- City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 by Kelly Lytle Hernandez
Lytle Hernandez's Cities of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles is a study of the rise of imprisonment, broadly speaking, and the [End Page 124] buildup of Los Angeles's prison system, which by 1950 was the largest of any US city. The book makes significant contributions to US history, urban history, the study of race and ethnicity, and carceral history. Incarceration is foundational to Los Angeles; the city was literally built by convict labor, which was perfectly legal under the Thirteenth Amendment's dual provisions of ending black slavery while allowing the use of unfree labor as criminal punishment. As a scholar exploring race as a relational concept, I am fascinated by Lytle Hernandez's account of how the history of incarceration affected racialized groups differently over time—and how the development of Los Angeles remains, in the aggregate, a story about power, domination, and race.
Each chapter unfolds a story that explains how the carceral complex in Los Angeles expanded and shape-shifted in order to control whichever population had resources of labor or land that were needed at the time. The book spans three centuries, examining the workings of imprisonment at different historical moments, including Native American imprisonment beginning in the 1700s, immigrant detention of Chinese and moral panics over homeless white men in the late 1800s, the first cases of Mexican imprisonment and their connection to the Mexican Revolution, the growth and entrenchment of Mexican incarceration in the 1920s and 30s, and its overlap with the origins of black incarceration in the city. Starting with the first prison established during the founding of Los Angeles, and connecting the histories and experiences of racialized groups not traditionally examined together (including Native Americans, Chinese, Mexicans, blacks, and poor whites), Lytle Hernandez deftly demonstrates that imprisonment is much more than punishment—it is also a way of subjugating, plundering, and even disappearing groups not part of the settler colonial ruling class. Scholars have traditionally studied these histories separately, grouping them by time period, by distinct racial and ethnic groups, or by forms of imprisonment (convict leasing, immigrant detention). Lytle Hernandez's interdisciplinary approach, however, makes a compelling argument that they should be examined together, as all fall within the rubric she terms "caging" and the long history of white settler colonialism.
Reading this book at times felt like stepping through the looking glass. Through her painstaking research and capacious theoretical framework, Lytle Hernandez has an uncanny ability to take what we think we know and turn it on its head. The story of Los Angeles, for instance, is commonly told as one of four distinct time periods with little connection made between them: indigenous society, Spanish conquest, the Mexican period, and the US conquest in 1848. Using her carceral lens, Lytle Hernandez fills in those gaps, demonstrating how legal systems in one period were transferred to the next in ways that kept the racial hierarchy of the region intact. For example, the use of public order charges (e.g. vagrancy laws) during the Mexican period (1810–21) solidified the control and racialization of the indigenous population that begun decades earlier, while expanding that control to include Africans, mulattos, and mesitzos. As these populations were racialized and marked as unworthy of citizenship, the category of "criminal" was neatly mapped onto the racial categories of the time. Under American rule, these same vagrancy laws increasingly justified a captive native population who could be auctioned to the highest bidder or used for work on a chain gang. That this all occurred in California, a supposedly free state, is staggering. By connecting the time periods, a unique move, Lytle Hernandez uses a wide lens to demonstrate how the creation and enforcement of laws through policing and imprisonment was central not just for the policing of racialized and landless groups, but also for the...