Friday, April 26, 2019

Sara M. Benson's "The Prison of Democracy"

Sara M. Benson is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at San Jose State University and teaches at Oakes College at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Prison of Democracy: Race, Leavenworth, and the Culture of Law, and reported the following:
Page 99 marks the first page of the book’s final chapter. The chapter is about political prisoners and the various legal avenues that brought masses of political activists to the nation’s oldest and largest federal prison. These large groups of activists were members of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Black Twenty-Fourth Infantry, and the Partido Liberal Mexicano, who were convicted of violating wartime laws about mutiny and incendiary speech. The chapter is about how these forms of mass incarceration during world war one relied on long histories of punishing movements that challenged the prison’s hold on the idea of democracy, but these incarcerations also backfired—they led to cross-racial forms of solidarity at the very moment when prison officials sought to implement a system of segregation in federal prison institutions. Against this larger backdrop, page 99 imagines how these groups, who met and engaged each other in prison, had “known one another before.” These cross-racial forms of critical engagement and struggle were disciplined out of existence as the federal prison system emerged as a deeply racialized and segregated institution through prison programming and prison leisure—prisoners were part of segregated sports teams and were used as part of the prison’s disciplinary regime to inflict violence on other groups. The prison’s purpose was to make enemies of those who had once challenged together the prison’s relationship to democracy. Despite these efforts, these ideas about the prison’s relationship to solidarity and state violence culminated in a cross-racial movement in the 1970s that almost succeeded in bringing about Leavenworth’s end.

When the Bureau of Prisons declared that Leavenworth was obsolete in the early 1970s as a direct result of the organizing of prisoners across racial lines, the promise of closure was quickly replaced with the idea that Leavenworth could be made fit for democracy. Leavenworth’s revivification was part of the reconfiguration of the federal prison system at precisely the moment when mass incarceration was taking root. The book’s purpose is to challenge the idea mass incarceration is a recent moment in time; it is instead part and parcel of American statecraft and American democracy. It ends by suggesting that the exit from mass incarceration is not decarceration, but the reimagining of a theory of the state without a prison at its center.
Learn more about The Prison of Democracy at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue