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The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America, By Marie Gottschalk, Cambridge University Press, 451 pp.

Book review by Silja J.A. Talvi

It should no longer be a matter of any debate that the American trajectory toward mass incarceration is the result of an approach toward social control that relies, almost exclusively, on the callous warehousing of our most vulnerable citizens.

Our nation is hardly unique in its willingness to imprison the poor, marginally employed, and undereducated. Indeed, from the standpoint of governmental social control, it stands to reason that marginalized and unprivileged youth and adults would be the most likely candidates to be imprisoned. Removed from the public eye, most prisoners are rendered unseen and unheard in physical environments ripe for constitutional and human rights violations of all kinds. When the weighty factors of racism, xenophobia, sexism, and pervasive hostility toward the mentally ill are added to the mix, the likelihood of arrest and/or incarceration during one’s lifetime—as well as the likelihood of experiencing abuse behind bars—are increased exponentially. Although every Western nation can lay claim to the deprivation of physical freedom as a method of punishment, a combination of historical and political factors have created a particularly severe and senseless phenomenon of large-scale incarceration in the United States.

In her latest book, The Prison and the Gallows, University of Pennsylvania political science professor Marie Gottschalk rightly asserts that the last three decades of American history have borne witness to a carceral state unlike any other. “Three features distinguish the U.S. carceral state,” she writes,” the sheer size of its prison and jail population; its reliance on harsh, degrading sanctions; and the persistence and centrality of the death penalty.”

Gottschalk possesses a distinctly academic and passionate method of analysis in order to explore both the historical and political underpinnings of the American prison system. “Crime and punishment have been integral to the history, politics, and identity of the United States,” she writes,” right back to the voyage of Columbus, whose crew of ninety included at least four convicts.”

Throughout The Prison and the Gallows, Gottschalk intersperses strong writing with a succinct sweep of early American methods of punishment. Of particular emphasis is this nation’s lingering proclivity for vengeance and retribution, combined with a persistent, hypocritical zeal for execution. Anointed with life-and-death power over people’s lives, and emboldened with the power of the noose, the gun, or the electrocution switch, even self-avowed practitioners of Christ’s compassionate teachings have had no problem finding their own logical and religious loopholes to support the murder of captives.

While much of this context will be familiar to well-versed readers, Gottschalk digs up disturbing and relatively unfamiliar details. A champion of the ideals of the late 18th century Enlightenment Era, for instance, the slave owning Thomas Jefferson had no trouble expressing his hatred for the ‘criminal’ element of society. In 1779, Jefferson proposed modifying Virginia state law to castrate men convicted of rape or sodomy—the latter applicable then, as now, to all manner of ‘deviant’ sexual practices in several Southern states. Most disturbingly, Gottschalk discovers that the founding father recommended that punishment of a woman found guilty of ‘sodomy’ should consist of a hole drilled into her nose “at least a half-inch in diameter.”

Some of Gottschalk’s extrapolations about the race toward mass incarceration in the late 20th century are not treated with the same care as her analysis and description of punishment and prison in early American history. In The Prison and the Gallows, the author argues the women’s rights movement has significantly influenced regressive law-and-order policies. “[A] Commitment to greater gender equality by reducing rape and domestic violence got funneled through a specific political and institutional context and got transformed in the process,” she writes in her conclusion.

While some of Gottschalk’s points about the political co-optation of the victim’s rights movement by law-and order-minded politicians are well taken, her general indictment of the feminist movement (including the movement to confront the prevalence of domestic violence) comes across as an unconvincing and distracting component of an otherwise compelling and illuminating book. The Prison and the Gallows is available from PLN for $28.99.

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