Class, Race and Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America*


The single greatest political transformation of the post-Civil Rights era in the US is the joint rolling back of the stingy social state and rolling out of the gargantuan penal state that have remade the country’s stratification, cities, and civic culture, and are recasting the very character of “blackness” itself. Together, these two concurrent and convergent thrusts have effectively redrawn the perimeter, mission and modalities of action of public authority when it turns to managing the deprived and stigmatized populations stuck at the bottom of the class, ethnic and urban hierarchies. The concomitant downsizing of the welfare wing and upsizing of the justice wing of the American state have been driven not by trends in poverty and crime, but by a politics of resentment toward categories deemed undeserving and unruly, chief among them the public aid recipients and street criminals framed as demonic figureheads of a black “underclass” (Katz 1995, O’Connor 2002).1

In this article, I show that the stupendous expansion and intensification of the activities of police, criminal courts, and prison over the past thirty years have been finely targeted, first by class, second by race, and third by place, leading not to mass incarceration but to the hyper-incarceration of (sub)proletarian black men from the imploding ghetto. This triple selectivity reveals that the building of the hyperactive and hypertrophic penal state that has made the US world champion in incarceration is at once a delayed reaction to the Civil Rights movement and the ghetto riots of the mid-1960s (Wacquant 2010a), and a disciplinary instrument unfurled to foster the neoliberal revolution by helping to impose insecure labor as the normal horizon of work for the unskilled fractions of the postindustrial laboring class (Wacquant 2009). The double coupling of the prison with the dilapidated hyperghetto, on the one side, and with supervisory workfare, on the other, is not a moral dilemma -- as recently argued by Glenn Loury (2008) -- but a political quandary calling for an expanded analysis of the nexus of class inequality, ethnic stigma, and the state. To reverse the racialized penalization of poverty requires a different policy response than mass incarceration. “Trickle-down” penal reform is insufficient to encompass the multifaceted role of the state in producing and entrenching marginality.

Sizing up the penal state

The tale of unexpected and exponential growth of US jails and prisons over the past three decades has often been told. But the raw increase in the population behind bars, from about 380,000 in 1975 to 2 million in 2000 and some 2.4 million today (counting juveniles and persons held in police lockups, who are not registered by official correctional statistics) is only part of the story (Wacquant 2009: chs. 4-5). I spotlight here four distinctive yet submerged dimensions of America’s punitive turn after the close of the Fordist era.

First, this phenomenal increase is remarkable for having been fueled, not by the lengthening of the average sentence as in previous periods of carceral inflation, but primarily by the surge in jail and prison admissions. Thus the number of people committed to state and federal penitentiaries by the courts ballooned from 159,000 in 1980 to 665,000 in 1997 (accounting for some 80% of inmate growth during that period) before stabilizing around a half-million yearly after 2002. This sharply differentiates the United States from Western European countries, most of which have also witnessed a steady if comparatively modest rise in incarceration over the past two decades (Dünkel & Snacken 2005). A major contributor to this “vertical” growth of the carceral system is the steep escalation in the volume of arrests and the vastly enlarged role assumed by jails as frontline dams of social disorders. This police hyperactivism has been disproportionate to and disjoined from trends in crime. One salient example: in New York City, under the campaign of “zero tolerance” promoted by Mayor Giuliani, the number of arrests increased by 40% between 1993 and 1998 to top 376,000 while crime decreased by 54% to reach 323,000, meaning that the police arrested more persons than it recorded offenses by the end of that period, compared to half as many at the start.2 Even though a growing share of these arrests were abusive and did not lead to charges, admissions to jail rose by one-fourth, causing rampant congestion and daily pandemonium in the city’s custodial facilities (Wacquant 2009: 262-263, 121-125).

As a result of intensified policing coupled with a rising propensity to confine miscreants, American jails have become gigantic operations processing a dozen million bodies each year nationwide, as well as huge drains on the budgets of counties and pivotal institutions in the life of the (sub)proletariat of the big cities.3 Indeed, because they treat vastly more people than do prisons, under conditions that are more chaotic due to high turnover, endemic overcrowding, population heterogeneity, and the administrative shift to bare-bones managerialism (the two top priorities of jail wardens are to minimize violent incidents and to hold down staff overtime), jails create more social disruption and family turmoil at the bottom of the urban order than do prisons. Yet they have remained largely under the radar of researchers and policy analysts alike.4

Second, the vertical rise of the penal system has been exceeded by its “horizontal” spread: the ranks of those kept in the long shadow of the prison via probation and parole have swelled even more than the population under lock, to about four million and one million respectively. As a result, the total population under criminal justice supervision bloated from 1.8 million in 1980 to 6.4 million by 2000 and 7.4 million in 2007. Probation and parole should be incorporated into the debate on the penal state, not only because they concern a much larger population than that of convicts (in 1998, eleven states each held over 100,000 probationers, more than France with 87,000), but also because both are more likely to lead (back) to imprisonment than not: two in five probationers and six in ten parolees who exited this status in 1997 were returned to custody within three years, either because they had committed a new offense or because they had violated one or another administrative condition of their release (failing an alcohol test or losing a job, missing an appointment with their parole officer, traveling outside of their county of assignment without permission, etc.). The purpose and functioning of parole have changed drastically over the past thirty years, from spring toward rehabilitation to penal trap, so that it is now properly construed as an extension of the custodial system, rather than an alternative to it (Petersilia 2003).

