A few must-reads about incarceration in America

Two articles and two books that anyone who is interested in criminal justice policy (or addiction policy…or education policy) should read.

In December of 1998, Eric Schlosser‘s piece The Prison Industrial Complex appeared in The Atlantic. Mr. Schlosser is more well-known for his book (and the 2006 movie) Fast Food Nation (the topic about the food industry in America deserves several posts or another website – in my next life). It paints a disturbing portrait about the move to the privatization of prisons and what that means for people who go to court and the inmates who are incarcerated. It very much predicted situations like this (you should really click on that and read the horrible story about a judge who sentenced kids to a prison in Pennsylvania – he earned kickbacks from the owners of the prison for keeping it full).

The Caging of America by Adam Gopnik was published in the January 30, 2012 The New Yorker. It is what I consider to be the best single article on our prison system to date.

Ted Conover published New Jack in 2000. This review of it by Kathy Robbins appeared in Publishers Weekly:

Stymied by both the union and prison brass in his effort to report on correctional officers, Conover instead applied for a job, and spent nearly a year in the system, mostly at Sing Sing, the storied prison in the New York City suburbs. Fascinated and fearful, the author in training grasps some troubling truths: “we rule with the inmates’ consent,” says one instructor, while another acknowledges that “rehabilitation is not our job.” As a Sing Sing “newjack” (or new guard), Conover learns the folly of going by the book; the best officers recognize “the inevitability of a kind of relationship” with inmates. Whether working the gallery, the mess hall or transportation detail, the job is both a personal and moral challenge: at the isolation unit (“the Box”), Conover begins to write up his first “use of force” incident when a fellow officer waves him away. He steps back to offer a history of the prison, the “hopelessly compromised” work of prison staff and the unspoken idealism he senses in fellow guards. Stressed by his double life and the demands of the job, caught between the warring impulses of anthropological inquiry and “the incuriosity that made the job easier,” Conover struggles but nevertheless captures scenes of horror and grace. With its nuanced portraits of officers and inmates, the book never preaches, yet it conveys that we ignore our prisons–an explosive (and expensive) microcosm of race and class tensions–at our collective peril.

Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow in 2010. This blurb from her website does an excellent job describing her masterpiece:

…today an extraordinary percentage of the African American community is warehoused in prisons or trapped in a parallel social universe, denied basic civil and human rights—including the right to vote; the right to serve on juries; and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. Today, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. Yet as civil-rights-lawyer-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander demonstrates, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against convicted criminals in nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once labeled a felon, even for a minor drug crime, the old forms of discrimination are suddenly legal again. In her words, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

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