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Building the Prison State

Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other industrialized nation in the world—about 1 in 100 adults, or more than 2 million people—while national spending on prisons has catapulted 400 percent. Given the vast racial disparities in incarceration, the prison system also reinforces race and class divisions. How and why did we become the world’s leading jailer? And what can we, as a society, do about it?

Reframing the story of mass incarceration, Heather Schoenfeld illustrates how the unfinished task of full equality for African Americans led to a series of policy choices that expanded the government’s power to punish, even as they were designed to protect individuals from arbitrary state violence. Examining civil rights protests, prison condition lawsuits, sentencing reforms, the War on Drugs, and the rise of conservative Tea Party politics, Schoenfeld explains why politicians veered from skepticism of prisons to an embrace of incarceration as the appropriate response to crime. To reduce the number of people behind bars, Schoenfeld argues that we must transform the political incentives for imprisonment and develop a new ideological basis for punishment.

352 pages | 3 halftones, 13 line drawings, 4 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Chicago Series in Law and Society


History: American History

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society


“Schoenfeld’s meticulously researched Building the Prison State is a major contribution to our understanding of mass incarceration. Schoenfeld conveys the horrors of the US punishment system, while at the same time capturing the most basic fact that this horror—and the racism at its core—is routine. Rather than focus on the agendas of conservatives, or liberals, she rightly focuses on the massive increase in carceral capacity that both have developed through new reforms that expand our ever-growing system of policing, parole, probation, and prisons. This is an indispensable book.”

Naomi Murakawa, Princeton University, author of The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America

“Schoenfeld masterfully merges punishment and race theories to explain how state punitive policies and practices not only endure over time and space, but are dramatically expanded through carceral capacity—a state’s ability to punish by creating new criminal justice institutions. This is a must-read for anyone thinking deeply about the racial politics of criminal justice policy and potential solutions for prison reform.”

John Eason, Texas A&M University, author of Big House on the Prairie: Rise of the Rural Ghetto and Prison Proliferation

"Nuanced and complicated. . . . Schoenfeld’s flexible approaches toward reform intent, and [her] nimble shifts from macro- to micro-levels of analysis, are promising."

Law and Social Inquiry

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables
Chapter 1. A New Perspective on the Carceral State
Chapter 2. Penal Modernization in the Civil Rights Era, 1954–1970
Chapter 3. Prison Overcrowding and the Legal Challenge to Florida’s Prison System, 1970–1980
Chapter 4. The Unintended Consequences of Prison Litigation, 1980–1991
Chapter 5. The Politics of Early Release, 1991–1995
Chapter 6. Republicans, Prosecutors, and the Carceral Ethos, 1995–2008
Chapter 7. Recession-Era Colorblind Politics and the Challenge of Decarceration, 2008–2016
Chapter 8. Toward a New Ethos
Selected Bibliography


American Association for State and Local History (AASLH): Award of Excellence

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