The Ghost of Prisons Future: Mass Incarceration in Historical Context

Guest post by Joseph F. Spillane

Historians have, finally, seized upon the phenomenon of mass incarceration as a subject worthy of serious consideration. The astonishing and unprecedented rise of imprisonment rates between the early 1970s and the 2000s is undoubtedly one of the most significant developments in modern social policy. Indeed, mass incarceration is now understood as perhaps the defining phenomenon of the American racial, social, and political order, much as slavery or Jim Crow in their day. Ironically, however, our focus on mass incarceration may actually serve to distract us from its deeper historical origins.

One source of the confusion about mass incarceration is that the phenomenon—almost by definition—is understood to be one of scale. And, if one is examining this primarily as a scale phenomenon, it appears fairly clear that imprisonment rates were relatively flat prior to the 1970s, and it was only in that decade that rates began their remarkable four-decade climb. As a consequence, scholars tend to see mass incarceration as an immediate by-product of rising crime rates in the Sixties, or perhaps to the race riots and urban crises of that same decade, or to highly publicized prisoner uprisings like the one at New York State’s Attica Prison in 1971. In this version of events, mass incarceration is just one more conservative reaction to the excesses of the Sixties or to the failures of liberalism. I believe, however, that we need to look further back in time.

To understand why, it is helpful to understand that the era of mass incarceration is not simply about scale, it is also about the nature and quality of imprisonment, the turn toward frankly punitive language to describe our motives for punishment, increased racial disparity, and the corresponding decline of the idea that prisoners are or should be reintegrated back into society as productive citizens. In examining just the history of just one New Deal-era reform prison in New York State, it seems clear to me that the progressive or liberal impulse in corrections was scarcely well established behind bars. And, where it was, events of the immediate postwar years rocked reform structures and gave rise to what looks suspiciously like the contemporary warehouse prisons that so many have condemned.

So what happened? Reformers established the liberal prison regime upon the premise that inmates should be provided the resources they needed to realize their potential and to accept the offer of full citizenship that would await them upon release. In doing so, the prison gate could become, as one reformer put it, a “gate of reentry” into the community. It was a simple vision, but one that seems attractive and compelling even today. But, almost from the beginning, prison officials (and even some reformers) drew boundaries around the idea of citizenship, marking some young men as unredeemable. The numbers of such young men surged in the immediate postwar years, as gang violence, racial conflict, and drug addiction appeared to pose an intractable challenge to the prewar reform vision. As early as 1953, New York opened a warehouse prison designed specially for the young men deemed uneducable and ungovernable—in other words, formally abandoning the idea that every young man was a worthy subject for rehabilitation.

Many of the inmates who seized Attica Prison’s D-Yard in 1971 were veterans of the prison system, and their education often began in the reformatories of the Fifties, where they first began to link imprisonment with systems of racial oppression. The conditions under which mass incarceration could flourish were products of these postwar conflicts. It is a useful reminder today, as the debates over mass incarceration heat up, that the politics of law and order were not simply conjured up by politicians at one moment, but were and are deeply embedded in the American politics of punishment.



Joseph F. Spillane is an associate professor of history at the University of Florida. He is the author of several books, including Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform, and Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States, 1884–1920, both published by Johns Hopkins Press.