The Rise of Mass Incarceration: An Interview with Chris Muller and Alex Roehrkasse

Alex Roehrkasse and Chris Muller

On this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Julia Sizek spoke with two UC Berkeley scholars whose work focuses on explaining how mass incarceration has changed over the last 30 years.

Alex Roehrkasse is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Butler University. He studies the production of racial, class, and gender inequality in the United States through violence and social control. He was previously a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Sociology at Duke University and at the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect at Cornell University.

Christopher Muller is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies the political economy of incarceration in the United States from Reconstruction to the present. He is particularly interested in how agricultural labor markets, migration, and struggles over land and labor have affected incarceration and racial and class inequality in incarceration. His work has been published in journals such as the American Journal of Sociology, Demography, Social Forces, and Science

Listen to the podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

Podcast Transcript


The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Hello and welcome to the Matrix Podcast, recorded here in the matrix office. I’m Julia Sizek, your host. And our guests today are Chris Muller and Alex Roehrkasse. Alex Roehrkasse is an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Butler University. He studies the production of racial class and gender inequality in the United States through violence and social control.

Chris Muller is an assistant professor of sociology at Berkeley. He studies the political economy of incarceration in the United States from reconstruction to the present and specifically, the relationship between incarceration and agricultural labor markets migration and struggles over land and labor. Their work together has focused on explaining how mass incarceration has changed during the transition from the 20th to the 21st century. Thanks for coming on the podcast.

Chris Muller: Thanks for having us.

Alex Roehrkasse: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Sizek: So let’s get started by just trying to understand the big problem that’s at the center of your collaborative research, which is how mass incarceration has changed over the last 30 years. What motivated you to take on this topic?

Muller: Yeah, it’s a really good question. So I think it’s useful for us to step back and try to define mass incarceration. So there isn’t complete agreement about how to define mass incarceration. But I think the most influential definition comes from the sociologist David Garland.

So Garland argues that mass incarceration is defined by two main features. The first is a scale of incarceration that’s unusual in both historical and comparative terms. And so this fits the US case because its incarceration rate is so extreme both in comparison to similar countries and in comparison to its past.

So from 1970 to 2010, the US imprisonment rate rose from roughly 100 per 100,000 people to roughly 500 per 100,000 people. And if you count people in jails, that number gets even higher, about 700 per 100,000 people. And so that makes the US a vast outlier with respect to comparable countries.

The second feature of mass incarceration that Garland focuses on is what he calls the social concentration of incarceration. And in the US, what he’s referring to is mainly the incarceration rate of young Black men. So if you look just at the most recent estimates, roughly a quarter of Black men can expect to be imprisoned at some point in their lives.

And when you zoom in to look at Black men who dropped out of high school, that number jumps to over 2/3. So these are just really astonishing numbers. And it’s been– these have been some of the main things, I think, that have inspired people to try to understand how we got here over time.

So one of the main motivations of this project with Alex, in particular, has been the emergence of a recent debate around this last point about the relationship between racial inequality and incarceration on the one hand and mass incarceration on the other. And so on the one side of the debate, we have a book like, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. This is probably the most widely read book on mass incarceration.

And it focuses mainly on mass incarceration’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans due in part to the war on drugs and due in part to the concentration of police in poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods. On the other side, you have scholars like James Forman Jr. and Marie Tkachuk who are sympathetic to Alexander’s account, but who argue that it’s incomplete. And so in particular, they focus on the fact that mass incarceration has negatively affected many groups beyond just Black Americans. And that it’s particularly concentrated among the poor.

So my read of the debate is that it’s been quite civil and collegial. But as it’s spun out into more wider public arenas, in my perception at least, it’s gotten quite a bit more heated. And as I’ve encountered this debate, I’ve had a sense that people have been talking past each other.

And so one of the main goals for me in working on this project with Alex was to try to establish a more comprehensive and up-to-date empirical foundation for the debate. And I had a hunch that this foundation would help us to see why both positions actually look quite reasonable, depending on how you look at the question, depending on whether you’re looking at the direct experience of incarceration, or whether you’re looking at its indirect effects. So what we tried to do in the project was two main things.

The first thing we wanted to do was to update previous estimates of racial and class inequality in prison admissions. So they hadn’t been calculated since 2002. You would think this would be a relatively straightforward thing to do. But as I’m sure we’ll discuss, there’s all kinds of complicated issues about how you actually estimate these quantities.

And one of the main reasons we wanted to do this was based on a lot of research that’s come out in recent years, showing that there’s been a huge shift in the fortune of people without a college degree. So you can think– one of the most famous examples of this is the work of the economist Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who’s shown that there’s been a marked rise in the mortality rates, particularly of white people without a bachelor’s degree. And so we had a hunch that this shift might also be visible in prison admissions.

And then the second thing we wanted to do in the paper was to look beyond the direct experience of incarceration and look at the indirect experience of incarceration. So first of all, looking at people’s likelihood of having a family member imprisoned and looking at people’s likelihood of living in a neighborhood with a high imprisonment rate. And the reason we wanted to do this was because of a whole body of sociological research that’s shown how because of Black, white wealth gaps, for example, middle class Black people are much more likely than middle class white people to be offshoots from poor family trees.

So that means they’re much more likely to have family members who are poor than similar white people. And we were also inspired by a lot of research, much of it coming out of sociology, showing how segregation has meant that middle class Black people are more likely than middle class white people to live in poor neighborhoods. And so if you think incarceration and poverty are becoming increasingly associated over time, these dynamics are going to influence the differences in the relative direct and indirect experiences of incarceration.

So together, we thought that these facts suggested that it was possible that racial and class inequality in people’s risk of having a family member imprisoned and racial and class inequality in their risk of living in a high imprisonment neighborhood could seriously differ from racial and class inequality in their risk of being imprisoned themselves.

Sizek: Yeah. So I think that’s really interesting because it points to the two challenges of studying mass incarceration today. One being this question of the class factors that make one more at risk to be imprisoned, as well as the racial factors. And then the other aspect of it is exactly this question of, who are the people who are in direct or indirect contact with the prison system? So generally, what were your findings when you put these two different parts of mass incarceration together?

Rohrkasse: Yeah, so corresponding to these two different goals these two different parts that you’re describing. We really have two main sets of findings. The first is that we showed that there have been really significant shifts in the contours of inequality in prison admissions in the 21st century.

So on the one hand, Black, white disparities have pretty meaningfully declined since the late 20th century. So for example, at peak levels of racial inequality in the early 1990s, Black people were somewhere between six and eight times more likely to enter prison than similarly educated white people.

That’s just an astonishing level of inequality. To be frank, you don’t often see racial disparities that large in social science. And to be clear, this is not reducible to any underlying educational differences because we’re comparing like to like here.

By 2015, though, the Black, white ratio of prison admissions had fallen to something more like two or three. And that’s a pretty significant decline. But it’s important to say, that’s still a really big disparity.

On the other hand, inequality between people who had attained different levels of education skyrocketed over the same period. So again in the early 1990s, people who hadn’t attended college were roughly five to six times more likely to go to prison than people who had attended college. But again, by 2015, when our analysis ends, people without college were 20 to 25 times more likely to go to prison than people who had been to college before.

So then our second set of findings, we think, adds some nuance to this picture. So in two separate analyzes, we examined people’s likelihood of having a family member imprisoned or living in a neighborhood where a high proportion of residents in that neighborhood go to prison. And in both of these cases, we find that Black people with the highest levels of education or income are actually more likely to experience these indirect contacts with the prison system than white people with the lowest levels of education or the lowest levels of income.

And so ultimately, what we find is that while class inequality in prison admissions now appears to dominate racial inequality, it’s racial inequality that still predominates in other aspects of the lived experience of mass incarceration. And so depending on whether we look at these– as we suspected, these direct or indirect experiences of the prison system, you’ll come to different conclusions about whether race or class matters more. So ultimately, rather than trying to decide which is absolutely more important, we’ve become much more interested in trying to understand how racial and class inequality interact and maybe even how these interactions would create opportunities for new alliances to combat mass incarceration.

