Booked: The Origins of the Carceral State

Booked: The Origins of the Carceral State

President Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1966 (Yoichi Okamoto / Wikimedia Commons)

Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this podcast edition recorded at a special event for Dissent Solidarity Subscribers, Tim spoke with Elizabeth Hinton about her new book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime (Harvard University Press, 2016). Use the player to listen to a recording of their conversation, or read an edited version below.

Timothy Shenk: What is the carceral state?

Elizabeth Hinton: Historians and social scientists all have different definitions. The formal definition is that it’s the law enforcement officers who police the streets and help maintain order—it’s the court marshals, the lawyers, the probation and parole officers and, of course, correctional officials. So, it’s all the formal institutions of the criminal justice system. But the way that I think about the carceral state has been deeply informed by Foucault’s idea of the carceral, which is a carceral continuum or carceral network. In this book I’m trying to get us to expand our definitions of the carceral state to think about social programs that are operating in low-income, urban communities from the Kennedy administration until today, and the ways in which these programs impose various forms of supervision and surveillance. Often people who come into contact with these various state programs eventually end up in prison.

Shenk: Are you arguing that it’s impossible to write a comprehensive political history of the United States over the last fifty years without taking the carceral state into account?

Hinton: Yes. Criminal justice institutions are the last public institutions standing in many low-income communities. And if police forces are the foremost representation of the state in the lives of poor people of color, then we must rethink the way we see the state and its ties to mass incarceration and criminalization.

Shenk: Is there anything distinctive about the United States in this?

Hinton: The United States is the largest incarcerator in the world. We are 5 percent of the world’s population, but we hold 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and the incarceration rate for black males is higher than that of Russia. It’s out of control. Our prison system isn’t uniquely inhumane. The rate at which we punish is rooted in legacies of enslavement in the United States and the Caribbean, though.

Shenk: But, as you point out, the making of the contemporary American carceral state is a very recent phenomenon and a thoroughly bipartisan one. We’re so used to thinking parties are locked in this perpetual war. How did they come together on this issue?

Hinton: Crime control is the only domestic issue in the late twentieth century that liberals and conservatives were able to agree on. When I came to this project, the arguments were that mass incarceration was the brainchild of the Reagan administration, but in fact the federal intervention begins not in the 1980s, but in the 1960s in the civil rights era with Lyndon Johnson. Johnson initiates the War on Crime as part of his Great Society, as a complement to the War on Poverty. He sees these interventions as responses to the same problem. In the Johnson archives I discovered that he was very influenced by social scientists like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who argues that black poverty is the product of behavior patterns and not larger socioeconomic issues.

Moynihan’s racist ideas about black cultural pathology shaped Johnson’s beliefs about the root causes of poverty, so to try to get rid of poverty the president offers a carrot and a stick: to teach disadvantaged Americans to be productive citizens Johnson initiates job training and equal opportunity programs, and for the symptoms of poverty that manifest through crime he puts more police on the streets. Remember that the federal government had not involved itself in state and local law enforcement for 200 years. Then in 1965, a week before Johnson sends the Voting Rights Act to Congress, he begins the first national investment in urban police forces. It’s part of our lives now, we’re used to these militarized and ubiquitous police forces especially in urban areas, but this all came out of that period.

Shenk: There’s a fantastic moment under Nixon when they’re about have a big roll-out, announcing a plan to reduce crime in the United States by 20 percent. And when an administration official is asked how they picked that number, he says we just made it up. What went through your head when you found material like this in the archives?

Hinton: I visited the White House central files of every administration from Kennedy to Reagan. The way the culture of each administration came through was really exciting. For instance, Johnson was very proud of his legislative accomplishments and rightly so. He was very careful about how historians would write about him, so he made these extensive legislative books that have all the documents lined up. It reflects his respect for history, his awareness of the historic role of his administration, and his care for the nation.

Shenk: And Richard Nixon is like, “let me put all my racist thoughts into a microphone”?

Hinton: The Nixon administration was like a frat house.

Shenk: But a really bad frat house that’s trying to imitate the cool kids but can’t pull it off.

Hinton: Reagan and Nixon were both very ideologically driven and just wanted to get through what they wanted to get through, but I also have a soft spot for Nixon because he really respected intellectuals. Ford and Carter behaved how I imagine Obama does—they weighed all sides of the possible outcomes: if they did this or that, what would happen, and who would say what, and who the opposition was. They debated every single policy initiative or move they made very carefully.

