Building the Prison StateRace and the Politics of Mass Incarceration

Building the Prison StateRace and the Politics of Mass Incarceration

Heather Schoenfeld

Print publication date: 2019

ISBN: 9780226520964

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


Building the Prison State is a new look at why the United States locks millions of people behind bars, in harsh conditions, with little opportunity to better themselves, for long periods of time. Drawing on the story of one high incarceration state between 1950 and 2016, the book argues that racial conflicts led to the bureaucratization and modernization of policing, courts, and corrections. The book demonstrates that policymakers’ investments in carceral capacity in the 1960s and 1970s built the foundation for the punitive carceral state by empowering law enforcement and victims and incentivizing tough-on-crime political posturing. As a result, despite the high fiscal costs and grave collateral consequences, politicians from both sides of the aisle advocated for more prisons and longer prison sentences. Richly contextualized in Florida and the nation’s partisan and racial politics, the book takes readers through civil rights protests, lawsuits over prison conditions, attempts at sentencing reform, the advent of the War on Drugs, and the rise of conservative politics. By focusing on the choices made by politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, and activists, the book demonstrates that mass incarceration was not inevitable. It concludes that reversing prison growth will require changing political incentives and developing a new ideological basis for criminal punishment.