When I was in Utah, I got involved with protest culture. Utah's is distinctive; participatory democracy goes a long way in the state and many groups have successfully found ways to build awareness about their causes. It was exciting to find opportunities to express my beliefs in the public sphere, particularly as I became more aware of my own politics and values after leaving the Church.
I took a class called "Urban Crime" this semester. It was poorly titled; its focus extended well beyond the urban and I learned very little about crime. In fact, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what constitutes a real crime and what crimes are constructed by society for sake of maintaining order and reducing risk to the middle-class. That I came to conclude there is such a distinction is evidence, perhaps, that the crime part wasn't necessarily a misnomer.
The emphasis of the course was on incarceration. There are over 2 million people presently incarcerated in the United States right now; over 7 million people have been incarcerated. Up until very recently, historians have done little to explore incarceration and the punitive process in the United States. I read the works of sociologists, legal scholars, historians. I found their arguments very persuasive.
The penal system in America is, amongst developed nations, one of the most punitive in the world. Our systems of lawmaking, policing, prosecution, sentencing, and warehousing prisoners rest on racialized assumptions. The poor and the non-white are disproportionately punished. Politicians use crimefighting for political currency. A culture of fear has been built up, granting government carte blanche to prevent risk. The humanity of criminals and their potential to reform is, in many states, off the table. While there are those who do deserve to be in prison, it is taken for granted that every person in prison deserves to be there. The impact of incarceration on communities, partners, children, families is not a part of how we, as a nation, think about crime.
I point this out-- and give you this summary of what I took from fifteen books and probably as many articles-- because I recognize that I have developed this habit of blowing up my Twitter feed when a story pertaining to criminality or incarceration hits me a certain way. There are things I never noticed that are now everywhere. I am at the beginning of an activist moment. I will stake my career on it; I believe the system is that unjust. So bear with me this raised consciousness.
If you can get your hands on this month's Journal of American History, make sure you seek out this article. If not, check out the JAH Podcast. It will give you some insight into the import of this emerging field of study and the scholars influencing my thinking.