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Thompson and Hernandez: Historians and the Carceral State

june coverJune’s special issue of the Journal of American History focuses on “Historians and the Carceral State.” The issue’s contributing editors, Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Heather Ann Thompson, and Khalil G. Muhammad, have helped to assemble a collection of fourteen essays on the history of mass incarceration in America. Hernandez and Thompson have graciously shared their own path to this field of study, their goals for the special issue, and their thoughts on teaching the carceral state.

Heather Ann Thompson is a Professor at the University of Michigan. Kelly Lytle Hernandez is an Associate Professor at University of California, Los Angeles. Both Thompson and Hernandez are OAH Distinguished Lecturers.

What drew you to study this history?

Heather Ann Thompson: I must confess that I came to the history of incarceration totally by accident. More accurately, it was as if a light bulb suddenly went off in my head while I was working on a book on the Attica Prison uprising of 1971. I spent much of my life thinking about racial injustice and inequality, and had in fact watched the community I grew up in become totally ravaged by incarceration, yet I hadn’t thought much about the post-war’s punitive justice turn as its own subject of historical inquiry. Indeed, I came to Attica as a civil rights historian, rather than as a historian of prisons or justice policy. Suddenly, though, it became imperative to me to figure out exactly why this nation began locking up so many more people right after 1971—particularly poor, black, and brown people—and what this dramatic shift in justice policy might have meant for the evolution of post-war American history writ large. So, I set Attica aside for a while and began sorting through these questions—specifically thinking through the way the rise of a massive and increasingly punitive carceral state might have affected cities, the labor movement, and our democracy. The upshot of all of this was my JAH essay, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters” (Dec. 2010). Mostly, I saw that piece as a call to action—something provocative that hoped to get historians, particularly post-war historians, seriously consider the rise of the carceral state and to recover its origins and legacies. June’s special issue of the JAH reflects the incredible ways in which historians have begun to do just that—utterly transforming how we understand the entire American past through new studies of criminalization and the carceral state.

Kelly Lytle Hernandez: I grew up witnessing how the War on Drugs and immigration control devoured lives on the U.S.-Mexico border during the 1980s and 1990s. At a very young age, I began to wonder why: Why did Border Patrol officers stop buses, pulling off anyone who looked Mexican? Why did some of the people they yanked off the bus never return? Why did so many of my childhood friends weep on the schoolyard, missing uncles, parents, siblings, and friends who had been deported? Why did police officers break up high-school parties, sitting all the Black kids on the curb and inputting our names into a gang database? Why did our small Black community have a phone tree that rang anytime police officers took to the streets, shaking down any young, Black male who “fit the description?”

“Keep your sons home,” said the mamas down the of the phone tree, before my own mother passed the warning along, but an officer caught my friend in the summer of 1994, shooting him in the back and arm. As he struggled for his life in the operating room, the police took to the evening news and disparaged my friend as a drug dealing gangster when, in fact, he was Jehovah’s Witness and never drank, never cursed, was only guilty of running away from an off-duty police officer who accused him of drug trafficking. My friend lived, he sued, he won, and he can still tell you what it was like to smell his own flesh burn as bullets blast apart inside his body.

What was it about race, drugs, and immigration that made life so precarious for Black and Brown folks on the border? From a very young age, these questions swirled in my mind. Into college, graduate school and now as a professional historian, they remain with me although training, research, and a lot more living have broadened and deepened my search for understanding what scholars are now calling “the carceral state.”

What do you hope to accomplish with this special issue? 

Thompson: I am awed by the ways this issue of the JAH captures the amazing and exciting new literature on the carceral state. This new historiography is even bolder, more thought-provoking, and more comprehensive than I imagined it could be. And thank goodness because our students want to, and need to, learn more about this. Indeed, I see this special issue of the JAH as an extraordinary teaching tool for undergrads and grad students alike. Just as important, this special issue signals to the historical profession as a whole that we must always consider how the history of this country’s criminal justice system has shaped other histories in ways that we have not previously appreciated.

