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Alex Lichtenstein: Flocatex and the Fiscal Limits of Mass Incarceration

al_pictureAlex Lichtenstein teaches U.S. and South African history at Indiana University, Bloomington. His first book, Twice the Work of Free Labor (1996), which focused on the postbellum South, was one of a number of early studies of the carceral state. Subsequently his research has focused on labor, civil rights, anticommunism, and comparative U.S./South African history. But growing national attention to mass incarceration keeps bringing him back to his original concerns with the history of racialized punishment. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

His article “Flocatex and the Fiscal Limits of Mass Incarceration: Toward a New Political Economy of the Postwar Carceral State” appears in the June 2015 Journal of American History special issue on “Historians and the Carceral State.”

Could you briefly describe your article?

History rarely offers exact parallels, of course. Yet in the 1990s I wrote my book on convict leasing in the postbellum South—Twice the Work of Free Labor—with an acute awareness that the post-civil rights era might see a deployment of racialized punishment that mirrored the post-Reconstruction period. This, it seems, has come to pass. So when the editors of the JAH special issue on the carceral state asked me for a contribution, I asked myself if I could find an example of a regional political economy as closely tied to the evolution of punishment in our own era as I thought the New South was to the post-Reconstruction period. I hit upon the Sunbelt in general, and what I call “Flocatex”—Florida, California, and Texas—in particular.

Making this argument with precision proved challenging, I’ll admit. JAH editors and readers kept pressing me—don’t other states have even more skewed racial proportions of prisoners? Aren’t there other states with higher incarceration rates? This is true in some specific cases (though in the latter instance, at least, they tend to be in the South). Yet the case I seek to make in the article is that a confluence of factors have made Florida, California, and Texas exemplars of both the form and intensity of the modern carceral state. Collectively, they have been key “innovators” across the board: the dramatic shift from a therapeutic to a retributive model of punishment (California); the growing reliance on private prison contractors to expand capacity at low cost (Florida); and the massive increase in the infrastructure of punishment, and its dispersal across a new carceral landscape and economy (all three, but Texas in particular).

The creation of the carceral state on the foundations of a racialized system of punishment derived from the segregated South, and incarceration of a growing Hispanic population, appear conjoined in Flocatex. Moreover, while I argue that these three states seem emblematic of some of these national carceral trends, they also more broadly reflect a regional “power shift” (as Kirkpatrick Sale called it) that has characterized the development of U.S. capitalism over the past half century, and has in many ways come to dominate its politics. “Sunbelt” is the shorthand term for these transformations, and those interested in the particulars should consult the article. But the larger point is this: much the way I felt the convict lease system needed to be understood as part of a complex development of a peculiar regional political economy in the latter half of the nineteenth century, I think we can look to the economic and political dynamic of the Sunbelt for explanations of the massive over-reliance on incarceration as the defining feature of criminal justice—even of state social policy more generally—in the late twentieth century.  

How does your project speak to contemporary concerns about the carceral state?

Nearly 30 years ago, when I first began to study what we have come to call “the carceral state” the massive increase in imprisonment as a tool of social management was only in its infancy. At the time, the U.S. prison population stood at less than 400,000. I take only a bitter satisfaction in now appearing prescient in my worry that the growing over-reliance on incarceration threatened to replicate a pattern of racial reaction known all too well to historians of the “old Jim Crow.”

I believed then, and continue to believe today, that the American recourse to incarceration remains deeply rooted in the country’s historic patterns of racial exclusion, control, repression, and terror. This does not mean we can always find a clear and direct line between the preservation of white supremacy and privilege and the locking up of people of color; of course, the process is far more complex than that, often mediated through dramatic social changes (e.g., urbanization, deindustrialization) that might appear racially “neutral” on their face. That’s why my own approach to the history of the carceral state looks for shifts in regional political economy as a way to understand and explain changes in punishment—both in its form and its intensity.

Like most of the things I write, I do not see this article as definitive, but rather suggestive. Certainly one can see increased incarceration as related to the collapse of remunerative industrial labor for unskilled workers in the nation’s industrial heartland over the last generation. The political economy of the drug trade would seem another place to look. And while my emphasis on the Sunbelt privileges the rise of a certain kind of conservative politics—merging erstwhile Dixiecrats with free market Republicanism—rooted in the Sunbelt, recent scholarship points instead to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party’s response to the civil rights movement during the late 1960s as the key culprit. I am not sure I agree with this line of analysis, but it should make for a very interesting debate as we ponder what has brought us to the unsustainable penal juncture.

How can other historians best incorporate your work (and that of other historians of the carceral state) into their teaching?

Prisons and their history tend to be set apart from the main currents of U.S. history—out of sight, out of mind. As I note in my article, very few U.S. history textbooks even mention mass incarceration as an issue in their closing chapters. But the work of this generation of historians of the carceral state demonstrates that incarceration is everywhere—in questions of family structure, consumption, economic patterns, political representation, and of course, in the reconfiguration of race relations. So I guess it is a question of reminding today’s students that the prison—and state punishment more generally—is a central part of the world they inherit.