Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics

Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics

Author: Marie Gottschalk
Publisher: Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. 474p.
Reviewer: Robert C. Hauhart | January 2016

This is a masterful work of scholarship and a comprehensive critique of the contemporary American criminal justice system. Gottschalk, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, has previously written on the American prison state and her current book distills many years of research and writing in an extensively referenced assessment of the political and structural forces supporting the United States’ commitment to incarceration as a core strategy within its criminal justice system. Gottschalk’s goal is not pure scholarship, however. Her main objective is to persuade the reader that criminal justice is fundamentally a step-child of politics and, as a political problem, to urge that the current flaws in the system cannot be solved if treated solely as matters of crime and punishment or dollars and cents. Rather, Gottschalk is intent on developing a political analysis that can enable anti-imprisonment advocates to begin deconstructing the carceral state. Unfortunately, her work falters in this task.

Professor Gottschalk begins her analysis by briefly recounting the late twentieth century history of imprisonment in the United States, leading by the end of the century, to a well-documented condition that has been denominated mass incarceration. The author, going one step further, suggests that many of the same factors that inspired the movement to mass incarceration have become unified in a cohesive alignment of players, policies, and institutions that, collectively, she calls “the carceral state.” She argues that, in addition to reliance on mass incarceration, prison states develop a sustaining punitive ideology and adopt exclusionary penal policies that are especially compatible with a politically passive electorate divided by issues of class and race. Thus, countries like the United States and Great Britain differ markedly from other western European advanced capitalist democracies with respect to their respective criminal justice orientations. From Gottschalk’s point of view, prison and criminal justice system reforms in a carceral state cannot be effectively introduced without a substantial dismantling of the prison state apparatus.

The author prepares the groundwork for considering how the carceral state might be politically reformed by discussing many of the last half century’s principal issues in criminal justice, including trends in crime rates, cycles of economic distress in American society, anxiety over crime, the criminalization of dissent, managing the underclass and other marginal populations in U.S. society, the monetary incentives that support tough policing and penal policies (the War on Drugs, civil forfeiture, the emergence and proliferation of legal financial obligations (LFO’s), bed-brokering, and cost reduction strategies), lack of systemic oversight for corrections operations, net widening, and a host of others. She next examines efforts by anti-prison advocates and other progressive groups to combat the various strategies to impose punitive control as the central operating premise of the American criminal justice system and replace it with a justice model intended to reduce the size and entrenchment of the carceral state. By and large, she finds the gains made in slowing or retarding mass incarceration and punitive control to have been modest in their impact. Indeed, in many realms Gottschalk finds evidence that regressive policies and practices – such as expanding the use of penal labor through private sector commercial contracts – to be a return to the past. Given that it is people of color who now constitute the largest relative percentages of our nation’s prisoners, Gottschalk finds this trend disturbingly reminiscent of contract convict leasing systems in effect in the antebellum south, and a practice that typifies that ‘slaves of the state’ mentality that grips many law and order proponents today.

It is easy for Professor Gottschalk to find – and for the reader to find within her book – examples of criminal justice policies and practices that she opposes. It is less easy to find policies and practices she favors. For example, Gottschalk is highly critical of efforts directed at “rehabilitation and reentry” that have been the focus of many programs, inspired generally by the federal Second Chance Act. She notes – quite correctly – that it is deceptive, and perhaps even ludicrous, to suggest that offenders will be given a “second chance” by initiatives intended to “[return them] to a level of habilitation, integration and civic participation that they formerly enjoyed” [Gottschalk 2015:81, citing and quoting Joan Petersilia (2011)]. As Gottschalk trenchantly observes, when were most of these offenders given a first chance? She bemoans the fact that federal spending to foster reentry has been infinitesimal: $ 63 million for Fiscal 2012 compared to the approximately $ 60 billion spent annually by the Bureau of Prisons and state departments of corrections. At the same time, Gottschalk is reluctant to sign on to the notion of “rehabilitation” generally, as it is essentially a program of remaking individuals when, in her view, what is needed is a program for remaking society. In her words,

The Great Recession created momentum to rethink U.S. penal policies. But in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, the tenets of neoliberalism remain remarkably intact. Most of the political energy at the elite level has been focused on the three R’s – recidivism, reentry and justice reinvestment. …, the three R approach will at best stabilize the carceral state. It is a DIY social policy focused on remaking individuals, not remaking social, political and economic structures (2015:78).

While her point is well taken, in principle, it ignores other hard-earned wisdom she offers: “structural problems call for comprehensive, often expensive, long-term solutions and commitments. Long term fixes are problematic, not just because they take a long time, but also because they are harder to sustain from one change of administration to another” (2015:259). Although she is talking in this passage about structural changes in society generally, such as reducing income inequality, her point is equally applicable to her goal of changing the structures that support mass incarceration and the “carceral state.”

