“We incarcerate African American men today at about 10 times the rate than at the eve of the ending of apartheid in South Africa,” said an award-winning political scientist.
Prior to Marie Gottschalk’s attendance at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, in San Francisco, she gave a lecture at San Quentin discussing parole policies, specifically the politics behind lifers’ diminishing ability to parole from prison, and California’s three-strikes law.
Gottschalk is the author of an exhaustive study on American prison policy, The Prisons and the Gallows.
This book chronicles the political forces behind U.S. retributive penal policies and the reliance on mass imprisonment as a solution for criminality.
Gottschalk identifies crucial relationships between interest groups such as victims’ rights, women’s rights, prisoners’ rights groups, and death penalty activists that are usually treated in isolation from one another, finding that some of their efforts end up bolstering the policy of mass incarceration.
Gottschalk claims that law enforcement interests have been subject to political and partisan winds. This has had a profound effect on the subsequent emergence and development of interest groups and social movements related to law enforcement.
Gottschalk’s long-term observation of crime rate trends has found no direct relationship to incarceration rates, noting that, “deviance is not a property inherent in any particular kind of behavior, rather, deviance is a property conferred upon a certain behavior by the majority or by the powerful.”
Gottschalk professes that the court’s hands-off approach to prisoners’ rights and prison conditions allows the public to disregard the incarcerated and easily dismiss constitutional/human right violations.
Gottschalk maintains that prisoners’ rights groups used to be as important as the civil rights groups, but has gradually faded because of eroding educational programs in prisons and the oppressive effects of overcrowding.
‘NEW JIM CROW’
Commenting on a film about California’s three-strike law, Legacy, Gottschalk said, “If the teachers do one thing, I say ‘show that film.’ ”
“One of the most interesting original books I’ve read,” Gottschalk said, “was Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow, finding that it thoroughly explains the consequence of today’s mass incarceration policies and the lasting effects of being labeled a felon.
Marie Gottschalk is associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of The Shadow Welfare State: Labor, Business, and the Politics of Health Care in the United States (2000).
The Prisons and the Gallows is the winner of the 2007 Ellis W. Hawley prize, Organization of American Historians.