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Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, by James Kilgore (The New Press, 2015). 272 pages, $17.95 (paperback)

Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, by James Kilgore (The New Press, 2015). 272 pages, $17.95 (paperback)

Book review by Russ Immarigeon

“Mass incarceration” has become a term that is quickly slipping into the everyday consciousness of ordinary Americans. In this welcome volume, social activist James Kilgore offers an excellent introduction to the emergence and emergency of mass incarceration. Overall, Understanding Mass Incarceration is a useful guide, for practitioners as well as observers of criminal justice, to this historical phenomenon.

Kilgore, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, served six years in prison, where he drafted three novels that have since been published. A frequent contributor to print and electronic sources of information on criminal justice reform, Kilgore is an educator who communicates easily and effectively with his readers.

Understanding Mass Incarceration describes the basics and the faces of mass incarceration. The statistics of mass incarceration are monumental and widely reported. Kilgore introduces them, but, more pointedly, he focuses on the relationship between the “Lock ‘Em Up and Throw Away the Key” movement and the growth of popular support for a rapidly expanding prison estate. He covers the “tough on crime” causes of mass incarceration, including the “wars” on drugs and immigrants, the “death” of rehabilitation, private prisons and the “school-to-prison pipeline” (another new term that is readily accepted these days). He also examines local jails, the often overlooked side of mass incarceration.

Kilgore reports on “the gendered threads of punishment,” namely the escalating effects of mass incarceration on women, their children and others.

“We often think of imprisonment as an individual experience,” he writes, “but the scale of mass incarceration and its concentration in poor urban communities of color mean that it is a social, collective process rather than one person’s journey through the criminal legal system.” As he writes further, “People who go to prison leave behind pieces of their lives – spouses, lovers, parents, other family members, friends, jobs, neighbors, businesses, property, accomplishments, and memories – a set of relationships with others in the communities from which they come. Because roughly 90 percent of prisoners are men, the vast majority of those left behind are women and children. Their experiences are seldom visible in our accounts of criminal justice. The experiences of the ‘other half’ outside the walls and the 10 percent inside women’s prisons are the gendered threads of punishment, as invisible to ordinary sight as the threads of our DNA but likewise powerful in their effects.”

Kilgore concludes his coverage with important chapters on “changing the mindset” and “organizing to end mass incarceration.” He suggests that we have to move away from retributive practices and policies. He proposes movement toward restorative, transformative and prison abolitionist perspectives. He also notes the need of organization to reduce prison (and jail) populations, lessen gender and racial inequities, and relocate prison (and jail) budgets to community-based services and programs.

Finally, Kilgore raises the critical issues of how reform groups or citizen activists represent themselves in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and class; align themselves, and work with, law enforcement agents, criminal justice officials and political conservatives; and define “genuine alternatives to incarceration.” None of these issues are resolved in this volume, but Kilgore has done good service in identifying them for a broad audience.

Understanding Mass Incarceration can be ordered from The New Press, 120 Wall Street, 31st Floor, New York, NY 10005,

 Russ Immarigeon is the book review editor for the ICCA’s Journal of Community Corrections; this review is reprinted with permission.