January 30, 2023 – Written in a lively, accessible manner that relies extensively on interviews with formerly imprisoned people, cars and prisons Examines how the costs of owning and using a vehicle are deeply involved with the prison system in the United States.
American consumer tradition has long regarded automobiles as the “machine of freedom”, enshrining the mobility of free people. Yet, paradoxically, the car also operates at the crossroads of two great systems of rhythm and immobility—American debt economics and physical condition.
cars and prisons He investigates this paradox, showing how car debts, traffic fines, over-policing, and automated surveillance systems work in tandem to trap and criminalize the poor. The authors describe how racism and poverty affect residents who, in a country poorly served by public transportation, have no alternative to obtaining car loans and exposing themselves to predatory and often racist police.
Looking skeptically at the frothy promises of the “mobility revolution,” Livingston and Ross conclude with provocative ideas for transportation justice reform, traffic police, and auto-finance.
200 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-349-5 • E-book ISBN 978-1-68219-350-1
“As a bedrock of life under racial capitalism, the automobile and imprisonment exemplify the ease with which the incarcerated can become deadly. Supported by previously imprisoned peer researchers, Livingston and Ross have produced a remarkable example of how critical cancer studies can enlighten, complex and inspire.”
—Angela Y. Davis, author Are prisons obsolete?
“I’ve dreamed for years that someone would write this book. It’s not only a fascinating intervention, it’s a necessary measure. Livingston and Ross explore the deep asociality of auto life in a society made up of racial hierarchies. They thoughtfully illuminate the mutual articulation between spontaneity and the body in provocative ways. It has enormous practical value.”
—Paul Gilroy, author of Black Atlantic
“Reading Cars and Prisons was an ‘ah-ha’ experience for me. The clarity and urgency of the research conducted by Livingston, Ross, and the NYU Prison Education Lab starkly illustrate how the car is a bodily trap that impoverishes and captures with devastating consequences for all life.” —Nicole R. Fleetwood, author Marking the Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration
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200 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-349-5 • E-book ISBN 978-1-68219-350-1
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About the authors
Andrew Ross A social activist and professor at New York University, where he teaches in the Department of Sociocultural Analysis and the Prison Education Program. A contributor to guardianthe The New York TimesAnd NationAnd Al JazeeraHe is the author or editor of twenty-five books, including, most recently, Sunbelt Blues: The Failure of American Housing.
Julie Livingston Silver Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University. Her previous books include Self-devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from South Africa; Improvising Medicine: The African Oncology Wing in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic; And Asthenia and moral imagination in Botswana. Recipient of numerous honors and awards, in 2013 Livingston was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow.
Every day more than 50,000 Americans are stopped by police officers while driving. Most of them will get out of this confrontation because of money from the municipality or county in which they were stopped. For some, the station will culminate in their arrest — they will join the nearly 9 million Americans who cycle through our country’s prisons each year. At the other end of the system, more than 600,000 are released from prison annually. One of their first orders of business is usually to find a way to get back behind the wheel of a car, which is unavoidable in all but a few parts of the country. Most of them would take on a significant financial responsibility in order to do so, joining fellow motorists who owe more than $1.44 trillion in auto debt. American consumer tradition has long regarded automobiles as the “machine of freedom”, enshrining the mobility of free people. Yet, paradoxically, the car also operates at the crossroads of two great systems of unfreedom and immobility—the credit economy and the American cynical system. This book examines this paradox in detail, tracing how the long arms of debt work hand in hand in the everyday life of car use and ownership.
It is known that people imprisoned in the United States are disproportionately black, brown, and poor, but there is much less recognition of the role that cars play in their imprisonment. Here, then, is the course which we shall take in the following pages. Behind bars, the prisoners mourn their lost mobility and dream of the cars they once had and of the cars of their future as a form of freedom. Upon their release, they must drive as a basic necessity, but to do so they have to take out car loans on rapacious terms. Driving exposes them to heavy traffic fines from police officers under orders to earn revenue. Traffic stops, as a prime location for discretionary and racist policing, also opens up the possibility of them being arrested and re-imprisoned. If they are put back in the cage, they will lose their livelihood and all of their assets in the process, including the shares in their car. Behind bars again, they begin to dream again about mobility and cars. This cycle doesn’t always play itself out in its entirety or in such bald terms. Many people avoid or break free from one or the other of these traps. But tracing the steps in the course, as we do in this book, helps show how dangerous and costly it is to drive while black or brown, as it is to drive when poor. It also helps expose how the American financial system and criminal justice colluded with each other, whether unintentionally or through cold calculation.
We come to the car as part of a team formed to look at the impact of criminal justice debt on previously incarcerated people. When team members interviewed formerly incarcerated men and their family members in New York City about these debts, we noticed the car popping up again and again. Then a member of our team was arrested while driving and re-imprisoned for a minor offence. Soon it happened for a second, and then also for a third, previously imprisoned person, whom we got to know in the course of our work. We’re beginning to see how the automobile has been key to the debt and automobile economies that matter to us, and through it how poverty is used as a “minor punishment” as well as a way to make a profit. In subsequent interviews conducted ourselves, we decided to focus exclusively on car ownership and use, and this book draws heavily from it.
They spoke fondly of their cars, describing the uphill battle to pay for them, while also recalling fateful traffic stops or clashes with the police. The obvious pleasure they derived from their cars coincided with an acute awareness of the dangers of driving them. Over time, we’ve uncovered more and more details about the link between cars and prison: loopholes that police officers use to get around barriers in profiling and searches; uses traffic quotes to generate funding for local governments; the ability of debt collectors to manipulate the court system; illegal deception used by car dealers to trick consumers; Grab prison workers to build roads and make metal plates. But we also came to the conclusion that vehicle use and ownership are essential components of “generally attractiveness,” that is, the many ways in which discipline and control are exercised on a daily basis, away from the prison or prison walls, in ways that would scent the criminal justice system. These include the tyranny of credit score, the expansion of data mining and scrutiny of individual behavior by government and corporations, surveillance technologies built into cars, and the road warrior culture of a highly militarized society geared to the extraction and purchase of fossil fuels.