The reach of penal authorities has also been dramatically enlarged beyond probation and parole by the exponential growth in the size, scope, and uses of criminal justice databases containing some 60 million files in 2000 on an estimated 35 million individuals. Novel panoptic measures include the diffusion of official “rap sheets” through the Internet, the routinization of “background checks” by employers and realtors, the spread of public notification statutes (and related laws seeking to expurgate specific categories of convicts, such as sex offenders, from the social body), as well as the shift from old-style fingerprints and mug shots to DNA prints coordinated by the FBI.5 These institutional tentacles, and the routine practices of profiling, surveillance, and enclosure at a distance they permit, severely curtail the life chances of former convicts and their families by stretching the effects of judicial stigma on the labor, housing, and marital markets as well as into daily life (Pager 2007, Thacher 2008, Tewksbury & Lees 2006).6 Legislators have further amplified these sanctions by adding a raft of restrictions on the access of ex-felons to public services, privileges and benefits, from public housing and public employment, to college scholarships, parenting and voting rights (Olivares et al. 1996).

Third, the advent of penal “Big government” was made possible by astonishing increases in funding and personnel. Prison and jail expenditures in America jumped from $7 billion in 1980 to $57 billion in 2000 to exceed $70 billion in 2007 even as crime first stagnated and then declined steadily after 1993 (meanwhile total criminal justice expenditures grew sevenfold from $33 billion to $216 billion). This budgetary boom of 660% financed the infusion of an additional one million criminal justice staff, which has boosted corrections to the rank of third largest employer in the nation, behind only Manpower Inc. and Wal-Mart, with a monthly payroll of $2.4 billion. The “upsizing” of the carceral function of government has been rigorously proportional to the “downsizing” of its welfare role. In 1980, the country spent three times as much on its two main assistance programs ($11 billion for AFDC and $10 billion for Food stamps) as on corrections ($7 billion). By 1996, when ‘‘welfare reform’’ replaced the right to public assistance by the obligation to accept insecure employment as a condition of support, the carceral budget came to double the sums allocated to either AFDC or food stamps ($54 billion compared to $20 billion and $27 billion, respectively). Similarly, during the 1980s alone, Washington cut funding for public housing by $17 billion (minus 61%) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (plus 171%), effectively making the construction of prison the nation’s main housing program for the poor.

Fourth, the building of America’s gigantic penal state is a nationwide endeavor and a bipartisan achievement. Many scholars have rightly stressed that the US does not have a criminal justice system but a loose patchwork of independent jurisdictions beset by administrative fragmentation and policy dispersal bordering on incoherence (Zimring & Hawkins 1991, Tonry 2000). In light of wide regional and state variations, others have highlighted the role of “local political culture” and modes of “civic engagement” in determining the mix and intensity of penal sanctions (Barker 2009), and reported that Republican governors, a large black urban population, and “a state’s religious and political culture” exert a significant influence on incarceration rates (Greenberg & West 2001, Jacobs & Carmichael 2001; cf. Smith 2004). Yet, for all these and other geographic disparities and peculiarities, it remains that, over the past thirty-odd years, penal escalation has left no corner of the country untouched and has brought about de facto unification in the aggressive deployment of punishment: aside from Maine and Kansas, all members of the union saw their correctional counts grow by more than 50% between 1985 and 1995, at the peak of the carceral boom. Everywhere the ideal of rehabilitation has been abandoned or drastically downgraded, making retribution and neutralization the main practical rationale for confinement.

Increases in the civic salience of crime and distrust in government have not only pushed all jurisdictions toward greater punitiveness (Zimring & Johnson 2006). Policy control over criminal justice has migrated to the federal level, where it has grown steadily more symbolic and less substantive since the mid-1970s (Marion & Oliver 2009). Indeed, this national slant is one of the distinctive causes of the severity of the punitive turn as it strikes at impoverished minority districts (Miller 2008). And this national trajectory has been unaffected by changes in political majority in state-houses, Congress and the White House, as both parties have reflexively supported penal activism and expanded incarceration.7 Republicans will claim that they are “tougher on crime,” but it is Democratic majorities that have run up the carceral tab in California, Illinois, Michigan and New York. It is a Democrat president, Jimmy Carter (former governor of Georgia, one of the country’s most repressive states), who jump-started America’s great “carceral leap forward.” And another Democrat president (and former governor of another superpunitive state, Arkansas), Bill Clinton, who pushed for the most costly crime bill in world history (the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994) and oversaw the single largest expansion of incarceration in the annals of democratic societies (an increase of 465,000 convicts for an added $15 billion, compared to 288,000 convicts for a boost of $8 billion for Ronald Reagan).

