Essential Reading on the US Prison-Industrial Complex

Three must-reads on prison and race in America
Charles Shaw
26 May 2010

Ten years ago Christian Parenti published Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (1999, Verso). It remains the definitive text connecting social and political control policies to the American incarceration experiment. Beginning with the economic shifts and civil unrest of the 1960s, Parenti takes us on a disturbing trip through the federal backlash against "crime" and shows how the US government funneled billions in aid to cities and states in order to build militarized police forces who were primarily tasked with policing the underclasses, what Parenti calls "the management of surplus labor." Over time, the "tough on crime" mantra, coupled with the futile "War on Drugs," became the driving force behind the construction of the world's largest prison system which by the time Parenti published Lockdown had incarcerated more Black men then the apartheid regime in South Africa ever had. As testament to the intransigence of these policies, the US prison population doubled in the ten years since Lockdown's release. Parenti has made a career out of tackling the difficult subjects that mainstream journalists shy away from, and has always been a refreshingly honest voice of reason, never afraid to take on the sacred cows of class and freedom in America.


Ohio University Law professor Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2009, The New Press) is a wake-up call to all those clinging to the idea that America is in its "post-racial" era simply because it elected a half-black president. On the contrary, this former litigator-turned-legal-scholar "provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it." Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community—and all of us—to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America. Just one galling statistic of many: in some states African Americans comprise 90 percent of the total drug prisoners and are 57 times more likely to be incarcerated for a drug offense than whites, even though whites use five times the amount of drugs as African Americans. Catch this compelling hour long presentation Alexander gave at Demos in February 2010.


"Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (2010, Metropolitan Books) is a history of imprisonment, race, and politics from slavery to the present, with an emphasis on Texas, the most locked-down state in the nation. Sweeping in scope and exhaustively researched, it tries to answer some of the most vexing questions of our time: Why has the United States built the largest prison system in the world, unlike anything in the history of democratic governance, and why have racial disparities in criminal justice worsened over the past two generations, despite the landmark victories of the civil rights movement? Drawing on a decade of archival, legal, and legislative research, combined with scores of interviews, this book argues that the history of American criminal justice is a more southern story than most have acknowledged (the prison boom began and has remained most pervasive in the South) and that the politics of race and reaction have played a more prominent role in the expansion of incarceration than elevated crime rates. By drawing parallels between the development of segregation and convict leasing in the aftermath of Reconstruction and the rise of mass imprisonment in the wake of integration, Texas Tough contends that America’s imprisonment crisis has taken shape as the latest chapter in America’s tragic racial history and that a concerted nationwide effort will be required to move the country toward a more equitable and genuinely democratic future." Listen to this Open Society Institute event where Perkinson, a Soros Justice Fellow (like Michelle Alexander) and other experts discuss the life and times of America's roughest, largest penal system from infancy to empire.

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