After more than a year of national protests calling for an end to police brutality, Matthew Lassiter, an associate history professor, decided University students might be interested in learning more about criminal justice issues in the United States.

“I think there are a lot of undergraduate students and graduate students who have gotten really involved and really interested in the history of mass incarceration … so I wanted to bring in two scholars who have written a lot about this topic,” he said.

On Monday, Lassiter moderated a discussion between guest panelists Donna Murch, associate professor of history at Rutgers University, and Heather Ann Thompson, professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, to discuss these issues in depth.

Sponsored by the Metropolitan History Workshop, the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and the Program in Race, Law and History, the event drew about 80 undergraduates, graduate students and faculty members.

Both Murch and Thompson are leading historians on topics such as race, incarceration, black power, civil rights, criminal justice and the war on drugs, and both have forthcoming books on these topics.

One important topic discussed was the difference between mass incarceration and the carceral state. Murch said the carceral state “entails multiple forms of surveillance, control and confinement … the carceral has to do with when state institutions take on a punishing function.”

“Mass incarceration is the symptom. The carceral state is the cause,” Thompson said. “We’ll have a carceral state even if we let a million and a half people out of prison and we go back to levels of 1970.”

The discussion also explored the rise of juvenile incarceration, and who is responsible for the policies that encouraged these incarceration trends, as well as mass incarceration.

The issue of mass incarceration is polarizing: some say it’s a result of policy shift in the 1960s and 1970s, while others say it’s due to a longstanding tradition of imprisonment. Some camps of social scientists argue the trend is a result of de-industrialization or under-policing of Black neighborhoods.

The event began with a short lecture by each of the guest panelists. Murch, who is considered a pioneer in the study of mass incarceration through a historical lens, spoke about the development of of research on the carceral state.

She said the group of historians working on the topic is very small, and research has been limited until very recently due to bias against the subjects of research, such as the Black Panthers.

“There’s been a profound shift, a historiographical shift, one might say, a political shift, that’s made it possible to write about radical anti-state organizations that was absolutely not true when I was in graduate school,” she said.

Murch was working on a book on the Black Panthers when she realized the history of incarceration is central to research on race and marginalized groups.

“It started out very empirically, with trying to understand why such large numbers of southern born migrants ended up in juvenile systems,” she said.

The study of the carceral state also has implications for other areas of study, such as research on crime and drug policy.

“It’s very difficult to write about a drug economy without dealing with the state apparatus of punishment,” she said.

Most recently, Murch has studied political mobilization in current social movements against mass incarceration and police brutality. She travelled to Ferguson, Mo. after last year’s protests, following the fatal shooting of an unarmed, Black teenager by a white police officer, to study the “explosion of activism” there. She said these kind of events are important for shaping how researchers reinterpret the period in which incarceration rates soared in the U.S.

Thompson began her discussion by agreeing with Murch’s assertion that many historians who study incarceration stumbled on the topic while studying other things. Thompson, for example, came across the topic while working on a book about Black activism and civil rights in Detroit.

“We all came to this quite as a surprise to ourselves,” she said. “I didn’t even see in my own book, which is fundamentally about police brutality and fundamentally about the carceral state … I didn’t understand what a carceral state was. I didn’t see the forest for the trees.”

Thompson also worked on a book about the Attica Prison Riot, which took place in the Attica Correctional Facility in 1971. While working on the book, Thompson realized the connection between civil rights and the increasing incarceration rate. She recounted asking of herself, “Well wait a minute, something happens after Attica. After 1971 we start to lock everybody up. What’s the relationship? Is there a connection here?”

She also noted that this body of research has been largely fueled by women and feminists, and that experts in this area have recently been called upon to educate legislators in Washington, D.C., an unusual request for historians.

One question she answered in Washington was how to accommodate the wealthy interest groups and corporations who, like legislators and historians, believe in decarceration, but disagree about what to do when this decarceration happens. She suggested funds be diverted from the prison system into social welfare, public education and other services that will help those most affected by the incarceration trend.

“I thought (the event) went pretty well,” Lassiter said. “We got some really good questions, including a number of really good ones from undergrads. We didn’t resolve anything today, but that’s not how historical discussions usually happen. The goal is to ask the right questions as much as finding easy answers.”

Clarification: Thompson’s discussion of decarceration has been updated for clarity. 

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