On Defining “Prison Thinking” and the Significance of the Movement to Challenge Mass Incarceration

On Defining “Prison Thinking” and the Significance of the Movement to Challenge Mass Incarceration

October 18, 2013 | Gara LaMarche, President, Democracy Alliance

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NCCD Board Member Gara LaMarche is a senior fellow at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. LaMarche was recently appointed as the new president of the Democracy Alliance, a network of individuals devoted to building the infrastructure needed to execute and advance a progressive agenda. This blog is the first in a series of excerpts from a lecture LaMarche gave at the University of California, Berkeley titled “Is Prison Thinking Infecting Public Policy?”.

NCCD Board Member Gara LaMarche is a senior fellow at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. LaMarche was recently appointed as the new president of the Democracy Alliance, a network of individuals devoted to building the infrastructure needed to execute and advance a progressive agenda. This blog is the first in a series of excerpts from a lecture LaMarche gave at the University of California, Berkeley titled “Is Prison Thinking Infecting Public Policy?”.

I want to start out by attempting to define what I mean by “prison thinking.” I mean societal thinking that sees what I would call social justice challenges principally in law-and-order terms, with the nightstick, the gun, and the cell—or, at the extreme, the noose or, nowadays, the poisonous needle on the gurney—as the default response to perceived disorder.

In his landmark book, Discovery of the Asylum, David Rothman writes that the Jacksonian period, in which the penitentiary and asylum movements gained steam, was gripped by fears of a descent into societal chaos. “Family disorganization and community corruption, an extreme definition of the powers of vice and an acute sense of the threat of disorder were the standard elements in the discussions.” The penitentiary was needed to “restore a necessary social balance to the new republic, and at the same time eliminate long-standing problems.”

It is uncomfortable, but necessary, to point out the significant role progressive reformers played in bringing about the current appalling scale of imprisonment. In Race to Incarcerate, the 1999 book that was one of the first to name and document the phenomenon of mass incarceration as a system of social control, Marc Mauer reminds us of the largely forgotten history of sentencing reform in the 1970s.

The further growth of the prison-industrial complex in the last few decades was coupled with laws that strip the vote from prisoners and former prisoners, in many states for life. This has disenfranchised vast numbers of people, most of them Black men, rendering them voiceless in the vital political choices facing the country. 

Against this backdrop, one of the most surprising and encouraging—though hardly accidental—public policy developments of the last 10 years or so is the emergence of a strong and growing movement challenging mass incarceration. The landmark work that has both captured this movement and helped to advance it is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander of Ohio State University.

What is vital to understand is the critical role played by the emerging social movement on incarceration. Civil rights groups have come to see the “War on Drugs” as a decimator of communities of color. Organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance, once an isolated voice for reform, have moved into the mainstream. Families Against Mandatory Minimums and other groups of those most directly affected have played a key part, along with, more recently, the evangelicals and fiscal conservatives. The problem has been named; the analysis of Alexander, Mauer, and others has taken hold; and the movement is not going away.