• Luis Argerich

“The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life,” writes Adam Gopnik in this week’s New Yorker. “Good reporting appears often about the inner life of the American prison,” he notes, and it’s true—it’s not hard to find journalism, or for that matter art or fiction, about any facet of the penal process: the criminal courts, prison life, solitary confinement. Sometimes the process is corrupted, but often it isn’t—it works exactly as it’s supposed to. Gopnik considers two theories about why the United States criminal system is so uniquely punitive. The first, the “Northern explanation,” looks to Philadelphia’s historic Eastern State Penitentiary, and a judicial system that “emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles.” The other theory is the “Southern explanation,” advanced by Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which holds that white supremacy is the inspiration for the growth of the prison system—that “mass imprisonment became a way of reimposing Jim Crow” in the wake of the civil rights movement.