Response to Professor Levad’s Review of Good Punishment?

[1] Whenever an author’s work is reviewed by an academic peer, a measure of collegial respect and thanks should be registered. This is so because the art of the book review (when offered with integrity, sincerity and a good critical eye) advances important discussions and debates related to human survival, justice seeking and flourishing. I therefore welcome Professor Levad’s taking time to review Good Punishment? and the editors of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics for inviting me to a conversation with Professor Levad’s review.

James Logan
[2] Professor Levad’s review begins by drawing upon Michelle Alexander’s vision of a new civil rights movement grounded in a conception of human dignity, which could “undergird multi-racial coalitions to address the injustices of large-scale imprisonment.” Levad affirms that, “If a movement like the one Alexander yearns for arises [Good Punishment?] will have made a significant contribution to the formation of a Christian vision of a society no longer marred by mass incarceration that can support the flourishing of all human beings of all races.” I think it critical that readers of Professor Levad’s review pay close attention to her important sentiment, if such a movement arises, since a vast majority of U.S. residents (and Christians in particular) continue to live life very far away from a committed, sustainable, and (I dare say) mass movement against mass incarceration/imprisonment, lockdown America, hyper-incarceration, gulag America, the prison industrial complex, or any of the other critical grammars employed to describe, explain, highlight, decry, and confront the vast, systemic, political, economic, racist, xenophobic, and class-based societal thirst to imprison outcast, subaltern, commodified, and surplus human bodies en masse.

[3] While Professor Levad finds the initial three chapters of Good Punishment? to be sound enough on the whole, particularly with respect to my discussion of “African-American populations,” she is worried that two areas of my work “could use more attention.” The first of Professor Levad’s concerns has to do with my employment of the term “prison industrial complex.” According to Professor Levad, the term has “received significant criticism in recent years, even among people who are deeply critical of the realities it describes.” She cites Christian Parenti’s reluctance to use the term, arguing, apparently in affirmation of Parenti’s stance, that “our increasing dependence on prisons has occurred independently of political fear-mongering and prison profiteering because of the need in U.S. capitalism ‘to manage and contain its surplus populations and poorest classes with paramilitary forms of segregation, containment, and repression.’” Another factor in Professor Levad’s concern regarding my use of the term “prison industrial complex” vs. “mass incarceration” is her claim, “Since the early 2000s, ‘mass incarceration’ has been used more frequently to describe the unprecedented rate of imprisonment and size of the prison population in the United States, as well as the ways in which imprisonment has come to focus on certain groups, or masses, of the population.”

[4] To this set of concerns I offer the following. First, the terms I (and others) employ in Good Punishment? to get at critical dimensions of the prison industrial complex include “large-scale imprisonment,” “mass imprisonment,” and, yes, “mass incarceration.” Secondly, and more constructively, I would contend that a conception of “mass imprisonment” (as so well defined in summary by Professor Levad drawing on Parenti) absolutely should not be viewed as being in mutually exclusive opposition to a critically important conception of the “prison industrial complex,” no matter what the usage “count” is on the progressive employment of both terms. Yes, perhaps (but probably not in my view) a convincing argument could be made around the assertion that “our increasing dependence on prisons has occurred independently of fear-mongering and prison profiteering…,” but how does this (very unlikely) possibility, even if true, make the term “prison industrial complex” obsolete? For this writer, the critical reality of “mass incarceration” is a prime deleterious aspect of the U.S. prison industrial complex. With regard to the issue of dependence and independence, I am hard pressed to see how, or where, the paramilitary management and containment of surplus populations and the poorest classes are ever independent of the powerful currents of political fear-mongering and prison profiteering. I obviously am in need of assistance from Professor Levad on this one. In any case, and this is a most curious matter, Professor Levad says that “mass incarceration, is “a term [Logan] never uses in the book.” Actually, as suggested above, the term is employed in Good Punishment? I am just at a loss with respect to this false claim.

[5] Taken as an interrelated whole, there are (at least) four causes I have outlined in my recent work summarizing the contours of the “prison industrial complex,” that is, a set of bureaucratic, economic, political, and media driven interests that encourage increased advocacy for, and spending on, mass incarceration: (1) the development of legislation (since the 1970s) requiring mandatory long term sentencing as a cornerstone of corrections public policy; (2) the nationwide declaration of a “war on crime,” specifically the “War on Drugs,” since the 1980s; (3) the economic profit generated by increased imprisonment; and (4) an ever-increasing social policy commitment to large-scale (or mass) incarceration as a tool of social maintenance and control. With regard to the issue of social maintenance and control, state authorities and the general public have become highly concerned (since 911) about the maintenance and control of alleged terrorists, and certain groups of “foreigners” and immigrants marked as threats to the nation’s security and advanced capitalist strivings. Governmental authorities, and the public at large, are also intensely concerned about containing the frustrations of the nation’s most exploited residents, those who must perpetually confront society’s most entrenched social ills (e.g., economic exploitation and underemployment, substandard education and housing, and various other social consequences tied to poverty).

