“The Wheels of Justice Are Grinding to a Halt”: Harris V. Philadelphia and the Politics of Prison Overcrowding in 1990s Philadelphia

Charlotte Rosen, Northwestern University

This paper explores the history of Harris v. Philadelphia (1986), an eighteen-year long, prisoner-initiated suit that alleged that Philadelphia’s overcrowded prison system constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, this paper examines the politics surrounding District Judge Norma Shapiro’s enforcement of prison population controls, including a moratorium on prison admissions and an early release mechanism, as part of the case’s consent decree. I argue that these court-enforced prison population controls offered, for a time, a decarceral vision that suggested the state should not, in fact, be allowed to imprison people with impunity. Following scholars that have shown the more contested development of the late-twentieth century prison nation at the state and local level, my analysis of prison litigation in Philadelphia recovers such attempts to limit the growth of the racialized carceral state during an era often assumed to be one of unquestioned law-and-order politics. While the prison population controls ultimately failed, the history of their failure helps clarify the forces and tactics that enabled the destruction of decarceral policy pathways, demonstrating how vigorously local actors worked to sustain the carceral politics that prison overcrowding threw into crisis. I argue that the city’s prison population controls failed because a coterie of tough-on-crime law enforcement agencies, citizens groups, and media outlets led by the city’s District Attorney’s office worked to delegitimize and vilify Harris prisoner releases. They did so by cultivating a politically resonant but factually dishonest and virulently anti-Black moral panic around prisoner releases that alleged the population controls fueled crime in the city. Faced with the legitimacy crisis of prison overcrowding and attendant federal court intervention, I show how Philadelphia’s law enforcement and political elites labored to foreclose the decarceral possibilities of Harris and instead reassert carceral politics as the most viable and morally sound mode of governance.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 112. Law and order: rhetorics, narratives and social construction