The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America

The First Civil RightAuthor: Naomi Murakawa
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2014

The explosive rise in the U.S. incarceration rate in the second half of the 20th century, and the racial transformation of the prison population from mostly white at mid-century to 65 percent black and Latino in the present day, is a trend that cannot easily be ignored. Many believe that this shift began with the “tough on crime” policies advocated by Republicans and southern Democrats beginning in the late 1960s.

Naomi Murakawa, associate professor in the Center for African American Studies, inverts the conventional wisdom by arguing that the expansion of the federal carceral state was, in fact, rooted in the civil-rights liberalism of the 1940s and early 1960s. Responding to calls to end the lawlessness and violence against blacks at the state and local levels, the Truman administration expanded the scope of what was previously a weak federal system. Later administrations from Johnson to Clinton expanded the federal presence even more. Ironically, these steps laid the groundwork for the creation of the vast penal archipelago that now exists in the United States. What began as a liberal initiative to curb the mob violence and police brutality that had deprived racial minorities of their “first civil right” — physical safety — eventually evolved into the federal correctional system that now deprives them, in unjustly large numbers, of another important right: freedom.

Afterlives of Confinement: Spatial transition in post-dictatorship Latin America by Susana Draper

Afterlives of Confinement

Professor Susana Draper examines the repurposing of prisons as cultural centers and shopping malls in her study of the manipulation of culture and consumerism under the guise of democracy.

During the age of dictatorships, Latin American prisons became a symbol for the vanquishing of political opponents, many of whom were never seen again. In the post dictatorship era of the 1990s, a number of these prisons were repurposed into shopping malls, museums and memorials. Associate Professor of Comparative Literature Susana Draper uses the phenomenon of the “opening” of prisons and detention centers to begin a dialogue on conceptualizations of democracy and freedom in post-dictatorship Latin America. Focusing on the nations of Uruguay, Chile and Argentina, Draper examines key works in architecture, film and literature to peel away the veiled continuity of dictatorial power structures in ensuing consumer cultures.

The afterlife of prisons became an important tool in the “forgetting” of past politics, while also serving as a reminder to citizens of the liberties they now enjoyed. In Draper’s analysis, these symbols led the populace to believe they had attained freedom, although they had only witnessed the veneer of democracy — in the ability to vote and consume.

Draper’s study of the manipulation of culture and consumerism under the guise of democracy will have powerful implications not only for Latin Americanists but also for those studying neoliberal transformations globally.

Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012 (Cover image and text courtesy of the publisher.)