Kelly Lytle Hernandez, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2017).
First and foremost, Kelly Lytle Hernandez is a consummate researcher. She digs and digs and travels to dig into history and facts. What she has discovered and put together is a trail of inhumanity. She spent seven years in what public records remain and pulled together the facts and added into them the stories of people who lived those facts.
Her thesis: “Mass incarceration is mass elimination.” You might jump to the conclusion that she refers to the sick and dying at the US borders today, but actually she traces our inhumanity back, back to the conquest of Natives in California. It is a grizzly and disgusting history, but one she has uncovered from the few court documents that remain (as late as 1910, US courts hid or burnt evidence). She read newspapers, diaries, advertisements for overseers, etc. What she has uncovered is the continuous web that subjugated “the other” from the settlers of California.
At the end of her scholarship, she concludes that “Incarceration is a social institution.” That is, society has known about and allowed incarceration as a deliberate means for eliminating people they don’t want: usually people of color, but also people with different religion, different language, different work ethic. You name it, American settlers hated it unless it represented their values or they were able to exploit it under a veneer of polite “you clear the land, please.”
Horrible history. I kept wanting to put the book down, deny what she revealed, maybe wash my hands or even take a bath. But my superficial cleansing wouldn’t help those hapless souls she chronicles.
Today the USA has the largest system of human incarceration in the world.
Think about 1850-60, when sheriffs in Los Angeles actually auctioned off Natives for “disorderly conduct” and the temporary owners forced them to clear land and lay roads… but paid them in alcohol so they were drunk and disorderly that weekend and could be arrested and auctioned off for indentured labor the next week.
Thank abut those humans described as “human parasites” of an “outcast world” that was white unemployed “hobos” who wintered in LA but were kept incarcerated because “the evils in the low life are contagious.” They were forced into labor too, because the 13th Amendment has a loophole about slavery, which is that slavery is legal for the punishment of crime.
Hernandez follows American incarceration through the 1892 Geary Act, which pulled Chinese into both detention and exportation. No one, it seems, is free from the American thirst for exploitation.
She concludes her detailed, careful investigation of incarceration with a rich and fascinating set of stories from her “Rebel Archive.” They are the current rebels who are fighting against the tide of incarcerating: an articulate and emotional community action network codirector; a leading youth voice to end mass incarceration; a codirector and abolitionist of a statewide coalition to connect incarceration to the toll on taxpayers and on families; a professor and organizer with Black Lives Matter—Los Angeles; a formerly incarcerated youth working to dismantle the system we call ‘social criminal justice.” These are not easy interviews to read; the voices are real and raw and will make you want to jump up and fight.
That’s the point.
She is appropriately and historically critical of Pres. Obama and his inactions. “The reality was that no one will free us but us.”
Read this book and then jump up and fight.