What then, it is fair to ask, is Dr. Gottschalk’s program for solving the ills of our prison nation and, perhaps, eliminating the carceral state? She has five main points. First, she accepts that reentry should be a priority, but notes that reducing the number of people who are who sent to jail and prison in the first place must be a higher priority. This means that a second core initiative must be to enact comprehensive sentencing reform. Third, Gottschalk wishes to improve U.S. jail and prison conditions that she suggests are, all too often, abusive and degrading. Her solution is to open up these facilities to independent oversight. Why is this needed? Because, in her view and that of many others, the Eighth Amendment has proven to be little protection against conditions that no longer shock the conscience of federal courts after the Supreme Court’s decision in Wilson v. Seiter (1990). Fourth, she urges that the United States and the states must halt the practice of condemning people with criminal records to “civil death” by disenfranchisement, barriers to occupations, and prohibitions against participation in various housing, welfare, and student loan programs. Finally, she urges that the criminal justice system needs to devote more of its attention and resources to where crimes actually occur – poor urban neighborhoods, especially those with African American/minority residents and to do so by adopting policies that address the structural problems of unemployment, poor housing, and blight that infest these communities. Gottschalk’s program consists of a laudable set of goals.  It is next fair to ask: what is her political strategy for achieving these beneficent outcomes? Here, she enters some deep waters.

Initially, she points out that “[s]uccessful decarceration will cost money” (2015:261). Thus, although she warns us in the early pages of her book that as a political problem we cannot solve mass imprisonment with a “dollars and cents” fiscal perspective (2015:3), we are now confronted with the standard political problem: where is the money going to come from to support Gottschalk’s various proposals? Her answer? “If we are serious about alternatives to incarceration, then community based mental health and substance abuse programs will need major infusions of cash…” and so on (2015:261).

To a considerable extent, there’s the rub: how do we make the various audiences, constituencies, and – especially – current system players and powerbrokers “get serious” in the way Gottschalk wishes, for them to fork over the money needed to achieve progressive reforms? After all, politics in a democracy is about persuading people isn’t it? How does Professor Gottschalk plan to do so? Although she has some suggestions (focus some energy on non-legislative measures such as urging corrections officials, attorneys general, local district attorneys, and federal prosecutors to use their discretion in less punitive ways [2015:263-65]) many of them are non-starters or weakly developed. For one example, how does the author plan to encourage enactment of comprehensive sentencing reform – a change that must be either legislative or judicial in origin? Well, first let’s see where we are. In 2013, Congress created a bipartisan task force with that goal in mind. A report was written calling for “some modest sentencing reforms” (2015:263). In January 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission proposed amendments to the sentencing guidelines, and the Senate Judiciary Committee, building on that recommendation, approved the Smarter Sentencing Act. But wait, there’s more! In late 2013, the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys (among those people Gottschalk plans to persuade to be less punitive in their discretionary acts, you will recall) mounted “an aggressive campaign in defense of mandatory minimums” (2015:263), and sought support from other law enforcement groups. Former influential leaders within DOJ, the DEA, and U.S. Attorney’s Offices then followed up by urging Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to defeat the Smarter Sentencing Act. And then,…well, at that point the author just ends her discussion of sentencing reform and moves on.  After all, there is a publication date for her book looming, which means she must get a manuscript to her publishers, so we’ll get back to you about the fate of comprehensive sentencing reform. Does she, or even could she, offer us a political strategy to surmount this political obstacle? For all her insistence that the carceral state and its initiatives is a political problem, Gottschalk’s book is remarkably devoid of the kind of “nuts and bolts” political calculations, strategies and analyses that facing down and overcoming determined political opposition requires.

In this sense, the book is rather disappointing. When the rubber meets the road, it seems Dr. Gottschalk is nowhere to be found. For example, she comments on the contemporary “invisibility” of the carceral state by recounting past instances in which public outrage and/or political activism regarding a social problem could be effectively used to galvanize favorable public support for progressive change. She laments that today the popular press and the “vibrant prison press” (2015:273) of yesteryear no longer exist or do not pursue with the same extensive coverage the hidden world of the carceral state. What this author does not do is develop or propose coalition-building strategies that might inspire popular movements using the internet – such as those that propelled the Arab Spring — as a possible alternative means of communicating about oppressive prison conditions and mobilizing support for change. In a world that daily offers us examples of the new media being used to “out” unjust actions by law enforcement on the street, Gottschalk doesn’t even try to imagine how new media could be used to support her goal of decarceration. Too often, her analyses simply stop with a wringing of hands and expression of a nascent hope that this or that might change favorably, somehow, in the future. For someone who wants to induce social change in an admittedly tough political environment, Marie Gottschalk doesn’t really seem to have a clue how to do so. Better to retreat to anecdotes and quotes from Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama (2015:281), criticism of the Democratic Party’s handling of its status as minority opposition to the Republican Party majority (2015:282), and …. well, all books need to end sometime.

Petersilia, Joan. “Community Corrections: Probation, Parole and Prisoner Reentry” in James Q. Wilson and Joan Petersilia, Eds., Crime and Public Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 503.


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