Hernandez: I hope that this special volume establishes the U.S. carceral state as a dynamic field of study for U.S. historians, I hope that it allows a wide range of U.S. historians to glimpse the impact of the carceral state on life both in the United States and beyond its borders, and I hope this volume stirs more graduate students and established historians to join the field. As an emerging field of historical inquiry, the carceral state is wide open and ready to grow both into and far beyond what we have been able to include in this volume. In other words, this volume provides an overview of some of the most exciting work being written in this moment, but there are still many more paths to follow. For example, what are the intersections between Native American history, colonialism, and the carceral state? What are the cultural histories of carceral normativity? Is a national synthesis possible, or is the carceral state regionally ordered? With more work, we will begin to unravel these questions and more.

How might we think about teaching the carceral state? What experiences have you had teaching these themes?

Thompson: My experience teaching courses on the carceral state is that it takes students on quite a journey—one that they do not expect and, often, one they initially resist. Usually they come into courses like these already quite certain that criminal justice questions are easy to answer, that there has been little change over time when it comes to society’s notions of crime and punishment, and that prison policy matters little to American society and history writ large. In short, if citizens commit crimes, then they get punished. Full stop. The more they learn, however, the more their long-held views explode simply from seeing for the first time how historic notions of what constituted crime and punishment actually have been. This is, I think, a bit mind-blowing for many of them. It makes them look at all historical questions with greater interest. It also seems to inspire them to think about present day politics more critically and analytically as well. This is all great in my view. Still, though, for me, the greatest thing that happened when I began teaching this subject is that I, myself, was forced completely to revise how I teach all of my other American history courses. Indeed, no longer can I teach Progressivism without asking students to think about criminalization in this period. No longer can I teach urban crisis without teaching the war on crime, etc. In my view, once we “see” the carceral state, all of American history looks much more complicated and interesting.

Hernandez: Ten years ago, when I first began to teach courses about mass incarceration and mass deportation at UCLA, I thought I would have to lift the veil for most of my students. I was wrong. My experiences with students have made clear that the distance between our campus and the nation’s carceral regime is surprisingly short. Indeed, many of my students have been caged, loved someone on the inside, or lost someone to deportation. Even at UCLA, at one of the nation’s most selective public universities, the carceral state penetrates the lives of students. Therefore, I find the students’ own knowledge and experiences to be useful entry points into the history of the carceral state.

Depending upon the size of the course, I have different methods for beginning each course by asking students what they already know about the carceral state. Whether I ask for written responses on note cards, clicker answers, or video journals, I always get very productive answers that tap into key themes in the history of the carceral state, such as homelessness and unemployment, drug/alcohol addiction, and undocumented status. Indeed, even if they have never been arrested, detained, or imprisoned, students have watched countless hours of carceral entertainment, grown up in a gated community, or lived in fear of crime. These students, too, have been deeply shaped by the carceral state.

With my twentieth-century U.S. history survey course, I do not thoroughly address incarceration until the “big bang” of the 1970s/80s but I do weave a carceral optic into earlier periods. For example, for the industrial era, I love teaching Amy Dru Stanley’s JAH piece, “Beggars Can’t Be Choosers,” which so elegantly demonstrates the marshaling of police force to manage seismic economic shifts and enforce middle-class cultural ideals.  For the Progressive Era, Khalil Muhammad’s book, The Condemnation of Blackness, offers a penetrating analysis of statistics and social scientific knowledge production. I will now also regularly assign the essays in this volume to enhance the carceral optic of, for example, the interwar period (see Jeffrey S. Adler), protest movements (see Edward Escobar, Robert Chase, and Kali Gross), and the rise of U.S. immigration control (see Torrie Hester). With these historical pieces now published, I will be better positioned to teach the carceral thread of U.S. history.