From mass incarceration to hyperincarceration

The foregoing indicates that the footprint of the penal state on the national body is much broader and heavier than usually depicted. At the same time, it is also considerably more pointed than conveyed by the current debate. It has become convention among justice activists, journalists, and analysts of the US carceral scene to designate the unprecedented and unparalleled expansion of American correctional system at the close of the twentieth century as “mass incarceration” (e.g., Wright & Herivel 2003, Jacobson 2005, Gottschalk 2006, Clear 2007). The term was (re)introduced in the national prison debate in late 1990s – it had been used until then to refer to the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World Word II – and was soon codified by David Garland (2001) at an interdisciplinary conference on “Mass Incarceration: Social Causes and Consequences” held at New York University in 2000.8 The designation of “mass” incarceration is intuitively appealing because helps to dramatize the condition at hand, and thus draw scholarly and public attention to it. But it obscures signal features of the phenomenon, which is better termed hyperincarceration.

This is not a mere terminological quibble, for the change in wording points to a different depiction of the punitive turn, which leads to a different causal model, and thence to different policy prescriptions. Mass incarceration suggests that confinement concerns large swaths of the citizenry (as with the mass media, mass culture, mass unemployment, etc.), implying that the penal net has been flung far and wide across social and physical space. This is triply inaccurate. First, the prevalence of penal confinement in the United States, while extreme by international standards, can hardly be said to concern the masses: a rate of 0.75% compares quite favorably with the incidence of such woes as latent tuberculosis infection (estimated at 4.2%) and severe alcohol dependency (3.81%), which no one would seriously contend have reached mass proportions in the United States. Next, the expansion and intensification of the activities of the police, courts, and prison over the past quarter-century have been anything but broad and indiscriminate.9 They have been finely targeted, first by class, second by that disguised brand of ethnicity called race, and third by place. This cumulative targeting has led to the hyper-incarceration of one particular category, lower-class black men trapped in the crumbling ghetto, while leaving the rest of society – including, most remarkably, middle-class and upper-class blacks – practically untouched. Third, and more important still, this triple selectivity is a constitutive property of the phenomenon: had the penal state been rolled out indiscriminately through policies resulting in the capture of vast numbers of whites and well-to-do citizens, capsizing their families and decimating their neighborhoods as it has for inner-city African Americans, its growth would have been speedily derailed and eventually stopped by political counter-action. “Mass” incarceration is socially tolerable and therefore workable as public policy only so long as it does not reach the masses: it is a figure of speech, which hides the multiple filters that operate to point the penal dagger.10

Class, not race, is the first filter of selection for incarceration. The welcome focus on race, crime, and punishment that has dominated discussions of the prison boom has obliterated the fact that inmates are first and foremost poor people. Indeed, this monotonic class recruitment is a constant of penal history since the invention of houses of correction in the late 16th century (Spierenburg 1991) and a confirmed fact of the annals of US incarceration (Rothman 1971, Christianson 1998).11 Consider the social profile of the clientele of the nation’s jails – the gateway into America’s carceral archipelago. This clientele is drawn overwhelmingly from the most precarious fractions of the urban working class (Wacquant 2009: ch. 2): fewer than half of the inmates held a full-time job at the time of their arraignment and two-thirds issue from households with an annual income coming to less than half of the “poverty line”; only 13% have some postsecondary education (compared to a national rate above one-half); 60% did not grow up with both parents, including 14% raised in foster homes or orphanages; and every other detainee has had a member of his family behind bars. The regular clients of America’s jails suffer not only from acute material insecurity, cultural deprivation, and social denuding – only 16% are married, compared to 58% of men of their age-bracket nationwide. They also include disproportionate numbers of the homeless, the mentally ill, the alcohol- and drug-addicted, and the severely handicapped: nearly one in four suffers from a physical, psychic, or emotional ailment serious enough to hamper their ability to work. And they come mostly from deprived and stigmatized neighborhoods that have been devastated by the double retrenchment of the formal labor market and the welfare state (Wilson 1996, Wacquant 2008). Conversely, as a rule, very few members of the middle and upper classes sojourn at the “Graybar hotel,” especially for committing the minor to middling crimes that account for the bulk of prison convictions (11% of new court commitments to state penitentiaries in 1997 were for public order offenses, 30% for narcotics convictions, and 28% for property crimes). Martha Stewart and Bernie Madoff are but spectacular exceptions that spotlight this stringent class rule.