Sizek: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting because it points to a much more complicated picture than just saying being a Black person in America means that you are more likely to go into prison, even though it means that you are much more likely as your research shows to experience effects of the carceral system in America. But one of the things that you’ve brought up a lot is this question of education. And it seems like education serves as a proxy for socioeconomic class status. Can you talk a little more about how you decided to use education as this proxy and why using education seems to work as a proxy for this?

Muller: Yeah, absolutely. So the main reason that we do so is just a data limitation. So when people are admitted to prison, they’re not asked about their income. And so we’re forced to use their level of education. And so we use education as a proxy for class.

So this is clearly an imperfect measure. And there are all kinds of quibbles that you could have with it. But on the other hand, I think that the work of Case and Deaton shows that having a college education is an increasingly important determinant of people’s life chances in the United States.

And they’re even Marxist sociologists who you’d expect to have the most issue with this proxy, who’ve come around to the importance of the college divide. The other thing that I’d say about it is that in the first analysis, where we’re looking at racial and class inequality in prison admissions, we only have measures of education. We don’t have measures of income.

But in the second two analyzes of people’s likelihood of having a family member in prison and people’s likelihood of living in a high imprisonment neighborhood, we had both education and income. And the results were almost identical. And so in this particular case, we’re not especially concerned about using education as a proxy for a class, even though we acknowledge that the two concepts are different.

Sizek: One of the problems you have in doing this research is not only trying to figure out what serves as a useful proxy, but how to extract the information from whatever data you’re getting from the prisons or the other systems. How did you manage this giant data sample that you had?

Rohrkasse: Yeah, so there’s really three key quantities that we’re trying to measure in this study. And we’re going to use three different data sets to measure each of those. And each of those data sets has its own unique values and some serious limitations.

So the first quantity we’re interested in is the likelihood that people enter prison. You might think that that’s a really straightforward thing to measure. But it turns out that there’s actually no national data that are publicly available that disaggregate rates of entrance into prison by people’s race and ethnicity or their educational attainment.

And so for people who are interested in these kinds of inequalities, a really useful and common resource is what’s called the National Corrections Reporting Program. Unfortunately, this resource is restricted in access because it involves individual level records of imprisoned people. And so the data are pretty sensitive.

But for those people who are interested in these kinds of questions, this is really the most important resource available. These are administrative data. And unfortunately, they represent the voluntary contributions of different state prison systems to this overall program.

And so in any given year, the NRCP doesn’t actually include all state prison admissions. So an important assumption of our study is that the contributing states in the years we examine are more or less representative of the country more broadly. It’s also important to say that the NRCP no longer includes federal prison admissions.

Federal prisons make up a small proportion of the total prison population in the United States, but by no means a trivial proportion. The second quantity that we’re trying to understand is the likelihood that someone has had a family member go to prison. And people can use any number of different resources to do this.

People have used the Fragile Families study before or the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. We use a new survey that’s designed specifically to measure this quantity. It’s called the Family History of Incarceration Survey, or FamHIS. 

And then the third quantity that we’re interested in measuring is the likelihood that people live in a neighborhood with a high imprisonment rate. And this is really challenging because people aren’t usually imprisoned in the neighborhoods where they were living before they went to prison. And geolocating prisoners back to the neighborhoods where they came from with any geographic detail can actually be quite difficult.

So to do this, we use a resource that’s actually pretty underutilized called the Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections. This is another administrative data set that compiles information from about 20 states. And it allows us to geolocate people in state prisons back to the specific census tract where they resided before they were imprisoned.

So we use census tracts, which on average have about 4,000 residents as a proxy for neighborhoods. And we use these data to calculate imprisonment rates for census tracts in these 20 states. Then we use census data to put people of different races and ethnicities and educational groups into neighborhoods to understand their likelihood of living in a high imprisonment neighborhood.

