In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Incarceration

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Scale of Incarceration
  • Women’s Incarceration
  • Collateral Consequences
  • Prisoner Reentry

African American Studies Incarceration
Carlos E. Monteiro, Natasha A. Frost
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0026


Between the mid-1970s and the late 2000s, prison and jail populations across the United States increased in virtually every year, culminating in the largest incarcerated population in the world. When the prison population hit two million as we entered the new millennium, what had previously been referred to as “incarceration” became almost universally referred to as “mass incarceration.” The unprecedented growth in incarceration has been the subject of extensive scholarly attention, with literally hundreds of books and thousands of articles devoted to exploring, theorizing, and explaining the era of mass incarceration. In this bibliography, we review some of the most influential works across an array of related topics, exploring not only the nature and scope of the rapid and unyielding rise in the use of incarceration for a period of almost forty years, but also examining competing theoretical explanations for the emergence of mass incarceration. In a series of sections that build upon one another, we offer summaries of works that try to offer explanations for prison population growth, including explanations that implicate the Wars on Crime and on Drugs, the Politics of Crime and Punishment, and the crucial role of Sentencing Policy Shifts that occurred between the early 1970s and mid-2000s. We then move to works that look at the Impacts of Incarceration, first on race and gender (in separate sections) and then across a whole host of arenas (including children, families, communities, crime, employment, and health outcomes). After describing work focused on impacts, we turn to literature that has described the many Collateral Consequences of incarceration. We conclude with sections on Prisoner Reentry and on the more recent movement to Ending Mass Incarceration through Sentencing Reform and other efforts to systematically reduce our reliance on incarceration.

General Overviews

Although there is widespread agreement that we are living in an era of mass incarceration, one of the most central questions, still not definitively answered, is how America became the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. The works offered as general overviews each offers a book-length explanation for the punitive turn in criminal justice policy that led to mass incarceration. Garland 1990 offers one of the most comprehensive explanations of the evolution of punishment, explaining punishment in modern societies through the lens of some of the most dominant social theorists (focusing on Durkheim, Marx, and Weber in particular). Although not exclusively focused on mass incarceration, for their breadth, depth, and the sophistication of Garland’s theoretical synthesis, Garland 1990 and Garland 2001 are widely cited and should be considered mandatory reading in penology. More specific to incarceration, Frost and Clear 2016 explicates the dominant theories of mass incarceration. The authors articulate five competing theories of the impetus and evolution of mass incarceration. Each of the remaining works described here as general overviews offers an explanation for mass incarceration that falls into one of those five categories. The argument that increasing incarceration was simply a rational response to increasing crime is best understood through the work of political scientist James Q. Wilson, whose influential book Thinking about Crime (Wilson 2013, first published 1975) in many ways changed the nature of the conversation about how we should approach the problem of crime. Wilson persuasively argued that crime had grown because we had been coddling criminals (and others) through overly generous and expansive social welfare programs. He argued for a reorientation of crime control policies, emphasizing that the costs of crime had to exceed the benefits of crime. Although not the only one to make this argument, Garland 2001 synthesizes and in some ways takes on the argument that the unprecedented expansion in formal social control is related to the fusion of politics and punitive public opinion. Like Garland 2001, Wacquant 2009 and Gottschalk 2006 focus on the politics of incarceration, with Wacquant explicitly arguing that incarceration has always been about the control of marginal populations. Alexander 2010 is one of the more influential books on the rise of mass incarceration and directly ties that expansion to racialized politics reminiscent of Jim Crow. Clear and Frost 2014 describes mass incarceration as a grand social experiment with multiple objectives, both manifest and latent, weaving an explanation for mass incarceration that takes into account all of the preceding factors. Together these works offer a diverse array of explanations for mass incarceration.

  • Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press, 2010.

    Mass incarceration and numerous crime control policies are reviewed and presented in this work as symbols of racial control. The central argument in Alexander’s work is that mass incarceration, much like old “Jim Crow” laws, is a system established to perpetuate racial dominance and control. To support her thesis, Alexander reviews a plethora of policies put in place under the guise of criminal justice reform efforts. Enjoying widespread popular appeal, Alexander’s book is one of best-selling books ever written on mass incarceration.

  • Clear, Todd R., and Natasha A. Frost. The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America. New York: New York University Press, 2014.

    Drawing on trends in sentencing policies and practices over the last half century, Clear and Frost’s describe America’s obsession with increasingly punitive punishment as a grand social experiment, and they chronicle the legislative onslaught that created one of the most damaging penal system in the world.

  • Frost, Natasha A., and Todd R. Clear. “Theories of Mass Incarceration.” In The Oxford Handbook on Prisons and Imprisonment. Edited by John M. Wooldredge and Paula Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    Frost and Clear offer a review of five of the more dominant (and in some ways competing) theories of mass incarceration. They review works stating that mass incarceration is best understood as (1) a rational response to increasing crime, (2) a function of the imperfect relationship between of public opinion and politics, (3) an attempt to control marginal populations, (4) the new Jim Crow, and (5) a grand social experiment in punishment.

  • Garland, David. Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in Social Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226922508.001.0001

    Garland offers a critical analysis of social theories explaining punishment and social control in modern Western societies. He focuses on the major penal scholarship of Durkheim, Marx, and Weber in explaining the role and function of punishment in modern societies.

  • Garland, David. The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

    Embedded in a conversation of modernity and neoconservative politics, this book charts the development of policies created in response to crime and social control over thirty years. The structure of this volume allows the reader to examine the evolution of the modern systems of social control, with a focus on the United States and Great Britain.

  • Gottschalk, Marie. The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511791093

    Political scientist Marie Gottschalk calls into question the extent to which liberal and conservative agendas may have influenced the development of the carceral state. Her research argues that opportunists created penal policies with crime control as a secondary objective.

  • Useem, Bert, and Anne Morrison Piehl. Prison State: The Challenge of Mass Incarceration. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511813573

    This book offers context to the unprecedented growth of America’s prison populations. In tracing this rapid buildup of the prison state, Useem and Piehl ultimately conclude that the punitive movement has failed and our concerns should shift toward purposeful de-escalation efforts.

  • Wacquant, Loic. Prisons of Poverty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

    While focusing mainly on neoliberalism, this book reveals the emergence, development, and perseverance of punitive policies across the globe. Wacquant makes the argument that a calculated shift in priorities occurred, disguised as response to crime, but actually created to rid nations of welfare policies in favor of penal policies.

  • Wilson, James Q. Thinking about Crime. 3d ed. New York: Random House, 2013.

    In this classic work, originally published in 1975, Wilson sharply criticizes the dominant responses to crime and criminals in the United States at the time. He criticizes the approach to crime that centered on poverty, social neglect, and rehabilitation. He explores policies, police and correctional practices, and argues for a more rational choice approach to crime prevention.

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