But why did states like Maine follow Texas's lead? It had to be more complicated than liberals falling in line behind the cowardice and opportunism of their leaders. This question led me to Marie Gottschalk's The Prison and the Gallows. Published in 2006, it adds exhaustively researched nuance to the explanation of liberal behavior.

Gottschalk, a political-science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has a chapter entitled "Not the Usual Suspects." Her most unusual unusual suspects: feminists. Her contribution to explaining Prison Nation is to point out that the intertwined women's and victims' rights movements had great influence on crime-and-punishment policy. For the problems of domestic violence and rape, police and prison were accepted as the solutions. The right wing co-opted this view, and "the women's movement became a vanguard of conservative law-and-order politics."

Oppression of the poor

Still, why in Maine? Yes, our state's victims' rights movement is vengeful, but misguided feminism couldn't fully explain what happened here. And it did happen here. Despite having among the lowest crime and incarceration rates of any state, Maine's prison population has boomed and the prisons are brutal.

But they are not dominated by people of color. Elsewhere, the underclass contains millions of blacks and Hispanics (and a lot of Native Americans), but Maine is the whitest state, and in Maine the cells are dominated by unemployed, uneducated, addicted, mentally and physically unhealthy, extremely poor, desperate whites. Why did Maine choose to slam these people in prison for extremely lengthy periods and largely for nonviolent crimes? Maine adopted Texas toughness because it was a way to control — to "disappear," one might say — undesirable, disorderly, threatening poor people, whatever their color. Most generally, American overincarceration results from the oppression of the poor.

While there's little correlation between crime and incarceration rates, a huge correlation exists between crime and punishment and poverty. Perkinson notes that four of five criminal defendants qualify as indigent, and 50 percent of prison inmates are functionally illiterate.

Ray Luc Levasseur, a Maine man who spent 20 years behind bars for radical-left-wing bombings of corporate and government offices, calls prisons "concentration camps for poor people, especially for people of color." He gets the priority just right.

Let's look a little more behind the curtain. Prevention obviously is a better solution to crime than prison. But that would mean dealing "with the whole issue of poverty, which we don't like to talk about," Gladys Carrión, New York's commissioner of Children and Family Services, said at a crime conference I attended last winter in Manhattan.

We don't like to talk about poverty because then we'd have to talk about the rich — as in, to be blunt, redistributing income. Barack Obama's proposal to increase slightly the tax rate on the very rich (letting the Bush tax cuts expire) is currently an iffy proposition politically — even when taxes on the rich have been lowered for 50 years, even when the rich have gobbled up almost all the country's increase in wealth for 30 years. Despite the present chatter about prison reform, the future doesn't look bright for prisoners because it doesn't look bright for poor people.

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Related: Maine Democrats try to put the past behind them, Conducting tests on Maine Republicans, Photos: Scenes from the Rally to Restore Sanity, More more >
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