- DOWN IN THE CHAPEL: Religious Life in an American Prison by Joshua Dubler, and: THE PUNISHMENT IMPERATIVE: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America by Todd R. Clear and Natasha A. Frost
Two recent books agree that American prisons lost much of the patina of penitence, corrections, and rehabilitation from earlier eras. Joshua Dubler, a religious studies scholar, describes punitive-centered contemporary prisons as machines with [End Page 138] no such “ghosts” to animate their cellblocks in his layered ethnography of one week in the chapel at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford, the state’s largest maximum-security penitentiary. If prisons are no longer driven by earlier goals of reform, what justifies their regimes today? Criminologists Todd R. Clear and Natasha A. Frost posit that they are physical manifestations of the “punishment imperative,” a pattern of legislation and practices that includes long sentences for non-violent offenses as part of the war on drugs, determinate sentences as part of the response to the victim’s rights movement, and community monitoring that carries high risk of incarceration.
Clear and Frost ignore the first 150 years of US prison history when incarceration was comparatively rare. Instead, they peg the punishment imperative to a Nixon administration responding to the civil rights movement. They characterize the punishment imperative as a law and order social experiment with antecedents in the New Deal and Great Society rather than the earlier history of incarceration. The legislative onslaught between 1970 and 2000 included long sentences for non-violent violations of drug laws, enhanced sentences for repeat offenders, and surveillance-based community supervision with high risks of incarceration for even minor violations. Whether by design or default, prosecutorial practices and sentencing guidelines ensured that African Americans bore the brunt of this punishment imperative. This pattern predictably ran up the US prison population. Not content with locking people up, state and federal legislatures dealt a coup-de-grace during the Clinton era when formerly incarcerated people and their families faced restricted access to education, housing, social services, and employment. Drawing on Clear’s earlier research, the authors demonstrate that the current consequence is a criminal justice system that erodes public safety by preventing the public sector from lawfully supporting the growing number of formerly incarcerated people. Incarceration and the overall punitive approach, Clear demonstrates, tend to increase crime.
If neither reform nor punishment worked, what work do prisons accomplish? Clear and Frost point to what they call latent functions, noting Jonathan Simon’s insights on the political expedience of fears of crime for campaigning politicians. In addition, they highlight the analysis of Loic Wacquant, who situates mass incarceration within the historical and economic contexts of postindustrial job loss and the ways that prisons control young men of color. But most importantly, what makes punishment an imperative is the way that its steady march drowned out critics and possible alternatives. One consequence of the social experiment is that at the same time that the prison population increased, policymakers defunded a broad spectrum of non-punitive programs. According to the law and order logic of the punishment imperative, if prison-based therapeutic, educational, and vocational efforts failed to encourage people to stop breaking laws, then a punitive approach would. Policy-makers doubled down even as evidence mounted that the new approach offered no benefits—and many consequences.
But if prisons are now solipsistic machines that produce only more prisons and misery, how then might people live meaningful lives behind bars? Incarcerated people spend their time with one another in the dormitories, cellblocks, yards, and [End Page 139] pods with few prison-sanctioned social or cultural resources. Religious observance withstood the punishment imperative as a result of legislation and litigation, providing one crucial exception to an otherwise dull repetition. Although Dubler does not take the totality of mass incarceration as his subject and specifically resists broad generalizations based...