Shenk: What was the Long-Range Master Plan?

Hinton: I think this is one of the most important discoveries I made researching the book. In 1970 Nixon orders Attorney General John Mitchell to devise a ten-year Long-Range Master Plan for American corrections. Nixon says we’re going to spend $500 million to revitalize the federal system and this is going to be a model for states. The Crime Commission—which was started by Johnson—starts making projections of prison populations based on what the black youth population would be, and prison construction is planned accordingly.

This Long-Range Master Plan is important because it debunks the idea that mass incarceration is something that policymakers didn’t anticipate or plan for, or that it was a response to crime. When I came across this document in the Nixon archives, I didn’t know quite what to do with it. It’s really eerie. You see the prison population is 200,000 or so in 1970, and then there’s a huge spike where policymakers project it will go up by about half a million by 1980.

Then in the mid-1970s, as the plan was unfolding, the congressional research service found correlations between unemployment and incarceration, but instead of supporting programs that might have dealt with unemployment, they decide we need to build more prisons. Beginning in 1970, the federal government begins to give states 75 percent off for prison construction. And the prison population transitions from being majority white to majority black and Latino, sometime around 1975.

Shenk: Another concept that emerges a little bit earlier and it navigates around similar circles but has a very different trajectory is “maximum feasible participation.” It sounds like there couldn’t be anything more bureaucratic in the world, but it became a flashpoint of controversy. Can you explain what it was?

Hinton: I think the principle of “maximum feasible participation” was the most promising aspect of the War on Poverty and what we need to come back to now. It’s the most radical component of the Economic Opportunity Act, and the idea is that communities can better respond to their own problems than policymakers so grants should go directly to local organizations. Under this principle, community groups did phenomenal things. But state and local officials—particularly local officials—really disliked the principle because they thought it gave marginalized communities too much power. The golden age of maximum feasible participation lasts from 1964, when the legislation is enacted, until the fall of 1965, when Congress amends the legislation. This is in the aftermath of the Watts uprising of August 1965, which many policymakers took as proof that the War on Poverty wasn’t working, even though programs had just started running nationwide. The riots were used as fuel to take autonomy away from these grassroots organizations. Municipal officials, and police officers in some cases, started to play an increasing role in deciding how these funds would be allocated.

Shenk: Moving from the macro to the micro, I mentioned earlier that one of the best parts of the book is that you give a great sense of what these initiatives looked like on the ground and, to me, nothing better captures one stage of this process than the story of Angelo Lasagna. Could you tell me about him?

Hinton: By the mid-seventies, the strategy for the War on Crime was based on the belief that crime is really a problem of a specific population, so policymakers and officials thought: if we can identify that population and put them in prison for petty crimes before they go on to commit more violent crime, we will deal with the problem. What starts to happen is what I call “the creation of crime itself.” In DC, the federal government begins to fund sting operations. You might have heard of some of them, like the Abscam scandal, which is in the American Hustle film. The very first one was this fake mafia operation involving Washington DC police officers, federal agents, and Department of Justice officials. They rent an unheated warehouse on the northeast side of DC, dress like characters from The Godfather and speak with fake Italian accents and gave themselves names like “Angelo Lasagna,” and they recruit people to bring stolen goods to the warehouse. They essentially created a constant market for black petty thieves to go out and steal things, bring them to the mafia dons, sell them, then go back out and steal more. After six months they had built criminal profiles for all of these guys and arrested 120 people, most of them young, unemployed black men. They were all convicted; most of them took a plea bargain. Once this happened, the federal government starts funding stings across the country. By the 1980s, during the crack era, you begin to get mass arrests in the thousands. The Miami Police Department starts manufacturing crack in the county courthouse from the cocaine that it seizes and selling it to drug abusers before arresting them. Sting operations are still a very important part of how law enforcement is done today. It’s a great way to arrest people.

Shenk: Another instance of police in action is this Detroit program, STRESS. What was STRESS?

Hinton: STRESS was another undercover operation. Officers would dress up as old people to try to provoke people into robbing them. STRESS was one of the most violent decoy squads because they killed, and the squad was responsible for the deaths of nineteen or twenty Detroit citizens—and all but one were black. This squad was essentially doing undercover work and, of course, people react differently to officers not in uniform. There are some cases where the police officer pulled out a gun and people responded by shooting back because they didn’t realize who they were facing. I think that STRESS makes us rethink the War on Crime—the word “war” was not just a metaphor because it actually did involve these street battles between police squads and the citizens they were targeting.

