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Why Mass Incarceration Matters to Social Workers


“WHY MASS INCARCERATION MATTERS TO SOCIAL WORKERS …or… The Importance of Reckoning with the History of, and Wrestling with the Present-Day Impact of, the Carceral State on the Ground and in the Trenches

 with Dr. Heather Ann Thompson

Wednesday, February 29, 2012 – Columbia University School of Social Work

While social workers have always faced such challenges as the effects of poverty, abandonment, poor education, and lack of decent employers, and while inequality and injustice are deeply embedded in the fabric of our nation, it is crucial to note the ways in which the current crisis of mass incarceration has both informed and exacerbated the problems faced by America’s already most fragile communities.

 “From tampons to telephones to tasers – crime pays…for some”

Between 1970 and 2010 more people were incarcerated in the U.S. than were imprisoned in any other country. By 2006, the American prison population had increased more rapidly than had the resident population as a whole, and 1 in every 31 U.S. residents was under some form of correctional supervision, such as in prison or jail, or on probation or parole. Just as important is the fact that the incarcerated and supervised population of the United States was, overwhelmingly, a population of color. By the middle of 2006, 1 in 15 black men over the age of 18 were behind bars as were 1 in 9 black men aged 20 to 34. In the 35 years leading up to and including the tumultuous 1960s, the number of Americans incarcerated in federal and state prisons had increased by 52,249 people. In the subsequent 35 years that group increased by 12,662,435.

What happened to contribute to the carceral crisis that we have today? Dr. Thompson points to a phenomenon she calls the “criminalization of urban space,” a process by which increasing numbers of urban dwellers – overwhelmingly men and women of color – became subject to new laws that regulated bodies and communities in new ways but also subjected violators to unprecedented time behind bars.

“Mass incarceration undermines and distorts democracy and actually perpetuates radical right political philosophy”

To truly understand the large net cast by the existence of a carcel state, Dr. Thompson identified a myriad of arenas in which we can clearly see the repercussions of this crisis, including drug law policy, policing in public schools, foster care, unemployment, welfare policy, public health, political power, voting rights, and prison privatization.

 “The carceral state forces us to question our moral economy: you can’t maintain a business that is based on the pain and suffering of others”

So, what can we do about the carceral crisis?!

Dr. Thompson stressed that if we learned one lesson from history, it is that we cannot depend on the government to fix this problem. Change must come from a collaboration of efforts including 1) education; 2) advocacy and agitation; and 3) resistance, and the change must come from within the academy, within communities, and within prisons themselves.

By Stephanie Stroh


Dr. Heather Ann Thompson is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of African American Studies and Department of History at Temple University. A scholar of African American, urban, labor, political, and policy history in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s, her current work centers on the rise of the carceral state during this period and the devastating long-term costs of mass incarceration. She is currently writing the first comprehensive study of the history and legacy of the Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971 (forthcoming from Pantheon Books), a study that she hopes will recapture this dramatic and complex story and underscore the event’s historical and contemporary importance. Thompson, the recipient of several research fellowships and awards, has written numerous book chapters and scholarly articles. Her article “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline and Transformation in Postwar American History” (JAH, Dec. 2010) received the Best Article in Urban History prize from the Urban History Association. She is author of Whose Detroit: Politics, Labor and Race in a Modern American City (Cornell University Press, 2001) and editor of Speaking Out: Protest and Activism in the 1960s and 1970s (Prentice Hall, 2009). Currently Thompson is also consulting on award-winning filmmaker Chris Christopher’s forthcoming documentary of the Attica Prison Uprising.


Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History (pdf)

Criminalizing Kids: The Overlooked Reason for Failing Schools (pdf)

Why Mass Incarceration Matters to Social Workers (ppt)


1 Comment

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