Race comes second. But the ethnic transformation of America’s prison has been at once more dramatic and more puzzling than generally recognized. To start with, the ethnoracial makeup of convicts has completely flip-flopped in four decades, turning over from 70% white and 30% “others” at the close of World War II to 70% black and Latino versus 30% whites by century’s end. This inversion, which took off after the mid-1970s, is all the more stunning when the criminal population has both shrunk and become whiter during that period: the share of African Americans among individuals arrested by the police for the four most serious violent offenses (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault) dropped from 51% in 1973 to 43% in 1996 (Tonry 1995: 17), and it continued to decline steadily for each of those four crimes until at least 2006 (Tonry & Malewski 2008: 18).

Next, the rapid “blackening” of the prison population even as serious crime “whitened” is due exclusively to the astronomical increase in the incarceration rates of lower-class blacks. In his book Punishment and Inequality in America, Bruce Western (2006: 27) produces a stunning statistic: whereas the cumulative risk of imprisonment for African-American males without a high-school diploma tripled between 1979 and 1999 to reach the astonishing rate of 59%, the lifetime chance of serving time for black men with some college education decreased from 6% to 5%. Here again, the media melodrama around the arrest of Harvard University star professor Henry Louis Gates in the summer of 2009 has hidden the fact that middle- and upper-class blacks are better off under the present penal regime than they were thirty years ago. It has played to the national obsession for the black-white duality, which obfuscates the fact that class disproportionality inside each ethnic category is greater than the racial disproportionality between them: African-American men are 8 times more likely to sojourn behind bars than European-American men (7.9% versus 1.0% in 2000), but the lifetime probability of serving time in prison for black males who did not complete their secondary education is 12 times that for black males who went to college (58.9% versus 4.9%), whereas that class gap among white men is stands at 16 (11.2% versus 0.7%;  Western 2006: 17, 27). The fact that these ratios were considerably lower two decades years ago for both blacks and whites (of the order of 1 to 3 and 1 to 8 respectively) confirms that enlarged imprisonment has struck very selectively by class inside of race, which again refutes the diagnosis of a “mass” phenomenon.

Penal expansion as a response to the implosion of the ghetto

Now, how was such double, nested selectivity achieved? How is it possible that criminal laws ostensibly written to avoid class and color bias would lead to throwing so many (sub)proletarian black men under lock, and not other black men?12 The class gradient in racialized imprisonment was obtained by targeting one particular place: the remnants of the black ghetto. I insist here on the word remnants, because the ghetto of old, which held in its grip a unified if stratified black community, is no more. The communal Black Belt of the Fordist era, described by a long lineage of distinguished black sociologists, from W.E.B. Du Bois to E. Franklin Frazier to Drake and Cayton to Kenneth Clark, imploded in the 1960s, to be replaced by a dual and decentered structure of seclusion composed of a degraded hyperghetto doubly segregated by race and class, one the one hand, and the satellite black middle-class districts that mushroomed in the adjacent areas vacated by the mass exodus of whites to the suburbs, on the other (Wacquant 2008: 117-118).

But to detect the tightening linkage between the decaying ghetto and the booming prison requires two analytic moves. First, one must break out of the narrow ambit of the “crime and punishment” paradigm that continues to hamstring the scholarly and policy debate, despite its increasingly glaring inadequacy. A simple ratio suffices to demonstrate that crime cannot be the cause behind carceral hyperinflation: the number of clients of state and federal prisons boomed from 21 convicts per thousand “index crimes” in 1975 to 125 per 1,000 in 2005. In other words, holding the crime rate constant shows that the US penal state is six times more punitive today than it was three decades ago.13 Instead of getting sidetracked into investigations of the crime-punishment (dis)connection, one must recognize that the prison is not a mere technical implement of government designed to stem offending but a core state capacity devoted to managing dispossessed and dishonored populations. Returning to the early history of the prison in the 16th century readily discloses that penal bondage developed, not to fight crime, but to dramatize the authority of rulers, and to repress idleness and enforce morality among vagrants, beggars and assorted categories cast adrift by the coming of capitalism (Rusche & Kirchheimer 1939, Lis & Soly 1979, Spierenburg 1991). The rise of the prison was part and parcel of the building of the early modern state to discipline the nascent urban proletariat for the benefit of the emerging citizenry. The same is true four centuries later in the dualizing metropolis of neoliberal capitalism (Wacquant 2010b).

A second analytic shift is needed to ferret out the causal connection between hyperghettoization and hyperincarceration: to realize that the ghetto is not a segregated quarter, a poor neighborhood or an urban district marred by housing dilapidation, violence, vice or disrepute, but an instrument of ethnoracial control in the city. Another return to social history demonstrates that a ghetto is a socio-spatial contraption through which a dominant ethnic category secludes a subordinate group and restricts its life chances in order to both exploit and exclude it from the life-sphere of the dominant. Like the Jewish ghetto in Renaissance Europe, the Black Belt of the American metropolis in the Fordist age combined four elements – stigma, constraint, spatial confinement, and institutional encasement – to permit the economic extraction and social ostracism of a population deemed congenitally inferior, defiled and defiling by virtue of its lineal connection to bondage. Succeeding chattel slavery and Jim Crow, the ghetto was the third “peculiar institution” entrusted with defining, confining, and controlling African Americans in the urban industrial order (Wacquant 2001).

