Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time

James Kilgore. New Press (Perseus, dist.), $17.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-62097-067-6

This important polemic from Kilgore (We Are All Zimbabweans Now) presents a grim picture of the U.S. criminal justice system. It may come as no surprise that prisons and jails are rife with abuses of power and funds, lack of resources, and corruption. That African-Americans, Latinos, and transgender people are disproportionately imprisoned is well known. What transforms these social injustices into what Kilgore presents as a national disgrace is the unprecedented growth in the incarcerated population over the past 40 years: “To return to incarceration levels of the 1970s would require a decrease in prison and jail populations of about 1.5 million.” With stunning statistics and heartbreaking stories, the book reveals how the system prevents individuals and their families from moving beyond incarceration: former prisoners are saddled with overwhelming debt from court fines and fees; a bank employee is fired after a background check uncovered a shoplifting conviction from four decades before; guards abused boys imprisoned in a private juvenile facility. Finally, the book recommends that we reconsider how our penal system treats such matters as immigration, drug use, mental illness, disability, and gender identification. The author makes a powerful call to reverse a cycle in which more people serve longer sentences with fewer opportunities to return to society. (Sept.)