[6] Defining the “prison industrial complex” in terms of the primary motivations which ground its existence, Angela Davis, in her 2003 book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, argues that

The exploitation of prison labor by corporations is one aspect among an array of relationships linking corporations, government, correctional communities, and media. These relationships constitute what we now call a prison industrial complex. The term “prison industrial complex” was introduced by activists and scholars to contest prevailing beliefs that increased levels of crime were the root cause of mounting prison populations. Instead, [these activist and scholars argued that] prison construction and the attendant drive to fill these new structures with human bodies have been driven by ideologies of racism and the pursuit of profit.[1]

[7] Davis goes on to say, regarding the usage-history of the term “prison industrial complex” (as Professor Levad correctly gleans from Good Punishment?) that it was the “social historian Mike Davis [who] first used the term in relation to California’s penal system, which, he observed, had already begun in the 1990s to rival agribusiness and land development as a major economic and political force.”[2]

[8] To sum up Davis’s understanding of a prison industrial complex, grounded in an iron triangle of economic profit, politics and racial ideologies, she argues, in her own words, that

The notion of a prison industrial complex insists on understandings of the punishment process that take into account economic and political structures and ideologies, rather than focusing myopically on individual criminal conduct and efforts to ‘curb crime.’ The fact, for example that many corporations with global markets now rely on prisons as an important source of profits helps us to understand the rapidity with which prisons began to proliferate precisely at a time when official studies indicated that the crime rate was falling. The notion of a prison industrial complex also insists that the racialization of prison populations [is not an incidental feature—and this is not only true in the United States, but also in Europe, South America, and Australia as well]. Thus, critiques of the prison industrial complex undertaken by abolitionist activists and scholars are very much linked to critiques of the global persistence of racism. Antiracist and other social injustice movements are incomplete with[out] attention to the politics of imprisonment.[3]

I stand with Angela Y. Davis on all this.

[9] Although terms used to describe, examine and confront the state of criminal in/justice in the U.S. should never be essentialized and are always in a state of flux and becoming according to their usefulness, both “mass imprisonment” and “prison industrial complex” continue, currently, to be highly useful social grammars.

[10] Professor Levad contends that her concern over my use of the term prison industrial complex is more than an “academic quibble”; it points to a deeper area of concern with the initial three chapters of the text, namely, “a lack of clarity in the history leading to mass incarceration.” Indeed, while Levad is right that “prison profiteering…could not have started the ball rolling toward mass incarceration (although the drive for profits certainly kicked the ball down the field in the later construction of prison policy),” she is seriously mistaken when she claims that I do not say how factors like “the war on Drugs,” “increasingly harsh sentencing practices,” and “a shift from rehabilitation to incapacitation and retribution” “historically preceded the rise of prison industries and private prisons.” While thoroughgoing historical accounts of these matters may well be inchoate in a book not primarily focused on explaining these important mappings, they are not absent. Nor are other critical Antebellum, Enlightenment, social scientific, philosophical, theological, political, and cultural antecedents of today’s racialized, class-based, gendered, and profit-oriented prison realities absent from Good Punishment?. Professor Levad’s concern here may well be more than an “academic quibble,” but I have not yet caught on to the profundity or truth of the assertions on this matter, especially since she goes on to suggest that I do make some inroads at doing exactly that which she claims was lacking.

[11] But, even where I go on to give an account of the historical roots of American penal practice (other than the prison industrial complex itself), Professor Levad worries that I have not done enough. A representative concern registered by Professor Levad is that chapter 3 of the text, “Prisons and Social Alienation,” gives an account of anti-Black White racism that, “Unfortunately…jumps from the late 19th century to the early 21st century, leaving his readers without a full picture of how mass incarceration continues to both perpetuate and depend upon fear of Black men (and increasingly, Black women).” She goes on to suggest that readers “fill out this picture…by supplementing Logan’s text with Michelle Alexander’s” The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Color Blindness, which was published two years after Good Punishment?. I offer two observations regarding these assertions by Professor Levad. First, chapter 3 summarizes the stigmatization and alienation of “peoples of color;” this includes attention to anti-Black racism from antiquity to the 21st century. Perhaps Professor Levad simply missed (especially) the section of the chapter subtitled “The Development of Anti-Black Racism,” which was itself preceded by brief introductory comments subtitled “Anti-Black White Racism and Alienation.” It is true, though, that whole books could, have been, and continue to be written about any of the issues I summarize in chapter 3. Nonetheless, the Professor is seriously mistaken about the time period covered in this chapter concerning anti-Black White racism and the developments leading up to it. I am puzzled.

