“Punishing the Poor” and “Texas Tough”

Many legal scholars wonder why even small steps toward sentencing reform are tough to make. The US has an extraordinary level of incarceration; “with about 1.6 million people in our penitentiaries and an additional 800,000 in our jails, the United States locks up its citizens at a higher rate than any other country in the world.” Are we simply worse people, or are there larger causes at work? I recently noticed two books that help frame the issue of US criminal justice in a larger context of economic change and inequality.

Loic Wacquant’s Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity proposes that the “hyperinflation” of the US prison population results from a change in the state’s focus: from promoting economic security to promoting physical safety via a “zero tolerance” policy for even nonviolent offenses. As one reviewer explains,

The penal state, in Wacquant’s telling, has mushroomed up to take the place of the welfare regime, to control those populations at the margins of the market economy. In their classic book Regulating the Poor (1971), sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argue that welfare rolls fluctuate in response to social unrest, swelling when the poor become politically aware and more difficult to pacify. Wacquant takes their claim a step further, suggesting that in a neoliberal age, poor people are not bought off—they are locked up.

According to Wacquant, media and law enforcement elites team up to “erect[] a garish theater of civic morality on whose stage political elites can orchestrate the public vituperation of deviant figures. . . .and close the legitimacy deficit they suffer when they discard the established government mission of social and economic protection.” Like the “security theater” lambasted by some anti-terrorism experts, the penal system explored by Wacquant is “about” far more than its stated purpose of keeping good citizens safe. Rather, it becomes what Wacquant calls “autophagous,” provoking a self-renewing cycle of recidivism, widening insecurity, and ever more crackdowns, by virtue of its very brutality. The book reminded me of Niklas Luhmann‘s social theory of “autopoetic systems,” which constitute and reconstitute themselves according to an inner logic that may have little to do with the overall health or welfare of society.

I was reminded of Wacquant’s book when I heard an extraordinary C-Span lecture by Robert Perkinson, the author of Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire. I’ve previously speculated on why Texas is such a darling of the Wall St. Journal editorial page, and Perkinson’s book helps piece together more clues on the state’s role in modeling penitentiary policies for the nation. Like Wacquant, Perkinson focuses on the role of race and inequality in explaining prison demographics:

More than half a century ago, at the height of Jim Crow, African Americans were going to prison at roughly four times the rate of whites; now the black imprisonment rate is seven times that of whites. If present trends continue, a third of all black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. Millions more, due to felony disenfranchisement, will lose the right to vote, one of the dearest prizes of the black freedom struggle. My book, Texas Tough, is an attempt to reckon with . . . the bleak reality of persistent prejudice and unequal justice. . . . [T]he book homes in on the entwined histories of racism and the law, uncovering the origins of America’s exceptionally harsh approach to criminal justice in the broken promises and iniquitous profits of the young republic.

Texas Tough . . . relates the troubled life story of a single southern prison system, one that started out with the construction of a pine-log barracks in 1842 and that has grown into the largest, harshest incarceration complex in the United States. It describes how a plantation-based penal system, long dismissed as a brutish backwater, managed to become a pacesetter in hardline prison management; how a retributive ethos of criminal justice that developed on slavery’s frontier eventually took hold nationwide. . . . In short, it explains how the land of the free became the most incarcerated society in the history of democratic governance.

Perkinson describes the remarkable role of slave and quasi-slave labor in Texas; as I recall from his lecture, the state capitol building was first built with slave labor, and then after it was burned down during the Civil War, it was re-built with “leased convicts.” Apparently there are also farms in Texas with crops which have never been picked with “free labor;” they transitioned from slave plantations to leased convicts to prison labor. Both facts haunted me as I recently visited UT Austin for a health law conference, with the capitol building often in sight.

Both Wacquant’s and Perkinson’s book focus on how one system of punishment can rapidly become a “model.” For Perkinson, Texas displaced more humane models of rehabilitation to become a model of “getting tough” on prisoners. Wacquant worries that the resulting US system of punishment has become a model for the EU, providing parties of the right with a new model for social order that parties of the left feel powerless to critique or resist. Both authors’ theories of “contagion” reminded me of two recent works; Spencer Waller’s The Law and Economics Virus and Joe White’s treatment of stories in his work on health care finance. Building on models of memes from Dawkins and Balkin, Waller shows how certain fields are uniquely susceptible to legal economic modeling, and others have inherent structural features that resist it. Joe White shows how “herd behavior” can follow mass adoption of certain stories about efficiency and effectiveness, often in the absence of compelling information about their results:

The most striking aspect of the accounts of market behavior in health care in the 1990s is that activity appears to have been influenced by shared stories, which rose, fell, and were changed in the health policy and business communities. . . . The free flow of capital did not serve health care values such as cost control and access. . . . Behavior followed stories that in significant cases turned out to be untrue. The health care herd stampeded in one direction and then another.

The prison policy stampede appears to only be going in one direction, but may end up no more effective than the managed care merry-go-round of the 1990s (except, of course, for producing profits). My sense is that anyone who opposes prison reform will have to reckon with Wacquant’s and Perkinson’s arguments.

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