And for all three of these experiences, prison admissions, family member incarceration, neighborhood incarceration, we calculate the rates at which people of different ethnoracial groups and educational groups have these experiences. And then to measure inequality, we look at the ratio of these different rates across different groups.

Sizek: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting because it points to the complexity that underlies something when you’re trying to answer what seems like a simple question in many ways, but it’s actually quite complicated. And another aspect of the complicated nature of this research is also this temporality problem. Basically, when you’re looking at prison admissions, these are people who are entering the system. This is not representative of the body of people who are currently imprisoned as a whole.

But then you’re also asking people about the experience over their lifetime of if they’ve known someone who is incarcerated. So how do you disentangle these different temporal aspects in this research? And how does it come to matter?

Rohrkasse: This is a really important point. Our study is focused on prison admissions, specifically the rate at which people in the population enter prison in any given year. And this is a pretty different quantity from the proportion of the population that’s imprisoned at any given point in time.

And generally speaking, prison admissions are much more volatile than prison populations because they’re going to be more responsive to economic, social, political changes. So for example, a policy that diverted people away from the criminal justice system would have a pretty immediate impact on prison admission rates, but only delayed effects on the prison population because that population reflects not only that recent policy, but the cumulative history of decades of previous policies, rates of imprisonment, sentencing, corrections, et cetera. And so what that means is that if we were to redo our study examining prison populations, instead of prison admission rates, some of the changes in inequality that we document would probably be a bit more muted.

But what that also means is that if the trends we document in our study continue, we should expect to see similar changes in the prison population over time. There are other aspects of our data, like the fact that the FamHIS survey captures whether a person’s family member has ever been imprisoned, that incorporate this whole cumulative history of incarceration over the last several decades, that we’re just limited in our ability to deal with.

Sizek: Yeah. I think that’s really interesting too because it points us back to one of the ways that people often talk about mass incarceration, which is the war on drugs. So can you both tell us a little bit about the way that the war on drugs becomes this figure of mass incarceration and how your research is complicating that story a little bit?

Muller: The paper itself is not directly about the war on drugs. But the war on drugs has become a key part of debate over mass incarceration. So on the one hand, if you just look at a point in time, the number of people who are in prison strictly for drug offenses is actually quite small.

And so people who point to the war on drugs as being a central part of mass incarceration, people who confront that argument, oftentimes are critical of the argument that the war on drugs was a key part of mass incarceration, given the small proportion of people who are in prison for drug offenses. On the other hand, if you have people going into prison for relatively short sentences, that is going to mean that the relative importance of the war on drugs for people’s experience of having ever gone to prison is likely to be quite a bit larger. And so I think these temporal aspects, the temporal dimensions that we’re talking about have a particular relationship to the war on drugs.

The other thing I would say is that a moment ago, Alex pointed to these really extreme disparities in the mid-1990s, a six to eight disparity in incarceration even within educational groups. And I don’t think there’s great evidence about this. I haven’t seen a study that’s nailed it down.

But I think it’s unlikely that some part of that spike doesn’t have anything to do with the war on drugs. I think that some of the spike in the racial disparity in the prison admission rate in the 90s almost certainly was related to the war on drugs. And so the war on drugs quite clearly is an important part of the story.

How important it is for you, I think, really depends on which aspects of mass incarceration you’re trying to look at, whether you’re looking at the number of people in prison and the proportion of them who are in for drug offenses or whether you’re looking at people who’ve cycled through prison and how many of them have been imprisoned for drug offenses and whether you’re looking at racial disparity. And so I think you’re going to get a slightly different story, depending on which of those quantities you’re focused on.

Sizek: And I think that raises a question about some of your other research, Chris. And specifically the way that things like the labor market end up playing a really central role in how we think about imprisonment and how we explain rises in imprisonment and mass incarceration. Can you tell us a little bit about the relationship between the labor market as a whole and mass incarceration?