Shenk: We’ve gone into some of the details of the book, but if you were summarizing the broader argument for a general audience, I’m guessing their first reaction would be, “Oh yeah, like Michelle Alexander. This is the new Jim Crow.” But you say early on that you don’t think that this fits into that category. Why not?

Hinton: I think Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow is really important because it’s a concept that we can grasp on to, and we have a sense of what she is talking about when she uses the phrase. But I really want us to think about mass incarceration as not being just another extension of one racial regime but something that is historically distinct in that it involves the criminalization of urban space and it involves the criminalization of social welfare programs, which is very specific to the late twentieth century and the Johnson administration. I think the ever-growing carceral network is how we get mass incarceration with the prison system being kind of the head of the octopus of the carceral state.

Shenk: It it seemed at times as if you were shocked at how much material there was, and shocked that historians hadn’t gotten to this stuff already.

Hinton: I came to this project trained in Black Studies as an African Americanist. I came to it doing an organizational history of Black Power, which led me to these larger structural questions. Within African American studies we had all these wonderful organizational histories, but we didn’t really know how the federal government responded to the civil rights movement, which made racism no longer acceptable but didn’t solve everything.

I was trying to think about why federal policy matters for African Americanists, but also how racism and the politics of crime control shaped twentieth-century history in ways that historians had not seen. I am in shock that even some of the more recent books on the War on Poverty by very prominent historians don’t mention Johnson’s crime control policy, which the administration devoted a lot of energy towards. Johnson funded studies, held conferences, discussions, crime commissions, and spent three years writing the legislation that eventually started it. Many people herald Johnson and they don’t really want to deal with some of his bad choices.

Shenk: One of the things I was most impressed by in the book was how you dealt with power. You have a sense of where to look for it, how it is exercised, and the work that it does—and what it can’t do. You keep in mind the real disparities that exist, but you also show how often plans blew up in the faces of their designers. It’s easy to say that this is how we should think about power, but it’s very tough to pull it off in a book. This is a big question, and maybe it’s too abstract, but do you think historians of the twentieth-century United States have done a satisfactory job thinking about power?

Hinton: I think we are all still trying to figure it out. I think that part of the limitation is that so much of what dominates the historiography of the twentieth century has significant blind spots in terms of class, race, and gender. I have blind spots too, everybody does, but because they are so essential to U.S. political, social, and economic development, if you are not attuned to those things then your conception and your interpretation of how power is operating is going to be extremely limited.

Shenk: You have an eye on the present throughout the book, but you wind up the story in the early nineties. If you were writing a chapter that took this history up to 2016, what would the main themes be?

Hinton: Part of what I want to explore in my next book is the way in which mass incarceration itself is deeply implicated in the informal economies on the streets of many American cities and the ways in which, through that, corrections officers and state forces are also involved in those economies—again it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy what we see with recidivism, for example.

We also need to center what goes on in prison itself, and the new organizing opportunities that being part of a mass incarcerated group opens to low-income men who are disproportionately represented in that group. I think that we actually need to begin to deal with the impact on the communities where literally entire blocks were moved and put in prison. And how does mass incarceration shape social interactions, the economy, and the communities where the prisons are? The prison itself has been left out of many of our stories.

Shenk: So much of the book is about the bipartisan creation of the carceral state. Can you talk about how bipartisan decarceration might play out and how much faith you have in that outcome?

Hinton: There’s promising legislation in front of Congress. The outcome of the election is going to determine the scale and commitment to decarceration, especially with Trump now running as the law-and-order, “make America safe again” candidate. That has very grave implications for the momentum of criminal justice reform. But you have everyone from Newt Gingrich to Van Jones partnering, and there is this new commitment because incarceration has become such a fiscal drain on states. States like California and Georgia spend more money on incarcerating kids than educating kids, and we just can’t afford the sheer cost of being the world’s largest incarcerators.

What I am very concerned about is, if we do begin decarcerating—and some states, like California, have begun to roll back the three strike laws, and let people out for early release—what is going to happen after release? The new horizon is reentry, and I am very concerned about the direction many reentry programs are taking. People need real second chances and comprehensive socioeconomic resources.


Elizabeth Hinton is Assistant Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University and the author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime (Harvard University Press, 2016).

Timothy Shenk is a graduate student in history at Columbia University and a Dissent contributing editor. He is the author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist.

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