Contingencies and the reformer imagination

At the States of Incarceration exhibit launch we participated in a breakout group that considered ways that we can effect change in the mass criminalization/incarceration system. Activists tend to see change happen as a result of direct action. Obviously, it sometimes does in dramatic ways, but I think that most historical change can’t be understood without considering contingent factors. As a historian, I am primed to look for those contingent factors and place great weight on their influence over events.

Chain gangs building highways in 1920s North Carolina, for instance, happened not because criminal justice systems sought particularly cruel ways to continue systems of racial control (those were already in place in the larger legal system.) Chain gangs were a response to the introduction of the automobile, increased commercial activity in the textile south, tourism, and the failure of nineteenth century models of roadbuilding in the face of twentieth century demands. They were a contingent solution to a new problem. (They were not cheap labor, btw, but actually cost more than the old convict leasing system.) Counties operated chain gangs and humanitarian reformers in state government spent more than a decade crying for change. But change did not happen. What did happen, however, was the Great Depression. Counties could not sustain their expensive roadbuilding operations and the state Highway Department took over, placing hundreds of prisoners into the hands of those reformers. They eventually phased out the system. (Ironically, chain gangs in the 1920s had been bi-racial, but the very same reformers who moved prisoners from roads to farms also segregated them.) So, while many people see chain gangs as bracketed by slavery/Jim Crow and mass incarceration, it is also useful to see them as bracketed by the Model T and the Great Depression.

What contingent factors will shape (maybe for the better, but probably not to our satisfaction) the future of mass incarceration if not direct action? What will digital technology do? A supreme court case? An embezzlement scandal inside the Corrections Corporation of America? A Wall Street implosion? A collapsed labor market? Rising sea levels?

All this is that say that this is a good example of what I’m talking about. Legal scholar John Rappaport says that police departments may be indifferent to calls by BlackLivesMatter and other activists to do something about police brutality and the shooting of black people. But they cannot ignore the liability insurance industry that is imposing training and accountability on police departments that virtually no other citizen group or government oversight committee can seem to do.

Will it stop police misconduct? Who knows, but in our collective reformer imagination, we should keep up the pressure but look for and embrace the unexpected.

This is a historical thinking skill.


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