Muller: Sure. Yeah, I mean– so why don’t I take a step back and talk about the previous state of the literature on the causes of mass incarceration. And then I can say a little bit about my own work. So to be perfectly honest, I’ve been working on this topic for a while. And the longer I’ve worked on it, the more complex the answers have gotten about what the sources of mass incarceration are.

But I think that the broad contours that are set out in a book by a sociologist named Bruce Weston called, Punishment and Inequality in America, it came out in 2006, I think those main causes are still pretty widely accepted, even though there’s been a lot of really important work to appear since that book’s been published. So Weston focuses mainly on economic and political causes, things like the collapse of urban labor markets, the related rise in crime, the urban uprisings of the 1960s, and then the politicization of crime that increased the chance that all of these changes would receive a punitive response.

So in the following years, we saw sentences increase. We saw a greater willingness among prosecutors to pursue incarceration in cases where they might not have in the past. So that’s an oversimplified summary. But I think it captures the main currents.

And though, people will disagree about the relative weight to place on any one of those causes, I think, very few people think that they’re wholly unimportant. So if we’re thinking about the relationship between labor markets and incarceration, I think it’s also good to take a step back and give you a little bit of broader context about my work. So one of the main motivations for my work on incarceration but also my work in other areas has been the idea that in my view, too often in sociology, we begin our studies of racial inequality generally in the 1960s. And that leaves out a lot of really important historical context.

So we forget, for example, that for much of US history, Black Americans worked primarily in agriculture, not just during slavery but for almost a century after the civil war. And once you recognize this fact, I think a lot of otherwise puzzling features about long run patterns in the Black incarceration rate begin to make a bit more sense. So just take one example. There’s a popular argument that after the civil war, incarceration became a functional replacement for slavery.

Now, it’s worth stating that this is different from the argument that the form that incarceration took closely resembled slavery. This is an argument, I think, has a lot of support, especially if you’re looking at the convict lease system or chain gangs or something like that. But if you’re looking at the functional replacement argument, it’s hard to square with the fact that the Black incarceration rate in the years after reconstruction is actually lowest in the counties that had depended most on enslaved labor before the civil war.

So a lot of people are surprised when they hear this fact. But I think the fact becomes less surprising once you recognize that slavery and sharecropping were systems of economic exploitation in addition to systems of racial domination. So both slaveholders before the civil war and planters after the civil war depend heavily on Black American’s labor.

And what that means is that unless they could use the labor of people in prison, they had strong reasons to try to keep workers out of prison rather than in it. And one of the key, I think, underappreciated ways that they did this is that planters often would go to courthouses and they would offer to pay the fines of any people who’d been convicted. And what this meant was that the person then had to pay off the debt in, quotes, “by working on their land”.

And so this system of peonage allowed planters to actually reestablish a coerced labor force after the civil war. But it also had the side effect of lowering the Black incarceration rate in the cotton belt. So rather than see a relatively low Black incarceration rate in the cotton belt in those counties where slavery had been most prevalent after reconstruction as a sign of the region’s mercy, we should instead see it as a sign of Black Americans continuing unfreedom outside of the prison in the years after the civil war.

And I think there’s an additional puzzle that this way of looking at things helps to solve. So oftentimes, critics of the functional replacement argument, critics of the idea that incarceration was a replacement for slavery will say, well, if slavery and mass incarceration are connected, why does mass incarceration take off a century after slavery ends? And for me, a key part of the answer to that question is that cotton harvesting is almost fully mechanized between 1950 and 1970, the two decades that precede the start of the prison boom.

And so a lot of work has focused on the effects of deindustrialization. But there’s been much less of an emphasis on the collapse of agricultural employment. And I think this is particularly important because the effects of the collapse in agricultural employment were much larger on Black men’s labor force participation than the effects of deindustrialization.

Sizek: Yeah, I think that’s so fascinating because it points us to this question of the relationship between these different labor markets. And also, it ties it into other historical phenomena that we might be familiar with, like the great migrations and how this actually changes the opportunities that people have to work, as well as to demands for labor. And so as we switch towards the 1970s and thinking about the rise in mass incarceration, how would we tie in the labor market shift to how you think it might be related to the rise of mass incarceration as a phenomenon?

