been any more precise according to Gottschalk. The reigning narrative of the left is the one popularized by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, the most important book on criminal justice of this generation — and a title explicitly framed as a precursor to Caught in its promotional materials. That book, and a major proportion of public discussions among protesters and TV commentators, emphasizes the racial nature of mass incarceration, its descent from centuries of subjugation of African Americans, and its formalization through the War on Drugs and criminalization of petty offenses. It is a compelling and disheartening account of the prison state — which Gottschalk is eager to complicate. She goes to great pains to show how the system is not nearly so monolithic. With a long view of the growth of imprisonment, “different engines of growth” (drugs being one of them) have had their heyday — and the bulk of mass incarceration is quite independent of the racialized War on Drugs. Instead, Gottschalk asserts, the common theme over time is the astounding punitiveness — the excessive sentences and enforcement — with which the United States approaches justice. Citing extensive studies, she concludes that the “reality is that tougher sentences across the board for both serious crimes and petty offenses initially fueled the prison buildup” and that its continuation does not depend on only minor drug infractions. From 2000–2008 “violent offenders accounted for 60 percent of the growth in the size of the state prison population,” while drug offenders in state prisons declined.

“It is a sobering fact,” she adds, “that if all drug cases were eliminated, the U.S. imprisonment rate would still have quadrupled over the past thirty-five years.” Moreover, embracing the New Jim Crow narrative and singling out the War on Drugs alone risks missing new realities. “The war on drugs has bequeathed a starkly racialized framework through which to view the carceral state,” Gottschalk writes, “[…] it has obscured important demographic shifts in the development of the carceral state over the past fifteen years or so.”

Those demographic shifts are precisely the ones absent from the current protest movement, one that very understandably focuses on the oppression of young black men. Still, these discussions underplay the reach of the new prison state — it is becoming an equal opportunity incarcerator (at least racially; the wealthy are not increasingly imprisoned). This contention would feel hollowly provocative if it weren’t buttressed by Gottschalk’s collection of damning statistics. “By age twenty-three, at least half of all black males in the United States have been arrested at least once, as have nearly 40 percent of all white males.” Or, even that the general incarceration rate for white men and women, at 400 per 100,000, “is about two-and-a-half to seven times the incarceration rates of other Western countries and Japan.” And, as of late, that “Hispanics now compose the largest ethnic or racial group in federal prisons and courts.” Gottschalk ventures into this territory not to downplay the disproportionately horrific impact of the prison state on black communities — but because she worries that an “excessive focus” on the racial nature of the carceral machine will provide a bunk plan for destroying it. Her evidence both suggests that racial bias is more dispersed throughout the system than we commonly assert (No justice, no peace / No racist police), and that “this ‘excessive focus’ in detecting unwarranted disparities has come at the cost of examining fundamental questions about how and why certain laws, policies, and sentencing regimes brought about harsher penalties across the board — regardless of race or ethnicity.” This is an uncomfortable truth to swallow and a hard narrative to abandon, particularly right after it inspired so many of us to join the fight for reform. Nonetheless, it’s a shift in thinking Gottschalk successfully demands as an invaluable prerequisite for justice.

Widening our conception of the prison state is also essential to contend with the new drivers and old habits of the prison state that have escaped scrutiny from most observers on the left and right. Caught proves not only an authoritative companion to the criminal justice system crises you know, but also a thorough compendium of the crises you’ve never even considered. “Approximately one in four U.S. adults has an arrest or conviction record, and the FBI currently maintains records on an estimated seventy-five million people,” Gottschalk begins. “Half of these FBI records are inaccurate or missing critical information.” The litany of glaring issues with the prison state pour forth, page after page: felon disenfranchisement reaches eight percent for African Americans (and probably more due to community effects); “excluding inmates and other marginalized groups in federal surveys of the U.S. population” produces a “seismic” impact, accounting for as much as a two percent error in the unemployment rate (to take only one impact); prisoners are counted, however, for prison-based gerrymandering, which “likely helps explain the Republican Party’s ability to dominate the New York State Senate for decades” (not an issue discussed at protest marches); there are 10 times as many inmates with mental illness than patients in state-run psychiatric hospitals; and, as of a 2008 study, more people were raped or sexually abused in prison than women were raped or sexually abused in the entire United States. The American prison system is “exceptional not just because it locks so many people up but also because of the inhumane and degrading conditions,” and yet not only have the majority of states “enacted measures that exempted their departments of corrections from key oversight” but “independent oversight […] is so minimal that Yelp […] has become one of the few outlets to publicly review conditions in U.S. prisons and jails.” We’re also facing an elderly crisis in our prisons, and a stubborn and historically unique refusal of executives — including Obama — to grant clemency to long-serving inmates.

