Utne Blogs > Literature

Book Review: Mass Incarceration on Trial


In Mass Incarceration on Trial author Jonathan Simon presents the evolution of how mass incarceration has been dealt with in the courts, specifically through cases brought in California.

While California had been one of the most progressive states in terms of prison rehabilitation, views of the incarcerated shifted in the 1970's. As crime became more of a problem nationwide, the perception of prisoners went from characters in movies like Cool Hand Luke to The Silence of the Lambs. This population was deemed a threat to society that could not be rehabilitated. And prisons themselves were structured as such. Instead of programs and services for the incarcerated, the focus became security and control. 

The first case Simon examines is Madrid v. Gomez in which mental health care in supermax-style prisons (facilities with security housing units or SHUs where prisoners are typically left in their cell for 23 hours a day) comes into question. In Coleman v. Wilson, the mental health inquiry is expanded to include the general prison population in California (not just those in solitary confinement). The third case, Plata v. Davis, broadens the scope further to the health care system within California prisons. Lastly, Simon looks at Brown v. Plata which questions the very legitimacy of the system of mass incarceration and resulted in an order to reduce the California prison population to 137 percent (in some facilities the rate was 200-300 percent over design capacity).


An important point that Simon makes is that mass incarceration is not just a problem of quantity, but also quality. Because numbers had swelled to such great numbers, the resources for and quality of treatment was greatly reduced. This was exacerbated by the care needed for chronic health problems which an aging population (due to longer sentences) requires and overcrowding which can increase the spread of communicable diseases. The rising number of people also meant that corrections officers felt more violent methods of control, such as "cell extractions," were necessary in order to manage inmates. 

Rooted at the heart of the cases is the 8th Amendment, which is intended to prevent cruel and unusual punishment. Getting to a definition of what that phrase actually entails has been a historical challenge. What each case accomplished was the expansion of prisoners who were seen as having been subjected to cruel conditions from the small minority of mentally ill in solitary confinement to the general population.

While the overall points that Simon makes are strong, he overlooks a couple of issues which are important. The first is the role that privatization has played in contributing to mass incarceration. With private companies profiting off of each person imprisoned, it seems like this would be a relevant consideration to touch on. Additionally, the plight of prisoners is at times framed as an issue pertaining to men. This ignores the fact that between 1980 and 2010, the number of female prisoners increased by 646 percent, and that the health care that incarcerated women need is often not provided or improper. Although many examples of human rights abuses against male prisoners are mentioned, none pertaining to women are cited (such as the forced sterilization of women prisoners in California between 2006 and 2010 which was attributed to overcrowding and medical negligence). Despite these omissions, this is an important book to read in order to understand how incarceration has become a human rights issue in the U.S. and the steps court decisions have made towards bringing dignity to prisoners. system itself. Furthermore the Brown v. Plata ruling, which reached the Supreme Court, advanced an important idea: not only must prison officials refrain from utilizing degrading treatment, but prisoners, despite losing their freedom, retain their dignity and should be treated as such.

Photo courtesy Henry Hagnas, licensed under Creative Commons