Muller: Yeah. So I think there are three main ways we could think about this. And I should say that here, I’m more just synthesizing previous works and drawing on my own. But so we have a massive collapse in the share of young black men who are working in agriculture.

So in 1940, about a third of young Black men work in agriculture. By 1970, it’s fewer than– it’s lower than 3%. So there’s just this dramatic shift. And so there’s been– I know of no direct research looking at the effects of this mechanization of cotton harvesting in particular on both changes in crime and changes in imprisonment.

But there’s a lot of work looking at other shocks to the labor market and showing quite clearly that those are related both to rates of crime and to rates of imprisonment. So this is actually something I’m working on right now. Secondly, one of the main responses to the mechanization of cotton harvesting was the second great migration.

And there’s, of course, a huge political backlash to this second great migration. And so there’s an economist who actually was at Berkeley until very recently sadly, Laura Derenoncourt, who’s shown how this second great migration leads to increases in police spending, increases in homicide rates, increases, particularly, in the Black incarceration rate, and reductions in spending and other types of public goods. And so Laura’s work, I think, is showing clearly how this second great migration was related to the onset of mass incarceration.

And then I think, thirdly, there’s been– some economic historians in particular have argued that the mechanization of cotton harvesting in the second great migration creates a material foundation for the rise and the emergence of the Civil Rights movement. And of course, a lot of the literature on mass incarceration discusses how there was a political backlash to this movement that connected urban uprisings to crime. And focus on this as a key component of the politicization of crime that I mentioned earlier as being one of the key ingredients in the rise of mass incarceration.

So it’s through a bunch of different paths. But I do think many of these causes that other scholars have focused on actually have a relationship to what I see as this earlier change in just this massive decline in agricultural employment that happens at mid-century in the United States.

Sizek: Yeah, I think that’s just so fascinating because it’s also a way for us to really consider the relationship between rural and urban areas and mass incarceration as not unrelated phenomena. And to really bring in rural studies, which is somewhat a neglected field now in the social sciences, back into this urban story that a lot of people or a lot of people see as being an urban story that’s quite important. And so I guess as we move toward thinking about what your research, what both of you have done, helps us think about mass incarceration more, how do you think that the relationship between class and race becomes more complicated?

And what can scholars learn from this? And also what has policy-makers who are interested in ending the era of mass incarceration, what can they use from your research?

Rohrkasse: Well, part of our analysis is really aimed at decomposing racial and class inequality. So that’s to say, for example, that overall, racial inequality in mass incarceration appears in part to reflect some underlying disparities in educational attainment. And that’s an important fact to understand. But one of the main goals of our study and, I think, one of its main successes is really to show that in many ways, racial and class inequality cannot be disentangled.

And that’s because they’re mutually constitutive. And that can sound handwavy. But we really put– we make our best effort to really measure this as concretely as we can. So for example, we show that irrespective of one’s education or income, Black people are much more likely to have family members imprisoned or their neighbors imprisoned.

And this can seem somewhat at odds with the fact that we’re simultaneously documenting that there’s been this shift toward much greater educational inequality in prison admissions. We think, though, that a really important factor that can reconcile these two seemingly contradictory facts is that as a result of racial segregation and racial discrimination, an important feature of being Black in America today is that irrespective of your class position, you’re much more closely connected to poor people. And so what that means is that the scale of racial inequality really can’t be fully appreciated without reference to the ways that social networks and social environments translate these growing class disparities into racial disparities.

And so rather than being competing forms of inequality, race and class are really intersecting dimensions of domination. And I think for researchers, for activists, for policymakers, the more we can do to understand that, I think the more successful we’ll be in our efforts to combat mass incarceration.

Sizek: Well, with that, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. We learned a lot.

Muller: Thanks so much for having us.

Rohrkasse: Yeah, it was a pleasure, thank you.

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