Author, journalist, and educator. New College of California, San Francisco, professor of modern history, political economy, and criminal justice; Open Society Institute Center on Crime and Communities, senior fellow. Radio journalist in Central America, New York, and California.
Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, Verso (New York, NY), 2000.
The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2003.
In his book Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, professor, journalist, and author Christian Parenti examines the penal system in the United States. Specifically, he traces political and ideological developments that have occurred since the end of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, in order to uncover reasons for America's high rates of incarceration: although the United States only represents five percent of the world's population, the country has twenty-five percent of the world's prisoners.
In his book Parenti theorizes that during the 1960s capitalist economic policies undermined working-class power by raising corporate costs, lowering profits, increasing unemployment rates, and creating a surplus workforce. The migration of inner-city industrial jobs—traditionally held by minorities and the working-class—to locations where workers could be hired for lower rates of compensation devastated cities by leaving many workers unemployed, thus increasing rates of homelessness and crime. These conditions made inner-city life unpleasant, which led to an attempt to contain or remove the targeted source of the problem—identified as the African-American and Hispanic communities, both associated with the welfare system and crime. Parenti argues that as a result, at the turn of the twenty-first century, the United States imprisoned black males at four times the rate of South Africa's apartheid system, creating a ratio of seven African American men for each Caucasian male imprisoned. In the last section of the book, Parenti looks inside the prison system and reports on the appalling conditions in which inmates survive, including how prisoners are often kept in solitary confinement for years, and how rape—of both males and females—is encouraged and participated in by guards as a means of isolation and control.
Lockdown America was widely praised by reviewers. Monthly Review writer David Gilbert called the book "an analytical gem" and said, "Its forte is laying bare the driving forces behind the burgeoning of the criminal justice system." Theodore Hamm, in the Nation, commented, "As Parenti makes painfully clear, prisons today are about everything but individual reform." Phil Scraton, in a review for Race and Class, called the book "stunning, evocative and brilliantly written" and concluded that it is "in the best tradition of investigative journalism, has the pace of a fine novel and carries the authority of meticulous academic research." J. W. Mason, in the American Prospect, said it "at least combats the strong societal tendency to avert our eyes from what the American criminal justice system has become." Progressive reviewer Craig Aaron commented that what separates Parenti's book from others on the subject "are his gripping descriptions of gang sweeps, border raids, and jail-house violence." Vivien Miller, in the Times Literary Supplement, concluded, "Conservatives will find this study to be polemical, sensationalist and scaremongering; liberals will find that it confirms their worst fears about economic and social reform." However, Matthew Yeomans of the Voice Literary Supplement pointed out that most of the material had been thoroughly documented in earlier sources, and that Parenti's argument places blame on the "police, politicians, and the faceless captains of capitalism."
Parenti's second book, The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror, looks at the evolution of the U.S. government's ability to monitor its citizens during the past two centuries. Slave passes, fingerprinting, immigrant identification cards, driver's licenses, automated teller machine cards, credit cards, toll passes, and parolee tracking devices are all analyzed to chart the progression of the government's increasingly powerful ability to monitor individuals—all with the consent of its citizens. Richard Seamon, in the United States Naval InstituteProceedings, quoted Parenti as saying, "We are not 'being watched' so much as we are voluntarily 'checking in' with authorities." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews concluded that the author "reminds us that privacy protects, as democracy is meant to, the marginalized, the outcast, and the different." However, a Publishers Weekly contributor found that Parenti's "lens is too sharp and his antigovernment animus too apparent."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Prospect, January 3, 2000, J. W. Mason, review of Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, p. 63.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2003, review of The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror, p. 955.
Monthly Review, March, 2001, David Gilbert, review of Lockdown America, p. 45.
Nation, October 11, 1999, Theodore Hamm, "Our Prison Complex," p.23.
Progressive, December, 1999, Craig Aaron, "The Theatrics of Force," pp. 41-42.
Publishers Weekly, July 14, 2003, review of The Soft Cage, p. 68.
Race and Class, July-September, 2000, Phil Scraton, review of Lockdown America, p. 89.
Sun, October, 2000, D. B. Jensen, "Crimes of Punishment: An Interview with Christian Parenti."
Times Literary Supplement, November 12, 1999, Vivien Miller, review of Lockdown America, p. 37.
United States Naval Institute Proceedings, August, 2003, Richard Seamon, review of The Soft Cage, p. 86.
Voice Literary Supplement, September 21, 1999, Matthew Yeomans, review of Lockdown America, p. 86.
Ampersand,http://www.mprsnd.org/ (November 5, 2003), Christopher J. Carley, "Sometimes Politics Leaves You Feeling Dirty" (interview).
Independent Films,http://www.independentfilms.com/ (November 5, 2003), "Parenti, Christian."
New College of California Web site,http://www.newcollege.edu/ (November 5, 2003), "Christian Parenti."*