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Building the Prison State

IPR's Heather Schoenfeld reframes the story of mass incarceration


Heath Schoenfeld Book
Schoenfeld examines how the politics of crime evolved.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized nation, with about 1 in 100 American adults currently behind bars, the majority of whom are racial minorities. With a price tag of $80 billion, the majority of Americans now think the United States incarcerates too many people. How did we get here, and what can we do about it?

In her new book, Building the Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration (University of Chicago Press, 2018), IPR sociologist Heather Schoenfeld reframes the story of mass incarceration as an enormous increase in the state’s capacity to punish, highlighting how the current situation cannot be understood without a clear grasp of the past. She traces how “localized and very decentralized” ways of punishing people became an “enormous state social control apparatus.”

Schoenfeld conducted an in-depth and comprehensive case study of crime control politics and policies in Florida between 1950 and 2016. A growing and influential state, Florida has one of the largest prison populations in the country. Drawing on extensive archival evidence and interviews with key stakeholders, she illustrates how the government’s ability to police and punish individuals grew due to professionalization, bureaucratization, increased funding, and eventually the building of more prisons. 

With federal funding, Florida policymakers modernized and centralized all aspects of the criminal justice system in the late 1960s and 1970s.

“Florida policymakers were reacting to the perception of the state as backwards and ineffective at governance,” Schoenfeld explained. “In part, it was to deal with an increase in crime. And in part, it was to deal with the racism that was endemic to local criminal justice institutions.”

This initial investment in the criminal justice system’s capacity to punish had many political effects, according to Schoenfeld, even changing how we think about crime control.

“It put the impetus on state lawmakers to control crime, even though, historically, local communities were responsible for handling crime,” Schoenfeld noted. “It also put crime control squarely within the criminal justice system, as opposed to institutions such as early childhood education that prevent crime.”

Heather Schoenfeld
Heather Schoenfeld

Schoenfeld also traces how the politics of crime evolved over time. In the 1970s, lawmakers viewed prisons as unwise investments because they don’t prevent crime. Schoenfeld argues that President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, which tied drugs, crime, and black Americans together as a winning political strategy, shifted state policymakers’ approach. 

“It came at a time when Republicans were trying to make a name for themselves in Florida politics,” Schoenfeld said. “Southern states had traditionally been dominated by Democrats. Republicans realized they could make inroads by responding to crime and drugs in the way that Reagan had.”

Schoenfeld makes clear throughout the book that mass incarceration was not inevitable. Policymakers had to make choices to build prisons to make it happen. In Florida, state officials built 130 prisons between 1970 and 2010. Schoenfeld said that investment fueled the politics of crime. 

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said. “We invest in prisons, then lawmakers turn to prison to solve social problems, requiring further investments.” But Schoenfeld sees some positive developments.

“We’re in a moment now where people are actually talking about reform,” she said. “Mass incarceration has become much more of a household term.”

Schoenfeld argues that reforms need to transform the political incentives for imprisonment and should be based on a new democratic theory of punishment.

“There was a moment in time when punishment was about rehabilitation, and then there was a moment where punishment was about control, incapacitation, and getting people off the street,” Schoenfeld noted. “It’s unclear what we are doing right now. We need to have a public conversation about what punishment is supposed to do.”

Heather Schoenfeld is assistant professor of human development and social policy and legal studies. She is an IPR fellow.