Why do we lock up so many people in this country?

Historians in the News
tags: prison



June’s special issue of the Journal of American History focuses on “Historians and the Carceral State.” The issue’s contributing editors, Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Heather Ann Thompson, and Khalil G. Muhammad, have helped to assemble a collection of fourteen essays on the history of mass incarceration in America. Hernandez and Thompson have graciously shared their own path to this field of study, their goals for the special issue, and their thoughts on teaching the carceral state.

Heather Ann Thompson is a Professor at the University of Michigan. Kelly Lytle Hernandez is an Associate Professor at University of California, Los Angeles. Both Thompson and Hernandez are OAH Distinguished Lecturers.

What drew you to study this history?

Heather Ann Thompson: I must confess that I came to the history of incarceration totally by accident. More accurately, it was as if a light bulb suddenly went off in my head while I was working on a book on the Attica Prison uprising of 1971. I spent much of my life thinking about racial injustice and inequality, and had in fact watched the community I grew up in become totally ravaged by incarceration, yet I hadn’t thought much about the post-war’s punitive justice turn as its own subject of historical inquiry. Indeed, I came to Attica as a civil rights historian, rather than as a historian of prisons or justice policy. Suddenly, though, it became imperative to me to figure out exactly why this nation began locking up so many more people right after 1971—particularly poor, black, and brown people—and what this dramatic shift in justice policy might have meant for the evolution of post-war American history writ large. So, I set Attica aside for a while and began sorting through these questions—specifically thinking through the way the rise of a massive and increasingly punitive carceral state might have affected cities, the labor movement, and our democracy. The upshot of all of this was my JAH essay, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters” (Dec. 2010). Mostly, I saw that piece as a call to action—something provocative that hoped to get historians, particularly post-war historians, seriously consider the rise of the carceral state and to recover its origins and legacies. June’s special issue of the JAH reflects the incredible ways in which historians have begun to do just that—utterly transforming how we understand the entire American past through new studies of criminalization and the carceral state.

Kelly Lytle Hernandez: I grew up witnessing how the War on Drugs and immigration control devoured lives on the U.S.-Mexico border during the 1980s and 1990s. At a very young age, I began to wonder why: Why did Border Patrol officers stop buses, pulling off anyone who looked Mexican? Why did some of the people they yanked off the bus never return? Why did so many of my childhood friends weep on the schoolyard, missing uncles, parents, siblings, and friends who had been deported? Why did police officers break up high-school parties, sitting all the Black kids on the curb and inputting our names into a gang database? Why did our small Black community have a phone tree that rang anytime police officers took to the streets, shaking down any young, Black male who “fit the description?”

“Keep your sons home,” said the mamas down the of the phone tree, before my own mother passed the warning along, but an officer caught my friend in the summer of 1994, shooting him in the back and arm. As he struggled for his life in the operating room, the police took to the evening news and disparaged my friend as a drug dealing gangster when, in fact, he was Jehovah’s Witness and never drank, never cursed, was only guilty of running away from an off-duty police officer who accused him of drug trafficking. My friend lived, he sued, he won, and he can still tell you what it was like to smell his own flesh burn as bullets blast apart inside his body.

What was it about race, drugs, and immigration that made life so precarious for Black and Brown folks on the border? From a very young age, these questions swirled in my mind. Into college, graduate school and now as a professional historian, they remain with me although training, research, and a lot more living have broadened and deepened my search for understanding what scholars are now calling “the carceral state.” ...





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