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Lockdown America Revisited

A Conversation with Christian Parenti on Prisons, Policing, and the War on Terror

Interviewed by Bob Libal, December 09, 2005

Christian Parenti is a writer for The Nation magazine and has authored several books including The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq, recently available in paperback. His 1999 book, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in an Age of Crisis, was a groundbreaking text on the rise of the prison and policing system in the United States.

I spoke with Parenti in Ossining, New York in August about the history of prisons, policing and how the criminal justice project has changed since his book was first published.

Bob Libal: It's been over 5 years since Lockdown America was published. If you were to write a new preface to it, would you include anything new?

Christian Parenti: One would have to deal with the war on terror because that has changed the criminal justice project in many ways. It hasn't completely transformed it, but it definitely reinvigorated it.

Right after Lockdown came out in 1999, it almost seemed for a moment that incarceration rates were starting to plateau. There was definitely a mainstream, elite rethink underway about the crackdown. This was indicated by editorials in the New York Times and by big mainstream networks that did whole series on the horrible conditions in prisons and over-incarceration - really quite good documentaries.

And then came September 11. Since 9/11, there has been this whole new discourse of national security and that has reinvigorated the criminal justice project and re-branded the project of domestic repression. Even though most people are not arrested on terror-related charges, the war on terror has shut down that developing mainstream critique of the whole repressive project.

Libal: To step back a moment, we're here in Ossining, New York, the hometown of the Sing Sing prison. Sing Sing is one of the country's oldest and most infamous prisons. Maybe it's appropriate if we talk about how prisons became such a dominant factor in the lives of so many Americans?

Parenti: There are different causes at different times. The basic thing that I argued in Lockdown America, and would still argue today, is that policing and prisons in the United States, along with being about public safety, is also always about managing the contradictions of a class society that uses race and racism as its main ideological explanation for itself.

So that's what prisons have always done -- managed the exploited and excluded populations that capitalism produces naturally through crisis and produces artificially through policies that make people poor.

Libal: What was the thing that changed in the 1960s and 1970s that lead to the explosion in incarceration?

"I still have the same hope that I had before, that the war on drugs has gotten so broad and pulled in so many people that experience starts overriding ideology. So many people have enough real experience with criminal justice to not fall prey to the fear-mongering of the media and the ideology and discourse that come out of the media."

Parenti: What happened in the 60s and 70s is the whole political rebellion - the civil rights movement, the black power movement, the riots, the anti-war movement. And then very importantly the economic crisis that begins to take hold in the early 1970s.

The 1970s were years of class stalemate between the working class and the ruling class in the U.S. And the incarceration rates don't actually go up dramatically in the 1970s. The first act in the big post-60s prison and policing build-up -- because Lockdown America and the whole thesis of that book is not just about prisons, it's about the whole repressive project. So the first thing you have in response to the riots in 1968, which was a particularly bad year of rioting, you get this massive federal crime bill which creates the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration which is this giant federal bureaucracy which starts channeling matching grants to states.

States that become willing to invest more in repression themselves will get more federal money. This leads to a whole retooling and an ideological upgrading of the American policing project.

That stalemate is broken by Reagan and Carter. Carter appoints Paul Volcker. Volcker under Reagan sends the economy into a recession by raising interest rates at the Federal Reserve dramatically. This is called the cold bath procession, and it was done intentionally to lower the expectations of the American working class -- so that they would work harder for less, and so that their formal and informal political power could be smashed open.

And the primary way to do that was poverty and unemployment. So, poverty and unemployment were engineered in the early 80s. That helped drive down wages; unions were broken, expectations were broken, people started working harder for less. And then the economy could be expanded with deficit spending, which is exactly what Reagan did. But there is this perennial problem of what to do with the poor who were again very numerous and often showing up in the wrong places at the wrong times -- like homelessness in major cities. Then you get the reengagement with the repressive project through the discourse of the war on drugs.

The war on drugs was also a component in the first stage of the crackdown in the 60s, so you get this reengagement with the war on drugs in the 1980s with Reagan. And then you get another series of federal crime bills and throughout this -- even though most law enforcement is handled at the state level -- the discursive tone was set at the federal government by the federal government through federal programs that rewarded states that would spend money and change laws so as to beef up repression and punish states that did not go along with it by not giving them money.

So, that's the second part of it. And now we have this third generation which is really the war on terror which means that there is always more money for repression and all the old projects of controlling people who do not have jobs and show up in the wrong places at the wrong time, controlling immigrants. All that stuff gets reinvigorated by the discourse and funding of the war on terror.

Libal: There is an interesting debate about whether prisons are good for economic growth. Most of the recent evidence shows that prisons are bad for local economic growth ­ they slow long-term job growth in rural communities especially. Is this an argument that could be utilized to slow the growth of this industry?

Parenti: In Lockdown America, I took issue with the version of the Prison Industrial Complex argument that said that prisons are just about creating jobs. I said, no, this is about maintaining the contradictions of capitalism. The social contradiction is that capitalism needs poverty and creates poverty naturally and through policy, yet is always threatened by poverty because the poor organize. And, even when they don't organize, they can rebel in unorganized fashions. They at least undermine the legitimacy of the system and offend the sensibilities of the moneyed class. So, they have to be managed.

And that's the primary thing that the whole repressive project is and was about. Now to the extent that it can also stimulate economic growth somewhere, well, that's great for all the interests that make profits off of that.

That becomes the belief, whether or not it's true, of local boosters and the levels of towns and states. Because all they ever hear trickling down from the high priests of political discourse from Washington, DC all the way down to the local papers is that this works.

Libal: What do you see as the hope for rolling back the repressive project in the future?

Parenti: I still have the same hope that I had before, that the war on drugs has gotten so broad and pulled in so many people that experience starts overriding ideology. So many people have enough real experience with criminal justice to not fall prey to the fear-mongering of the media and the ideology and discourse that come out of the media.

Bob Libal is a student/youth organizer for Grassroots Leadership's Not With Our Money! Campaign. He can be reached at

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