Penal expansion after the mid-1970s is a political response to the collapse of the ghetto. But why did the ghetto collapse? Three causal series converged to undercut the “black city within the white” that hemmed in African Americans from the 1920s to the 1960s. The first is the postindustrial economic transition that shifted employment from manufacturing to services, from central city to suburb, and from the Rustbelt to the Sunbelt and low-wage foreign countries. Together with renewed immigration, this shift made black workers redundant and undercut the role of the ghetto as reservoir of unskilled labor. The second cause is the political displacement provoked by the Great White Migration to the suburbs: from the 1950s to the 1970s, millions of white families fled the metropolis in reaction to the influx of African Americans from the rural south. This demographic upheaval, subsidized by the federal government and bolstered by the courts, weakened cities in the national electoral system and reduced the political pull of African Americans. The third force behind the breakdown of the ghetto as ethnoracial container is black protest, fostered by the accumulation of social and symbolic capital correlative of ghettoization, culminating with the civil rights legislation, the budding of Black Power activism and the eruption of urban riots that rocked the country between 1964 and 1968.

Unlike Jim Crow, then, the ghetto was not dismantled by forceful government action. It was left to crumble onto itself, trapping lower-class African Americans into a vortex of unemployment, poverty, and crime abetted by the joint withdrawal of the wage-labor market and the welfare state, while the growing black middle class achieved limited social and spatial separation by colonizing the districts adjacent to the historic Black Belt (Wilson 1996, Pattillo-McCoy 1998). As the ghetto lost its economic function of labor extraction and proved unable to ensure ethnoracial closure, the prison was called upon to help contain a dishonored population widely viewed as deviant, destitute and dangerous. This coupling occurred because, as previously suggested, ghetto and prison belong to the same organizational genus, namely, institutions of forced confinement: the ghetto is a sort of “ethnoracial prison” in the city while the prison functions in the manner of a “judicial ghetto.” Both are charged with enfolding a stigmatized category so as to defuse the material and/or symbolic threat it poses for the broader society from which it has been extruded.

To be sure, the structural homology and functional surrogacy of ghetto and prison do not mandate that the former be replaced by or coupled with the latter. For that to happen, specific policy choices had to be made, implemented and supported. This support sprang from the fearful reaction of whites to the urban riots and related racial upheavals of the 1960s and from the rising political resentment generated by government powerlessness in the face of the stagflation of 1970s and the subsequent spread of social insecurity along three tacks. First, middle-class whites accelerated their exodus out of the capsizing cities, which enabled the federal government to dismantle programs essential to the succor of inner-city residents. Second, working-class whites joined their middle-class brethren in turning against the welfare state to demand that public aid be curtailed –leading to the “end of welfare as we know it” in 1996. And, third, they allied to offer ardent political backing for the “law and order” measures that primed the penal pump and harnessed it to the hyperghetto. The meeting ground and theater of these three political thrusts was the “revanchist city” (Smith 1996) in which increasing inequality, growing social precarity, and festering marginality fed citizens’ rancor over the alleged excessive generosity of welfare and leniency of criminal justice toward poor African Americans.

Two trains of converging changes then bolstered the knitting of the hyperghetto and the prison into a carceral mesh ensnaring a population of lower-class blacks rejected by the deregulated labor market and the dereliction of public institutions in the inner city (Wacquant 2010b). On the one side, the ghetto was “prisonized” as its class composition became monotonously poor, its internal social relations grew stamped by distrust and fear, and its indigenous organizations waned to be replaced by the social control institutions of the state. On the other side, the prison was “ghettoized” as rigid racial partition came to pervade custodial facilities, the predatory culture of the street supplanted the “convict code” that had traditionally organized the “inmate society” (Sykes 1958), rehabilitation was abandoned in favor of neutralization, and the stigma of criminal conviction was deepened and diffused in ways that make it akin to racial dishonor. The resulting symbiosis between hyperghetto and prison not only perpetuates the socioeconomic marginality and symbolic taint of the black subproletariat, feeding the runaway growth of the carceral system. It also plays a key role in the revamping of “race” by associating blackness with devious violence and dangerousness (Wacquant 2005), by redefining the citizenry via a racialized public culture of vilification of criminals, and by constructing a post-Keynesian state that replaces the social-welfare treatment of poverty by its punitive containment.

