Prison history is central to American history, Yale panel says

Caleb Smith
April 8, 2014

NEW HAVEN >> Mass incarceration has become the elephant in the room of modern American history, a panel of historians said Tuesday at Yale University.

It has implications for the way we examine politics, education, labor, the economy and race, according to the panel. Yet historians have barely started to analyze and interpret the effect of prisons on the national narrative.

“This is the story. This is the fundamental story,” said Heather Ann Thompson, an associate professor of history at Temple University. “There is no area this does not touch.”

The discussion, “Incarceration in America, Past and Present,” featured Thompson; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; and Caleb Smith, a Yale University English professor who is editing an edition of the earliest known African-American prison narrative. David Blight, director of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center, moderated the panel.

Blight started by noting that in New Haven alone, roughly 1,200 prison inmates return to the city from prison every year. More than 2 million Americans are in jail.

Examining the history of prisons is “deeply and disturbingly contemporary, to say the least,” Blight said.

Smith said the U.S. prison system gradually has shed its idealistic underpinnings as a system of justice and rehabilitation. Instead, prisons are seen as a source of security, to be managed as efficiently as possible.

“It’s a warehouse,” Smith said.

According to Muhammad, prisons also hew to a long history of racial criminalization of African Americans. From the sermons of Cotton Mather to today’s use of crime statistics, America’s ruling class has wielded the parlance of the day to make the jailing of African Americans acceptable.

It is no accident, Muhammad said, that in Alabama the percentage of blacks in prison skyrocketed from one percent in 1850 to 85 percent in the 1880s. It was the first generation after slavery.

“Part of the work that lies before us is a critical rethinking of America, as she is,” Muhammad said. “America’s prosperity has always been underwritten by this state of unfreedom.”

Thompson said a critical juncture for mass incarceration came in the 1960s. It is an irony of history, she said, that the passage of the Voting Rights Act coincided with the launch of America’s war on crime.

Historians need to delve into the connection between the war on crime and such things as the decline of the American public school system and the decay of cities, Thompson said.

Politics, she added, has been directly influenced by mass incarceration. Showing a map of Pennsylvania congressional districts, Thompson pointed out that eight districts only qualify as such because their prisoners are counted as residents. Yet those prisoners are not allowed to vote.

“Frankly, I’m not sure we’ve even begun to understand what the impact of this is,” Thompson said.

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