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An Inadequate History of Incarceration

The history of prisons and criminal punishment is the history of some of the most brutal mechanisms of social control. It is also the history of the criminalization of poverty and the exploitation of the labor of people who were often just trying to survive.

Although imprisonment is included as a punishment in the oldest existing law code—the Code of Ur-Nammu from ancient Mesopotamia—it is only mentioned once, whereas most punishments were either death or material or financial restitution. In ancient Athens, jails were predominantly used for those who couldn’t pay fines or debts, but some philosophers were beginning to touch on the idea of jail time as reformatory for the prisoner instead of just being a punishment. Imprisonment in the ancient world up to the Middle Ages was also more commonly limited to dungeons, lower levels of buildings, or forced labor on ships or infrastructure projects, instead of discrete buildings built solely for the purpose of putting humans in cages.

Similarly, the use of torture has a history as long as imprisonment, and while its use has generally been as a means to get information or confessions, when combined with public executions, public instances of torture were theoretically meant to deter crime.

There seem to be large waves going back and forth between favoring incarceration versus bodily punishment over the long course of organized society, but Michel Foucault argues in ‘Discipline and Punish’ that by the end of the 18th and early 19th century, the spectacle of public torture and executions was losing its power, “as if the punishment was thought to equal, if not exceed, in savagery the crime itself.” This led to the concealment and bureaucratization of punishment to dilute the shame of being the executioner, along with a move from punishing the body to saving the soul—reflected in the word “penitentiary” itself: the place where the convicted do penance. This concealment is ongoing because even though the majority of inmates come from urban areas, 70% of prisons built between 1970 and 2000 were built in rural areas, with prison development marketed as job opportunities in economically struggling communities. Another side-effect of this trend is artificially inflating the populations of generally politically conservative, rural areas with prisoners who can’t vote, affecting the allocation of government resources and representation.

Another thread running through the history of the u.s. prison system is its inherent racism and classism. Within the same period, the criminalization of common social activities of working class European immigrants and the arbitrary criminalization of Black existence after the Civil War occurred. Crime was generally on the decline throughout the 19th century, but the burgeoning capitalist class who had the police in their pockets, sought stricter social control over workers, newly-freed slaves, and the otherwise poor and unemployed through public order and vagrancy laws. In the South, the convict leasing system helped satisfy the desire for cheap labor by former slave owners as well as the impoverished region’s inability to fund the construction of prisons. Both of these threads weave into the current fabric of the prison industrial complex through the overrepresentation of Black people in the system, who make up 13% of the u.s. population but 40% of the jail, state and federal prison population. An overlooked aspect of the racist nature of prisons is the vast overrepresentation of Indigenous people. In Minnesota alone, Indigenous people represent 1% of the population but 8% of the prison population. And regardless of their gender or race, the vast majority of incarcerated people fall well below the u.s. median income before they are incarcerated.

As the current wave—at least in the u.s.—has broken towards incarceration, the trend is also towards an ever-expanding and invisible system of surveillance and control whether you are currently locked up, released, have yet to even commit a crime, or are simply related to or know someone who has been incarcerated. This web traps people and then casts a pall over their lives for years after incarceration; depending on the type of conviction, formerly-incarcerated people can be prevented from voting, accessing various forms of public assistance, public housing, and can experience legalized employment discrimination. These conditions will often lead people right back to incarceration because they simply run out of legal means to survive.

There are so many other angles to go at the prison system, like the way it affects queer and trans people, people with mental and physical health conditions, the way we interact with the products of prison labor on a daily basis, the way the very people taken into the system by cops end up manufacturing equipment used by cops, or the ties that bind the prison industrial complex to the military industrial complex. And I haven’t even mentioned Quakers, the “War on Drugs,” or Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill! So please take some time to look into these issues on your own.

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