Cell Theory

A new book takes an alarming look at America's increasing reliance on prisons

Jan 31, 2001 at 4:00 am
We tend to like prison stories in which prison life comes to an end, either through death (as in Dead Man Walking) or escape (as in O Brother, Where Art Thou?). But prison life grinding on behind bars, day after gray day -- that sounds as bad as listening to somebody talk about his job. Only worse.

Christian Parenti is coming to town to talk about prisons. Uninviting as the subject might seem, he's worth listening to. His subject is not so much prison culture, though his book Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (Verso), has a fascinating chapter about gangs and rape behind bars. Parenti is concerned with prisons and culture -- American culture. He says that his talk will focus on the "origin of the massive buildup of prisons and policing in this country, trying to explain why with only 4 percent of the world's population we have 25 percent of its prisoners" -- and an annual operating budget for prisons that exceeds $20 billion.

In his book, Parenti approaches prisons from the perspective of the left, describing the underclass that becomes prison fodder as "the collateral damage of unchecked market economics." With a degree from the London School of Economics, Parenti is not just some journalist who has dabbled in Noam Chomsky. He can explain how economic policy creates poverty, and how poverty requires policing, in terms a conservative can understand. He also has the wisdom to acknowledge that talking about class struggle in this country tends to sound "either romantic or paranoid," though he avoids both extremes.

He writes in the voice of analytic history, with a few sometimes-jarring departures into firsthand reporting, mostly based in New York and California. The closest he comes to St. Louis are brief mentions of an effort to transform the campus of Tarkio College into a prison and the highly publicized abuse of Missouri captives in a privately owned Texas facility. Still, most of what he says applies generally to the U.S., including his helpful summary of police-state legislation from Nixon through Clinton.

Parenti's talk is followed by a screening of "The New Gulag: America's Prisons," a 30-minute documentary video by Kari Mokko, which seems to have been made by and for Europeans. In it, we see some interesting footage: "You don't have to know nothing," one warden says. "You're in jail, so shut your mouth." But we also suffer through a pointless interlude with a serial killer. Ah, a serial killer bound for slaughter -- that's the lurid sort of prison story we know. Parenti tells less glamorous, more crucial stories. It's good to know them.