Of course, we could immediately be less severe in sentencing criminals and give them education instead of brutality in prison. But for big change to occur, liberals have to demand better from our politicians on economic as well as corrections policy. This doesn't just mean welfare; it also means jobs for working-class people. But with the rise in importance of social issues (Gottschalk discusses only a few) and the decline of unions within the Democratic coalition, middle-class liberals have been disconnected from the working class and especially from the underclass, which has been beaten down so much that it's extremely unpleasant to look at — and hard to see with so many of its members in prison.

But as Gottschalk writes about the prison monster, "we choose not to notice." So too with poverty.

What else they missed

No book can hit every base. But there are other important elements in the construction of our Prison Complex.

America kennels at least 36,000 mostly nonviolent and mentally ill people in solitary-confinement prisons called supermaxes, even though isolation is medically certified to drive humans to often-suicidal insanity. Built over the past 25 years, this gulag of mass torture includes the lethal Special Management Unit of the Maine State Prison.

Related to the supermax craze and very much an engine of poverty, the “deinstitutionalization” of mentally ill people without adequate community care had enormous consequences for prisons. In a New York Times op-ed in 2007, law professor Bernard Harcourt wrote: “Over the past 40 years, the United States dismantled a colossal mental health complex and rebuilt — bed by bed — an enormous prison.”

Lance Tapley can be reached atlance.tapley@gmail.com.

Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire | by Robert Perkinson | Metropolitan Books/Holt, 2010 | 484 pages | $35

The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America | by Marie Gottschalk | Cambridge University Press, 2006 | 451 pages | $29.99

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