In a new, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America, historian Naomi Murakawa of Princeton University shows how the American prison state emerged not out of race-baiting states'-rights advocates nor tough-on-crime drug warriors but rather from federal legislation written by liberals working to guarantee racial equality, says The Nation magazine. More people are under correctional supervision in the U.S. than were in the Gulag archipelago at the height of the Great Terror; there are more black men in prison, jail or parole than were enslaved in 1850. How did this happen?
Ronald Reagan's Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which established federal minimums (a k a sentencing “guidelines”) and abolished parole in the federal prison systems, did lead to an explosion in the number of federal prisoners, particularly drug offenders. It was one of the pivotal moments in the production of the prison-industrial complex—the overlapping sphere of government and industrial activity that employs hundreds of thousands of guards, cops, judges, lawyers, bail-bondsmen, administrators and service employees and which sees millions of prisoners performing barely paid production labor to generate profit. As Murakawa demonstrates, the Sentencing Reform Act has a “liberal core,” and is built on the technical and administrative logic of racial fairness that structures all federal civil-rights legislation.