Building the Big House: American Institutions and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, 1980-1995
David Dagan’s dissertation, “Building the Big House: American Institutions and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, 1980-1995,” examines the rise of mass incarceration in the United States as a project of state-building and a major expansion of government authority and capacity. While scholars have typically associated American state-building with centralization and particularly with the expansion of social policy, Dagan emphasizes the role of decentralization and the expansion of penal policy.
Dagan argues that mass incarceration was spurred by “interdependent fragmentation” - the condition that American governing authority is split both vertically and horizontally, even while policy responsibility is shared across those levels. This combination provided policy makers with substantial buck-passing opportunities that exacerbated punitive electoral dynamics and weakened moderating influences, particularly by putting off a reckoning with prison crowding and costs. Dagan shows these dynamics at work in Pennsylvania and Texas, where prosecutors fought pitched battles against judges and jailers throughout the 1980s, centered on the problem of prison crowding.
Dagan also traces the flow of tough-on-crime rhetoric back and forth between Washington, D.C. and the states. He argues that federal leadership was important in the rise of mass incarceration, even absent significant centralization. This leadership occurred through professional networks, which diffused ideologies and technologies of punishment to the decision makers sitting at the policy levers and state and local officials.
The project helps to link the analysis of rhetoric, policy choices, and outcomes in the mass-incarceration literature. It contributes to a new understanding of the American state by showing that fragmentation enables and even drives the particular brand of state power Dagan dubs coercive capacity.