Trumpism and the Magnitude of Mass Incarceration

Southeast enclosing wall of the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail, Pittsburgh, PA, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection (Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Division)

On Thursday, February 9, President Trump instituted new executive actions, which affirmed his campaign vows to emphasize “law and order.” When it comes to surveillance, policing, and imprisonment, the new Trump presidency promises an uptick in the government’s repertoire of repression. With ascending resistance, the president is developing a new balance between coercion and consent from which to govern. And at some point, these quantitative changes can meld into wholesale qualitative ones.

Mass incarceration developed through contestation and accretion across diverse jurisdictions: prison by prison, mandatory minimum sentence by mandatory minimum sentence. Considering this lesson, on April 12, 2008, geographer and leading anti-prison scholar-activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore asked me a question that I have been considering ever since: “Why aren’t there more people in prison?” The question reminds us that every dollar in a police budget is important. Answering it compels one to push past common tropes in the discourse about imprisonment. It looks beyond interpretive traps that lurk in moralistic appeals; these often emphasize the seeming contradiction that in the ‘land of the free’ there are so many people in cages. Gilmore’s question forces us to look askance at those who would suggest that prisons are simply factories in a narrow circuit of labor exploitation (since fewer than 6,000 of the more than 1.5 million people in prison are working for private companies). Another 60,000 people work in “correctional industries,” like UNICOR, that sell products to the government. In addition, 700,000 imprisoned people do what Craig Gilmore has called, “the reproductive labor of the prison”—contributing to the daily maintenance of the institution through cooking, cleaning, and other such jobs.

This characterization disturbs theorizing racism as an incurable disease, where mass incarceration is only the latest symptom—”slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration.” Rather, it prompts an understanding of racism as a system of contested and evolving power relations. Gilmore’s question suggests that the urgent task to consider is: how racism is able to articulate politically in this way. What institutions and people have been able to constrain its force? What institutions and people have been able to catalyze its violent expressions?

Reading our president’s plan for his first 100 days gives these questions renewed urgency. His legislative agenda promises policy that will further extend racism and state violence. He calls for the “Restoring Community Safety Act.” The act pledges “increasing funding for programs that train and assist local police.” In short, this is a replay of the plans developed in the mid-1960s under the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). The LEAA and its funding to states and municipalities was crucial to growing the system of mass incarceration. Although most imprisoned people are in state prisons, federal funding for new policing initiatives and to support state prison construction was instrumental for the growth of mass incarceration. Our president is also seeking to increase the punishments for immigrants charged with unlawful reentry, via a renewed version of “Kate’s Law.” His proposed “End Illegal Immigration Act” increases mandatory minimum sentences for immigrants who re-enter the U.S., and even more so for those with prior convictions.

The deeper causes of mass incarceration are many, but on a proximate level, we know how the ‘massification’ of mass incarceration occurred. The “Iron Law of Prison Populations,” posits that flow into prison and the length of stay in prison are the two most important factors to growing the prison system. Both of these elements increased since the 1960s, alongside prison construction. Thus, many activists and scholars have argued that reducing mass incarceration requires: (1) decreasing police contact (thereby slowing the flow of the policing→prosecution→plea-bargain→prison conveyor belt), and (2) reducing sentence lengths across the board (thus cutting one’s length of stay). The challenge is how to change the policy paradigm whereby policing and imprisonment are considered all-purpose solutions to social, political, economic problems. Under our new president, this challenge will grow.

This comes after years of optimism and struggle around policing and prison reform, and efforts to eventually make imprisonment obsolete. Gilmore’s question occurred after the years of prison growth had slowed. The average annual increase of people in prisons from 1980-1994 was: 8.4%, and 7.2% for jails. The average annual increase of imprisoned people from 1995-2001 was: 3.8%. From 2000-2008, the average annual increase was 2.2%. By contrast, from 2007-2014, there was an average annual decrease of .5%.1 For the first time in my lifetime, more people were leaving prison than entering. But this period also witnessed buildups of surveillance and widespread use of electronic monitoring for criminalized people and workers. Nonetheless, that prisons had ceased to grow at their 1980s-90s rates provoked optimism that perhaps decarceration was on the horizon. Such optimism was dashed on election night.

View from a hallway into a cell at the West Virginia State Penitentiary, West Virginia Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

With deepening criminalization impending, what kinds of alliances can be fomented? Like many people over the past few weeks, I have turned to the analyses of two key thinkers on right wing ascent: Antonio Gramsci and Stuart Hall. In “Some Aspects of the Southern Question,” Gramsci argued for the necessity of bringing together the communists in industrial Turin and the peasantry of southern Italy, who had historically been treated as “biologically inferior beings.” He called for a struggle to create class cohesion against these hierarchical social and geographic divisions. What might understanding our current conjuncture mean for composing necessary political alliances? For example, Mike Pence has specifically targeted and criminalized pregnant women. What kinds of political strategies can be forged between reproductive justice and anti-imprisonment groups? More than 65 million people have been criminalized at some point in their lives. The threats of criminalizing new behaviors that hold great social legitimacy offers an opportunity to steer away from notions of procedural justice and, provoke a critical assessment of the process of criminalization itself. Can a collectivity of those who have historically been criminalized and those likely to be criminalized provide a guide to new social movement formations? Can the coming multiplication of sites of antagonism map a new coalition? If so, it is up to us to use it. Hall reminds us that “majorities have to be ‘made’ and ‘won.’” The building of such a collectivity will be necessary for those who want to ensure that Gilmore’s 2008 question does not mark an interregnum between prison building booms.

The construction of alliances and dominant blocs—revolutionary and reactionary—are always unstable. “If you’re in a coalition and you’re comfortable, you’re not in…a coalition,” related Gilmore in her book Golden Gulag, citing the wisdom of the great singer and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon. The day after the election, I had closed my “History of Mass Incarceration” lecture with Reagon and her comrades in Sweet Honey In the Rock singing “Ella’s Song.” “We who believe in freedom cannot rest,” they reminded us. The next day, I held extra office hours for students who sought further discussion, contextualization, and emotional and moral support. One student relayed how the election night protest on campus was similarly inspired by a song. Frustrated and fearful as the results rolled in, my student asked a friend to go get food. As they strolled across campus, they put YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT” on their boombox. Suddenly, more and more people were following behind. And the protest was on. In dissenting moments such as these we can glimpse the necessary alliances. They can be catalyzed by an ephemeral moment: the late-night snack search can elicit a protest. But spontaneity will not save us. Trumpism has constructed its own motley bloc of contradictory fractions. We must build ours.

  1. Some of the most significant reductions of people in prisons and jails were in New York. There was also much unevenness between states during this time. For example, from 2008-2012, fifteen states increased their incarceration rates—Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, South Dakota, and West Virginia by more than 4%.
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David Stein

David Stein is a Lecturer in the Departments of History and African American Studies at University of California-Los Angeles. His first book, Fearing Inflation, Inflating Fears: The Civil Rights Struggle for Full Employment and the Rise of the Carceral State, 1929-1986, will be published by University of North Carolina Press. He co-hosts and produces Who Makes Cents?: A History of Capitalism Podcast with Betsy Beasley. Follow him on Twitter @davidpstein.