Book Review: “American Purgatory” — Prison as a Form of Social Control
By Bill Littlefield
American Purgatory is the sort of book reactionary politicians and organizations are trying to ban. It’s full of evidence that many of the attitudes and conditions prevalent in this country from its founding were racist, bigoted, even genocidal.
American Purgatory: Prison Imperialism and the Rise of Mass Incarceration by Benjamin Weber. The New Press, 284 pages.
Much of American Purgatory is concerned with the practice of incarceration over the years in places other than the United States. Benjamin Weber, an assistant professor at the University of California at Davis, demonstrates that the exercise of colonial control and the commitment to a prison industry are historically linked. As Weber puts it, “Slavery and empire shaped nineteenth-century federal penal policy.” His examination of the policies in place today in the US and in territories this nation once controlled or still controls demonstrates that current conditions in jails, prisons, and work camps reflect and repeat that history.
American Purgatory is the sort of book reactionary politicians and organizations are trying to ban. It’s full of evidence that many of the attitudes and conditions prevalent in this country from its founding were racist, bigoted, even genocidal. The treatment of enslaved people and indigenous people arose from the conviction, sometimes baldly stated, that such people were incapable of assuming responsibility for themselves and that, left to their own devices, they were a real and present danger to white people. The responsibility of those blessed with the intellectual and moral strength of mind necessary to advance civilization — that is, white people — was to assume control over the lesser races, which often meant removing them from their homes and family members, incarcerating them, working them to benefit the wealth of their alleged benefactors, or all of the above. Sometimes it meant slaughtering them or looking the other way when they were lynched. Reactionary politicians and organizations maintain that reading about historical facts like this will cause children to hate themselves or each other. It’s an attitude that insults the intelligence of children and other potential readers and denies the power of history to inform the attempt to develop rational, compassionate attitudes and policies alternative to the vicious beliefs and practices of earlier Americans in control of various systems.
One contemporary target of American Purgatory is the current system of incarceration in this country, characterized, as Weber writes, by “sentences that transport people to distant federal prisons, farther away from family, friends, and networks of support.” In previous decades, indigenous people were uprooted and then marched to hopeless locations where they were forced to live in heinous circumstances. Government officials could then conveniently point to the demeaning conditions — which they had created — to allege that those indigenous people were incapable of taking care of themselves.
Like others writing about the impact of colonization, imperialism, and empire building, Weber points out that these endeavors “work to decivilize and brutalize the colonizer by stoking violence, race hatred, and moral relativism.… the colonizers themselves become the animal.” Weber applies this contention not only to historical attitudes and US practices in Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Panama, for example, but to “US prison imperialism” today, which is characterized by “not only the highest incarceration rate” but also “the largest prisoner transportation system in the world.”
Readers familiar with current literature about incarceration in this country will recognize some of Weber’s researched claims. His discussion of “net-widening,” for example, is similar to criticisms elsewhere of the systems of parole and probation. But American Purgatory also demonstrates that the most persistent and pernicious aspects of the current system of incarceration — “the process of extending social control thorough the carceral system, often in the name of reform” — are “rooted in the colonial logic of prison imperialism.” His historical analysis is critical to an understanding of how the current system came to be, and why and how it must be abolished.
Bill Littlefield volunteers for the Emerson Prison Initiative. His most recent novel is Mercy (Black Rose Writing, 2022)