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Author, activist and former political prisoner James Kilgore joined us to discuss his argument that pop culture works to poorly frame the crisis of mass incarceration as one about “innocence” as opposed to one of civil/human rights

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JARED BALL, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. In a new piece published by, our next guest, author James Kilgore, takes on pop culture and its impact on how we understand mass incarceration, particularly the widely popular podcast about a murder case here in Maryland, “Serial,” and the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer.” Of course, Kilgore’s approach here stands to reason, given that he is a former political prisoner, educator, activist and author of the book “Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time.” Welcome, James Kilgore, to the Real News Network. JAMES KILGORE: It’s a pleasure to be here. BALL: So, you take on some of the more popular media products related to issues of incarceration in this new article in which you write, quote, an excessive focus on innocence may be as much of a hindrance to understanding mass incarceration as a source of enlightenment. The notion that the major fault in our criminal/legal system is putting quote-unquote innocent people behind bars ultimately keeps the mainstream united states in its comfort zone. James, could you tell us a little bit about how this works? KILGORE: Well, basically I think that one approach to looking at mass incarceration is to take a case by case basis and think that perhaps everyone who’s in there has been framed, or that they’re there simply because they didn’t have adequate legal assistance, they didn’t have due process, they didn’t have DNA testing, et cetera, et cetera, and I think the CSI programs have increased this obsession with the use of technology to somehow deliver justice. And so these two media events that I write about, “Making a Murderer” and “Serial,” focus on the lack of due process, the lack of proper investigation and so forth, which led to the framing of people or the possible framing of people and convicting them. But some people are concluding that this is then a representation of what’s happened to the vast majority of people, and my argument is that people in the majority who are in prison and jail are actually what we might call technically guilty, that is, they may be guilty according to the way the law is written, but in actual fact the law is written to make them be guilty, to put them into the school-to-prison pipeline, or the community-to-prison pipeline rather than to put them in a stream that will head them toward opportunity and success. BALL: You know, I did not hear, I did not listen to the “Serial” podcast, but I did watch “Making a Murderer” and was wondering, and was very impressed to read what your critique here is, because even as someone who claims to be up on these issues and to have a critical lens of his own, when I watched “Making a Murderer” the first thing I thought of was, well, if we wanted to make an argument rather than make a race-based argument around the crisis of mass incarceration and wanted to make one around the issue of class, that this documentary might go a long way to making some inroads in terms of people’s consciousness on this issue, to get them more focused on mass incarceration as, as you say, a civil rights crisis. But you push back against that, and I think appropriately, by making this argument that has long been argued, I think, in different circles, that media work to promote the primacy of the police, or to justify the presence of the police and the rates of incarceration that we see. So I’m wondering if my response to “Making of a Murderer” has any bearing here on how you approach this issue, or was I just more susceptible to this problem, as many of us are, as you write? KILGORE: Well, I think absolutely your response is correct, and that was partly my initial response, and I, speaking to other people, that’s what they thought. Many people had never really considered the fact that there’s a lot of poor, white folks in prison, and having done six and a half years in federal and state prison, yes indeed there are a lot of poor whites who are locked up, but the question, I guess the question is, are they innocent in the way that Steven Avery was innocent, particularly of his first charge where he did 18 years on a false conviction. BALL: And that’s the subject in the Netflix documentary, just [crosstalk] to be clear, yeah. KILGORE: [interceding] That’s the subject of the Netflix documentary, yes. And then a subsequent attempt to charge him with another murder. And so, but the implication here, really, is that this is the universal experience of, can we say, poor whites, could we apply it to poor people of color, that what’s happening really is a legal framing and the solution to that, then, is to find a legal solution, to find legal technicalities, to ensure people due process, to make sure they have investigators and so forth in their cases. And my argument really is, it’s great that people who are innocent are getting out of prison. That’s very good. Without that people like Darrell Cannon, for example, who spent 24 years in Illinois state prisons after being tortured by the Chicago police, they would never be free, so this is wonderful. But let us not delude ourselves into thinking this is the path to ending mass incarceration. We’re not going to get one and a half or two million people out of prison by going back and revisiting due process or looking at DNA samples. They won’t come about through evidence by evidence, or through DNA sample by DNA sample. The only way those people are going to come out is if we organize a social movement that’s going to put pressure on the system for change. BALL: So James, is there something more particular that you would want to say about the role media play in producing these kinds of product and their impact on how we interpret or understand the criminal justice system and mass incarceration? KILGORE: Sure. I think the media, they love happy endings, and the viewers want happy endings to these stories, so on the CSI stories they always get their man in the end. But the question that I ask is, are these happy endings really what happens in the system? Somehow we’re meant to believe that if the best minds of Harvard, Princeton and Yale law school that designed this system apply their minds to correcting it, somehow things are going to all get better and it’s all going to have a happy ending. And I don’t think that’s the way the real world works, and that’s why I close my piece by saying that we may have happy endings in Hollywood, but for most of the people I was locked up with happy endings are not the rule of the day. We need a social movement to make a happy ending to this, not more tinkering with the system by the experts who put it in place in the first instance. BALL: It reminds me of a different approach to this issue, of a statement intentionally made provocatively by professor Frank Wilderson where he said, I’m not against police violence, I’m against the police. And his point trying to be that we need to focus on the structural role that the police play in society and its impact on different pockets of the population. But anyway, we greatly appreciate what you’ve done here, and thanks for joining us at the Real News, James Kilgore. KILGORE: Thank you very much for having me on, Jared. It’s been a pleasure. BALL: And thank you all for joining us. For all involved, again I’m Jared Ball in Baltimore saying, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.


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James Kilgore is an activist, writer and educator based at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). He has written widely on mass incarceration, global political economy and southern African history. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, called Kilgore's most recent book, Understanding Mass Incarceration, "an excellent, much-needed introduction to the racial, political and economic dimensions of mass incarceration".
In addition to his writings on mass incarceration, he is also the author of three novels, all of which he drafted during his six and a half years of incarceration in Federal and state prisons in California. A firm believer in prison abolition, Kilgore has also been active in his home county of Champaign, Illinois in a campaign to resist authorities' efforts to spend millions on a new jail.