Linking workfare and prisonfare

Yet the tightening nexus between the hyperghetto and the prison does not tell the whole story of the frenetic growth of penal institutions in the US after the Civil Rights Revolution. In Punishing the Poor (Wacquant 2009), I show that the unleashing of a voracious prison apparatus after the mid-1970s partakes of a broader restructuring of the state tending to criminalize poverty and its consequences so as to depict insecure, underpaid jobs as normal fare for unskilled segments of the postindustrial proletariat. The sudden hypertrophy of the penal state was thus matched and complemented by the planned atrophy of the social state, culminating with the 1996 law on Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity, which replaced the right to “welfare” with the obligation of “workfare.” Each in its fashion, workfare and prisonfare respond, not just to the crisis of the ghetto as a device for the socio-spatial seclusion of African Americans, but to the repudiation of the Fordist wage-work compact and of the Keynesian social compromise of the postwar decades. Together, they ensnare the marginal populations of the metropolis in a carceral-assistential net designed to steer them toward deregulated employment through moral retraining and material suasion and, if they prove too recalcitrant and disruptive, to warehouse them in the devastated core of the urban Black Belt and in the penitentiaries that have become its distant yet direct satellites.

The workfare revolution and the penal explosion are the two sides of the same historical coin, two facets of the reengineering and masculinizing of the state on the way to the establishment of a novel political regime that may be characterized as liberal-paternalist: it practices laissez-faire at the top, towards corporations and the privileged, but it is intrusive and disciplinary at the bottom, when it comes to dealing with the consequences of social disinvestment and economic deregulation for the lower class and its territories. And, just as racial stigma was pivotal to the junction of hyperghetto and prison, the taint of blackness was central to the restrictive and punitive overhaul of social welfare. In the wake of the ghetto mutinies of the 1960s, the diffusion of blackened images of crime fueled rising hostility toward criminals and fostered (white) demands for expansive prison policies narrowly aimed at retribution and neutralization (Irwin 1980). During the same years, the spread of blackened images of urban destitution and dependency similarly fostered mounting resentment toward public aid which bolstered (white) support for restrictive welfare measures centered on deterrence and compulsion (Gilens 1999, Schram et al. 2003). Race turns out to be the symbolic linchpin that coordinated the synergistic transformation of these two sectors of public policy toward the poor.14

Again, like the joining of hyperghetto and prison, this second institutional pairing feeding carceral growth can be better understood by paying attention to the structural, functional, and cultural similarities between workfare and prisonfare as “people-processing organizations” (Hasenfeld 1972) targeted on problem populations and neighborhoods. Welfare was transformed in a punitive direction while the penal system was expanded to “treat” more and more of the traditional clientele of welfare. Both programs of state action are narrowly directed at the bottom of the class and ethnic hierarchy; both effectively assume that their recipients are “guilty until proven innocent” and that their conduct must be closely supervised as well as rectified by restrictive and coercive measures; and both deploy deterrence and stigma to achieve behavioral modification.

In the era of hypermobile capital and fragmented wage-work, the monitoring of the precarious segments of the working class is no longer handled solely by the maternal social arm of the welfare state, as portrayed by Piven and Cloward (1971) in their classic study Regulating the Poor. It entails a double regulation through the virile and controlling arms of workfare and prisonfare acting in unison. This dynamic coupling of social and penal policy at the bottom of the class and ethnic structure operates through a familiar division of labor between the sexes: the public aid bureaucracy, reconverted into an administrative springboard to subpoverty employment, takes up the task of inculcating the duty of working for work’s sake to poor women (and indirectly to their children), while the penal quartet formed by police, court, prison, and the probation or parole officer shoulders the mission of taming their men, that is, the boyfriends or husbands, brothers, and sons of these women. Welfare provision and criminal justice are animated by the same punitive and paternalist philosophy that stresses the “individual responsibility” of the “client”; they both rely on case supervision and bureaucratic surveillance, deterrence and stigma, and graduated sanctions aimed at modifying behavior to enforce compliance with work and civility; and they reach publics of roughly comparable size: in 2001, 2.1 million households received Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, for a total of some 6 million beneficiaries, while the carceral population topped 2.1 million and the stock under criminal justice supervision surpassed 6.5 million.

In addition, welfare recipients and inmates have nearly identical social profiles and extensive mutual ties of descent and alliance confirming that they are the two gendered components of the same population. Both categories live below 50% of the federal poverty line (for one-half and two-thirds of them, respectively); both are disproportionately black and hispanic (37% and 18% versus 41% and 19%); the majority did not finish high school and many suffer from serious physical and mental disabilities limiting their workforce participation (44% of AFDC mothers as against 37% of jail inmates). And they are closely bound to one another by kin, marital and social bonds, reside overwhelmingly in the same impoverished households and barren neighborhoods, and face the same bleak life horizon at the bottom of the class and ethnic structure. This indicates that we cannot hope to untie the knot of class, race and imprisonment, and thus explain hyperincarceration, unless we relink prisonfare and workfare, which in turn suggests that we must bring the social wing of the state and its transformations into our analytic and policy purview.

Coda: reversing revanchism

Revanchism as public policy toward the dispossessed has thrust the country into a historical cul-de-sac, as the double coupling of hyperghettoization and hyperincarceration, on the one hand, and workfare and prisonfare, on the other, damages both the society and the state. For society, the spiral of penal escalation has become self-reinforcing as well as self-defeating: the carceral Moloch actively destabilizes the precarious fractions of the postindustrial proletariat it strikes with special zeal, truncates the life options of its members, and further despoils inner-city neighborhoods, thereby reproducing the very social disorders, material insecurity, and symbolic stain it is supposed to alleviate. As a result, the population behind bars has kept on growing even as the overall crime rate dropped precipitously for some fifteen years, yielding a paradoxical pattern of carceral levitation. For the state, the penalization of poverty turns out to be financially ruinous, as it competes with, and eventually consumes, the funds and staff needed to sustain essential public services such as schooling, health, transportation, and social protection. Moreover, the punitive and panoptic logic that propels criminal justice seeps into and erodes the shielding capacities of the welfare sector – for instance, by inflecting the practices of child protective services in ways that turn them into adjuncts of the penal apparatus (Roberts 2000). It similarly undercuts the educational springboard as depleted inner-city schools serving a clientele roiled by mass unemployment and penal disruption come to prioritize and manage issues of student discipline through a prism of crime control (Hirschfeld 2008). Lastly, the law-and-order guignol diverts the attention of elected officials and saps the energy of bureaucratic managers charged with handling the problem populations and territories of the polarizing city.

If this diagnosis of the rise of the penal state is correct, and hyperincarceration proceeding along steep gradients of class, race, and space – rather than mass incarceration – is the offshoot of a novel government of social insecurity installed to absorb the shock of the crash of the ghetto and normalize precarious wage labor, then policies aimed at shrinking the carceral state must effectively reverse revanchism. They must go well beyond criminal justice reform to encompass the gamut of government programs that collectively set the life chances of the poor, and whose concurrent turnaround toward restriction and discipline after the mid-1970s has boosted the incidence, intensity, and duration of marginality at the bottom of the class and ethnic order (Wacquant 2008: 69-91, 280-87).

A variety of cogent proposals for reducing America’s overreliance on confinement to check the reverberations of urban dispossession and dishonor have been put forth on the penal front over the past decade (Tonry 2001, Roberts 2005, Jacobson 2005, Gottschalk 2005, Mauer & the Sentencing Project 2006, Austin & James 2007). They range from the renewal of intermediate sanctions, the diversion of low-level drug offenders, the abolition of mandatory sentencing and the generalized reduction of the length of prison terms, to the reform of parole revocation, the incorporation of fiscal and social impacts into judicial proceedings, and the promotion of restorative justice. Whatever the technical means chosen, achieving sustained carceral deflation will require insulating judicial and correctional professionals from the converging pressures of the media and politicians, and restoring rehabilitation through a public campaign debunking the neoconservative myth that “nothing works” when it comes to reforming offenders.15

Deep and broad justice reform is urgently needed to reduce the astronomical financial costs, skewed social and administrative burdens, and rippling criminogenic effects of continued hyperincarceration. But generic measures to diminish the size and reach of the prison across the board will leave largely untouched the sprouting epicenter of carceral growth, that is, the urban wastelands where race, class, and the penal state meet and mesh, unless they are combined with a concerted attack on labor degradation and social desolation in the decaying hyperghetto. For that to happen, the downsizing of the penal wing must be accompanied by reconstruction of the economic and social capacities of the state and by their active deployment in and around the devastated districts of the segregated metropolis. The programmed dereliction of public institutions in the inner city must be remedied through massive investment in schools, social services, health care and unfettered access to drug and alcohol rehabilitation. A WPA-style public works program aimed at the vestiges of the historic Black Belt would help at once to rebuild its decrepit infrastructure, to improve housing conditions, and to offer economic sustenance and civic incorporation to local residents.16

In sum, the diagnosis of hyperincarceration implies that puncturing America’s bloated and voracious penal state will take more than a full-bore political commitment to fighting social inequality and ethnic marginality through progressive and inclusive government programs on the economic, social, and justice front. It will necessitate also a spatially targeted policy to break the noxious nexus now binding hyperghettoization, restrictive workfare and expansive prisonfare in the racialized urban core.


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*This is the edited text of an article that originally appeared in Daedalus, vol. 140, no. 3, Summer 2010.

1. See Smith (1996: 42) for a stimulating discussion of the notion of revanche as an extended and multiform “visceral reaction in the public discourse against the liberalism of the post-1960s period and an all-out attack on the social policy structure that emanated from the New Deal and the immediate postwar era,” and Flamm (2008) for a painstaking account of how the conflation of racial tumult, anti-war protest, civil disorder and street crime laid the social foundation for the political demand for “law and order” in the wake of the class and racial dislocations of the sixties.

2. The spiteful tenor of Giuliani’s campaign of “class cleansing” of the streets and its stident racial overtones are captured by Neil Smith’s (1998) “Giuliani Time.”