[12] About Alexander’s text as a supplement to Good Punishment?, I am honored; yet the work scholars do should always be understood as in mutually supplemental relation to, and with, one another. Every piece of scholarship ever written (no matter how “definitive”) is, to greater or lesser extents, in need of “supplement” by other texts, conversations, discernments, and debates. This is a social-cultural truth for every human being who writes and associates among others from our various social locations. And it is on this point that I make my final set of comments concerning Professor Levad’s review of Good Punishment? (although so much more could be said). Professor Levad is concerned about my heavy focus on Stanley Hauerwas tied to a theological, moral, and political account of criminal justice. On Levad’s view, such a heavy engagement with Hauerwas obscures the vision of overcoming mass incarceration fueled by the power of a new mass movement. The focus on Hauerwas also has the effect of leaving too little room “in terms of practical responses to the prison-industrial complex,” and what alternatives that do appear “will likely seem incomplete and unconvincing.” It is important that I take Professor Levad and others (especially White progressives) seriously with regard to the kinds of latter concerns long registered about Good Punishment? Many years ago I noticed in my work that many young and not so young Christian prison abolitionists and reformers get charged by more evangelical and constructively theological types with an anti-prison advocacy that is poor (if not absolutely lacking) with regard to a sound and disciplined theological grounding. And, to be sure, most abolitionists and reformers on the streets and in academia say that they “couldn’t give less of a shit” about such criticism coming from those insisting upon a disciplined and systematic theological account of why and how Christians should take provocative action against the ravages of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. So I decided, at least one time, to take up this more theological challenge in the hope of challenging, and gaining, some of our more stagnant brothers and sisters who hide behind theological excuses for not putting their skins into anti-carceral practices and movements. At base, Good Punishment? was intended, from the start, to be a deeply theological treatment of U.S. imprisonment. For the audience I intended to reach I published with Eerdmans (rather than with, for example, Palgrave, Beacon, New York University, or some other university press). This primarily theology-seeking and -justifying audience is deeply attuned to, and powerfully receptive to, the work of Stanley Hauerwas. Thus I engaged Hauerwas for this and other reasons correctly noted by Professor Levad. Around a central theological-ethical focus I (for this particular book) offered mostly constructive summaries of the problem of U.S. imprisonment, and (for the most part) only hint at solutions. Indeed, I say plainly in the text that, I am only offering “a trajectory of what a Christian politics…might look like when practically applied as countercultural to contemporary prison practices.”

[13] Outside of the (syncretistically) theological ethical dimensions of the book, in discussion and debate with the bone-deep and highly influential theological ethics of Stanley Hauerwas, Good Punishment? falls self-consciously and admittedly short on offering truly robust solutions to the complex problems of crime and justice; this text does not attempt to offer “full picture” solutions, but it does point in important directions. With regard to Howard Zehr (my first undergraduate teacher of “criminal justice,” former co-worker with the Mennonite Central Committee, and family friend), I do understand that I have offered only a “sliver” of his work on restorative justice in this text. And, of course, this is true of my treatment of the systemic responses of others as well, as my central goal was to help place theology-hungry Christians who care about these matters on firm theological ground against others who want them on less helpful theological ground.

[14] Given Professor Levad’s apparent wish that her own academic sensibilities (indeed, from her particular social location) fold into mine, it would have perhaps been wise to offer a robust glossy of texts that offer more thoroughgoing concrete accounts of solutions, like Zehr’s classic Changing Lens: A New Focus for Crime and Justice; or Professor Levad’s own Restorative Justice: Theories and Practices of Moral Imagination, or Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, or the text I have reviewed for this volume of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, The Scandal of White Complicity in US Hyper-Incarceration: A Nonviolent Spirituality of White Resistance. I especially recommend the latter text to Professor Levad and all other White Christians who want to honestly and unflinchingly discern the invisible, innocence-laden, and systematic narratives of their complicity in mass incarceration.

[1] Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003), 84.

[2] Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?, 84-85.

[3] Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?, 85.

James Samuel Logan

James Samuel Logan is Associate Professor of Religion and Associate Professor and Director of African & African American Studies at Earlham College.