Good books to read Part III

Part I

Part II

The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America — Naomi Murakawa

  • It has been well established in public discourse that conservative politicians are to blame for this age of Mass Incarceration. From Nixon’s law & order rhetoric, to Reagan’s War on Drugs, conservatives have consistently been demonized as the culprits of the incarceration boom. This book tosses those premises out the window and reconceptualizes the political framework that built mass incarceration. Murakawa traces the development of postwar liberalism to the growth of the budding carceral state as complicit co-dependent phenomena. By analyzing several Democratic crime bills it becomes evident that liberal law & order ideologies were just as harsh and unforgiving as conservative ideologies. Murakawa offers case studies of the Truman & Johnson administration’s, as well as the prison riots of the 1970’s, to demonstrate that democratic stakeholders pushed for punitive responses as much as, if not more than, their conservative counterparts. While parts of the book seem to deviate from the theme the title would suggest, it remains a well-rounded analysis that challenges commonly held assumptions about who laid the tracks for the carceral state we live in today.
  • Deadly Justice is a comprehensive examination of our modern experiment with the death penalty that leaves readers feeling queasy. In 1972, the Supreme Court invalidated all existing death penalty laws in the landmark decision Furman V. Georgia. At the time the Court highlighted the arbitrary and capricious nature of capital punishment that made it constitutionally impermissible. Four years later, in Gregg V. Georgia (1976) the Court approved a system with special guidelines to reduce the problems earlier identified. This book takes up the question of whether the new system has worked as intended, or if the law in action still operates with elements of bias and arbitrariness. The empirical focus of the book provides undeniable evidence that not only do the vast majority of the issues that instigated Furman still exist, but a myriad of new problems have arisen as well. The new features of capital punishment include; costliness, botched lethal injections, decades of delay, geographic concentration in just a few jurisdictions, high rates of reversal, last minute stays of execution, and the proliferation of inmates with mental illnesses on death row. Deadly Justice proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the modern death penalty is even more unconstitutional than its historical predecessor, and efforts to repair the system have failed miserably.
Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons around the World — Baz Dreisinger
  • Comparative prison analyses are intriguing on a number of levels, but few accounts dive as deep as Incarceration Nations. Dreisinger takes readers on a journey to prisons around the world to expose them for what they really are: global hellholes. In Brazil we learn about their use of solitary confinement to break inmates. In South Africa we witness the potential of mercy in criminal justice systems with an emphasis on truth and reconciliation. In Uganda we see how art is used to help inmates externalize their trauma and make peace with their situation. Throughout the book Dreisinger recites unbelievable anecdotes that showcases the range of intelligence & humility in the face of dehumanization and brutality. The book ends on a cheery note by illuminating the potential for restorative justice practices that repair broken individuals and communities. This book is a much-needed exercise in empathy
When Police Kill — Franklin Zimring
  • World renown criminologist Franklin Zimring is back with his new book that examines police use of lethal force. Readers are immediately faced with the striking realization that the government doesn’t collect reliable statistics on such encounters. Journalists & scholars often pick up the slack, so Zimring first sets out to synthesize the different counts of Americans shot and killed by police. The data of over 1,000 police shootings in 2016 paints a recurring picture. When officers feel threatened, particularly when they are alone or fear a gun may be involved, they are more likely to fatally shoot a citizen. Zimring theorizes that 50-80% of police shootings can be eliminated with more restrictive administrative guidelines on when officers can or should use lethal force. In his words, “1,000 shootings a year are not the unavoidable result of community conditions or of the nature of policing in the United States.” Zimring proceeds to recommend additional policies that could be adopted to further reduce the prevalence of police shootings. Ostensibly the preservation of civilian lives is the ethos of policing, but this mission needs to be reinvigorated. Racial violence in policing is not simply an administrative problem. This important work cuts through data to provide the reader with a detailed understanding of why police kill & what can be done to save lives.
Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson — George Jackson
  • Soledad Brother is the testament of black activist George Jackson written from 1964-1970. Identified as a black militant by prison administrators, Jackson was ultimately gunned down by prison guards following an unsuccessful escape attempt at San Quentin State Prison. (James Baldwin famously remarked, “No black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did.”). Initially incarcerated on a one year to life indeterminate sentence, Jackson was continuously denied parole and housed in solitary confinement for seven of his eleven years behind bars. Marxist and Maoist thought heavily influenced Jackson, and this message comes through with every letter. His calls to action centered on tearing down the deeply rooted racial power inequalities in society. Most of the early letters are written to his parents, and the reader accompanies Jackson as he becomes increasingly incendiary. His chilling reflections tell the story of a young man who was sick and tired of being sick and tired (to borrow Fannie Lou Hamer’s refrain). One of his last letters from the summer of 1970 is an apt example of his style:
  • “At these moments I feel a thrill of promise, but that’s only for a moment, the rest of the day is elevated to the pledge I made to myself, a compact that I would never live at ease as long as there was or is one man who would restrict my and your self-determination.
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx — Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
  • My goodness, folks. This book right here sticks with you for a very, very long time. As the title would suggest, Random Family is a coming of age true story of four primary subjects growing up in the Bronx. LeBlanc immersed herself in their lives for eleven years to compile this masterful work that is chalked full of acutely distressing transgressions. Themes of teenage pregnancy, drug dealing, violence, poverty, prison, and inter-generational trauma are present at all times. Flip to any page of this book, and that alone would contain enough drama to produce a feature film or its own book. The life narratives we follow are gripping, ruthless, and heartbreaking. It’s truly shocking how remarkable life events are passed off as unremarkable and ordinary to the central characters. Transparent observations beget incredibly detailed accounts which allows the reader to experience the trials and tribulations of life in the modern ghetto. The common adage that people are products of their environment takes on a sudden urgency while reading this book. An example of LeBlanc’s enthralling style:
  • “Prison was the fulfillment of the empty promises of the ghetto: It positioned you even further out on the margin of things. Cesar’s ability to sustain vital relationships in the outside world could wither with each passing year. He didn’t have the resources he did on the outside — spotless sneakers, brand new clothes, his sexual prowess, different girls to impress and experience. Roxanne wasn’t suited for the long haul; he’d yet to see their baby, and her explanations felt like excuses. Coco wanted to make the effort, but she was disorganized and easily distracted. “You try to fill your little black book,” Cesar said. “You’re gonna need a lot of spare tires throughout this ride.”
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