3. The sheer scale of American jails puts them in a class of their own. In 2000, the three largest custodial complexes in the Western world were the jails of Los Angeles (23,000 inmates), New York (18,000) and Chicago (10,000). By contrast, the largest penitentiary center in Europe, the Fleury-Mérogis prison just south of Paris, held 3,900 and is considered grotesquely oversized by European standards.

4. The last close-up study of the daily functioning of a big-city jail and its impact on the urban poor, John Irwin’s (1985) fine ethnography of San Francisco’s jail, dates from thirty years ago.

5. The national DNA database from crime scenes, persons “known-to-the-police” and (former) convicts compiled by the FBI (under the Combined DNA Index System [CODIS] program) more than doubled over the past five years alone to reach eight million offender profiles. Its explosive expansion, fed by technological innovation and organizational imperatives, is springing a new “racialized dragnet” thrown primarily at lower-class black men due to their massive overrepresentation among persons stopped by police (Duster 2010).

6. See Comfort (2007) for an extended analysis of ramifying penal disabilities outside of prison walls.

7. “The war on crime --with its constituent imagery that melded the burning cities of the 1960s urban riots with the face of [Willie] Horton as (every) black man, murderer, rapist of a white woman-- remade party affiliations and then remade the parties themselves, as the war came to be embraced and stridently promoted by Republicans and Democrats alike” (Frampton et al. 2008: 7).

8. Ironically, the generalized notion was first broached, not in the US prison debate, but in Western Europe by the justice official and scholar Jean-Paul Jean (1995) in a discussion of the “mass incarceration of drug addicts” in French jails. (I used the term myself in several publications between 1997 and 2005, so this conceptual revision is in part a self-critique).

9. To be sure, Garland (2001) singles out two “essential features” that define mass incarceration: “sheer numbers” (that is, “a rate of imprisonment and a size of prison population that is markedly above the historical and comparative norm for societies of this type”) and “the social concentration of mass imprisonment’s effects” (“when it becomes the imprisonment of whole groups of the population,” in this case “young black males in large urban centers”). But it is not clear why the first property would not suffice to characterize the phenomenon and what “markedly above” entails. Next, there is a logical contradiction between the two features of mass reach and concentrated impact. Lastly, Harcourt (2006) has pointed out that the US, between 1938 and 1962, sported rates of forcible custody exceeding 600 per 100,000 residents – almost as high as the present rate of incarceration – if one merges statistics on penal confinement and mental asylums.

10. The martial trope of the “War on crime” has similarly hindered analysis of the transformation and workings of criminal policy. This belligerent designation – espoused alike by advocates and critics of expanded incarceration – is triply misleading: it presents civilian measures aimed at citizens as a military campaign against foreign foes; it purports to fight “crime” generically when it targets a narrow strand of illegalities (street offenses in the segregated lower-class districts of the city); and it abstracts the criminal justice wing from the broader revamping of the state in which the expansion of prisonfare was accompanied by the cutting back of welfare.

11. The only exception to this class rule turns up in those countries and periods where the prison is used extensively as an instrument of political repression (Neier 1995).

12. Lower-class black women come next as the category with the fastest increase in incarceration over the past two decades, leading to more African-American females being under lock than there are total women confined in all of Western Europe. But their capture comes largely as a by-product of the aggressive rolling out of penal policies aimed primarily at their lovers, kin and neighbors (men make up 94% of all convicts in the nation). In any case, the number of female inmates pales before the ranks of the millions of girlfriends and wives of convicts who are subjected to “secondary prisonization” due to the judicial status of their partner (Comfort 2008).

13. The increase of this index of punitiveness is 299% for “violent crimes” as against 495% for “index crimes” (aggregating violent crime and the major categories of property crime), confirming that the penal state has grown especially more severe towards lesser offenses and thus confines many more marginal delinquents than in the past.

14. In media and policy debates leading to the 1996 termination of welfare, three racialized figures offered lurid incarnations of “dependency”: the flamboyant and wily “welfare queen,” the immature and irresponsible “teenage mother,” and the aimless and jobless “deadbeat dad.” All three were stereotypically portrayed as black residents of the dilapidated inner city.

15. Contrary to the dominant public vision, research has consistently shown the superiority of rehabilitation over retribution: “Supervision and sanctions, at best, show modest mean reductions in recidivism and, in some instances, have the opposite effect and increase reoffense rates. The mean recidivism effects found in studies of rehabilitation treatment, by comparison, are consistently positive and relatively large” (Lipsey & Cullen 2007: 297). That hardened criminals do change and turn their lives around is shown by Maruna (2007); that even “lifers” imprisoned for homicide find pathways to redemption is demonstred by Irwin (2009).

16. See the powerful arguments of Pattillo (2008) for immediately “investing in poor black neighborhoods ‘as is’,” instead of pursuing long-term strategies of dispersal or mixing that are both inefficient and detrimental to the pressing needs and distinct interests of the urban minority poor.