The book is at its best when it unearths and synthesizes the ills of the criminal justice system — and enrages the reader — on a subject of little to no public controversy. Gottschalk’s summation of the privatization of probation services in the state of Georgia is one example:

In 2001, when Georgia discontinued providing probation services for state courts, many counties turned to private firms to operate these programs. About three dozen for-profit firms now operate in hundreds of courts. People languish in Georgia jails and are deeply in debt for failing to pay a modest initial fine of $100 or $200 for a trivial infraction like speeding or failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Over time, that legal financial obligation has mushroomed into a sizable debt as loosely regulated for-profit firms pile on more fees and fines. Since these people are misdemeanants, they are not guaranteed legal representation even if they are indigent and run the risk of jail. As a consequence, they “often end up lost in a legal Twilight Zone.” To shroud this practice from public eyes, the Georgia legislature enacted a statute in 2006 that rendered all the reports, files, and records of private probation companies a confidential state secret.

It is hard to imagine such a dystopian injustice — and even harder to confront it as a pervasive, yet hidden, reality.

And those are just the miscellaneous problems Gottschalk goes to lengths to publicize. She spends much greater time and energy on two larger topics: the new war on sex offenders, and the criminalization of immigration enforcement. The first, which most are loath to talk about, she calls the “greatest political challenge for those seeking to dismantle the carceral state.” Both the number and severity of sentences has skyrocketed over the last twenty years. For instance, “the number of people serving time for possession of sexually explicit materials, typically child pornography, in the federal prison system increased more than sixtyfold between 1996 and 2010, compared to an 80 percent rise in drug offenses over this same period.” Gottschalk worries, rightly, that those caught in the victim’s rights-led dragnet won’t find many allies. The second, immigration, is more public but still rarely considered a criminal justice issue. What should be a civil issue has become increasingly enforced by the state’s criminal justice apparatus, or made in its likeness. “The amount that the federal government now spends on immigration enforcement exceeds funding for all principal federal law enforcement agencies combined,” Gottschalk notes. And that doesn’t seem to be abating any time soon: “like the turn toward mass incarceration, the turn toward the criminalization of immigration enforcement has been remarkably bipartisan.” Recent legislation has only invested more in security and detention without including “any additional money for overworked courts or overworked defense attorneys handling immigration cases.” And so, whether in the war on sex offenders or immigrants, Gottschalk crucially ponders whether we aren’t on the verge of another prison boom — and one we’re hardly paying any attention to.

Addressing any of these problems, once they’re identified, comes with its own risks, Gottschalk warns. Advocacy can be powerless against the business and labor interests embedded in the prison state — a remarkable “one in four people employed in the United States is engaged in some type of guard labor […]. One in eight state employees works in corrections.” Activism can have unforeseen effects like “split policy verdicts” — where fighting the death penalty results in inhumane life without parole, where lobbying for nonviolent offenders can make circumstances disproportionately worse for other offenders. Even seemingly innocuous approaches, like focusing on “recidivism, reentry, and justice reinvestment,” become seriously flawed under Gottschalk’s critical eye. There seems to be no way out: we are all caught (We can’t breathe).

In inundating the reader with critical information and directing scrutiny at a bevy of traditional wisdom, Caught succeeds. It offers nothing like the easy proclamations of a protest march, and offers little in the way of pithy simplifications to grasp on to. That clarification is a vital public resource. Nonetheless, it is by digging in the weeds that the book occasionally gets lost there. Heading in so many directions — chapters often feel like they could be their own books — means Gottschalk lacks space to adequately conclude arguments and to tie them all together. Each chapter is also divided by multiple subheadings that unfortunately direct the text in disparate directions, and often promise too much for their small body (sometimes only a page long). In committing to such an expansive and meticulously researched account — nearly half of the book’s pages are endnotes, sources, and an index — Gottschalk doesn’t invest quite as much in the type of development of a searing and coherent voice (like the one that inspired so many in The New Jim Crow). The reader becomes intimately aware of the multitude of problems, but lacks a sense of how they all fit together in our political fate. Gottschalk does dabble in discussions of neoliberalism and mass movements (or lack thereof), but the reader never gets a full-bodied sense of what’s standing directly in our political path or how to move it. This is perhaps indicative of Caught’s tendency to complicate things, but it leaves the reader desperately wanting some option of simplicity.

Make no mistake: a protest also features a cacophony of voices and motivations. Yet, there is still a sense that it can move together, and often unite in one greater call. Where that call’s simplicity is flawed or uninformed, it is nonetheless powerful, emotional, and eminently reproducible (hands up / don’t shoot). Gottschalk, to her credit, recognizes this unique power. “Dismantling the carceral state will necessitate constructing a political movement from a network of state-level political coalitions that have ties to citizen-based groups spanning many localities,” she writes.

We must hope that any type of game-changing coalition will transform the knowledge contained in this text into a righteous call for justice. Caught, and many academic texts on the prison state, could use a helping of that spirit. Marchers in Ferguson, New York City, and across the country — everyone, in fact, in the United States — could benefit from the wisdom compiled in this book. Now, more than ever, the pen and the protest must improve one another — to foment what Gottschalk terms a “convulsive politics from below.”

Caught shows us that the American prison state is truly a fearsome hydra, an “awesome power” that is “highly adaptive” to changing circumstances. We must be too.


Stephen Lurie writes about justice, labor, education, and activism. He can be reached @luriethereal and on, where you can find more of his writing.

LARB Contributor

Stephen Lurie writes about justice, labor, education, and activism. He can be reached @luriethereal and on, where you can find more of his writing.


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