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February 13, 2011

"Mass Incarceration and the Paradox of Prison Conditions Litigation"

Thanks to the always great Prison Law Blog, I just discovered the very interesting article that shares a title with this title of this post. This piece is by Heather Schoenfeld in a recent issue of Law & Society Review.  Here is the abstract:

In this article I examine how prison conditions litigation in the 1970s, as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, inadvertently contributed to the rise of mass incarceration in the United States.  Using Florida as a case study, I detail how prison conditions litigation that aimed to reduce incarceration was translated in the political arena as a court order to build prisons.  Drawing on insights from historical institutionalist scholarship, I argue that this paradox can be explained by considering the different historical and political contexts of the initial legal framing and the final compliance with the court order.

In addition, I demonstrate how the choices made by policy makers around court compliance created policy feedback effects that further expanded the coercive capacity of the state and transformed political calculations around crime control.  The findings suggest how “successful” court challenges for institutional change can have long-term outcomes that are contrary to social justice goals.  The paradox of prison litigation is especially compelling because inmates' lawyers were specifically concerned about racial injustice, yet mass incarceration is arguably the greatest obstacle to racial equality in the twenty-first century.

February 13, 2011 at 09:03 PM | Permalink


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Given that the majority of crimes are intra-racial, how, pray tell, does mass incarceration create an obstacle to racial equality? Blowing off black on black crime would be a problem as well, wouldn't it? Is there a Goldilocks standard at work? Not too much, not too little, but just right?

Posted by: federalist | Feb 13, 2011 9:45:50 PM

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