Gomer on Hernández, 'City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965'

Kelly Lytle Hernández
Justin Gomer

Kelly Lytle Hernández. City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965. Justice, Power, and Politics Series. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 312 pp. $28.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-3118-9.

Reviewed by Justin Gomer (California State University, Long Beach) Published on H-California (August, 2018) Commissioned by Khal Schneider

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52381

In a recent review of critical prison studies (CPS), Micol Seigel summarizes the contributions of the burgeoning field to our understanding of mass incarceration as follows: “Prison growth is not about crime, but politics; antiblackness is at the heart of those politics. These date not to the 1980s when prison populations exploded or even the 1970s when the rate of growth began to rise but earlier, at least back to the years directly after World War II. Tough-on-crime legislation took off, thanks to liberals as much as conservatives. The seeds of carceral institutions were contained in the institutions of the welfare state, dating back to the Progressive Era. Criminal justice crackdowns did not represent a backlash against a civil rights movement gone renegade, for any presumed backlash predates its supposed trigger.”[1] Kelly Lytle Hernández’s City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965 marks another important contribution to CPS. The book’s greatest strength is its ability to position the modern incarceration crisis within a much longer history of what Lytle Hernández calls “human caging,” which expands, if not troubles, our understanding of the fundamental assumptions of those engaged with CPS.

Lytle Hernández’s examination of the history of incarceration in Los Angeles, the “carceral capital of the world,” dates back to the Mission period. Ultimately, Lytle Hernández argues, “mass incarceration is mass elimination. That is the punch line of this book” (p. 1). While this may seem reductive, in the hands of a historian like Lytle Hernández, the thesis enables the author to uncover points of intersection thus far under-examined by CPS. Her intervention does not necessarily disprove those fundamental assumptions of the field outlined above but instead widens the historical lens of incarceration in search of intersections with immigration, nation building, and indigeneity, among others.

City of Inmates, like CPS, owes much of its strength to its earnest commitment to interdisciplinarity. Most impressive in this regard, Lytle Hernández takes up the call to interdisciplinarity more seriously than many scholars. Rather than merely drawing from several different fields, she insists on culling the book’s research from what she calls the “rebel archive,” those subaltern sources that survive the “mass elimination” of the lives for which they speak and exist on the margins, or beyond the bounds, of disciplinary methods.The book’s six chapters move chronologically through the history of Los Angeles, from the Mission period to the Watts Rebellion. Each stands somewhat independent of one another, making the book accessible for readers and well suited to undergraduate teaching. 

Chapter 1 examines the origins of human caging in the City of Angels in the late eighteenth century, whereby Catholic priests caged native women in mission dormitories to ensure the segregation of native men and women. As the Mission era closed and California established statehood, imprisonment became “the first act of governance in Anglo-American Los Angeles” (p. 35). In the early years of statehood, law enforcement officials used public order and vagrancy statutes largely as a means through which to control and contain the city’s native population.  

In chapter 1, Lytle Hernández establishes a theme that remains constant throughout the book. By widening the historical frame, she offers the reader a deeper, more complex, and more historically nuanced view of incarceration. The history of indigenous caging in Los Angeles, for example, reveals the use of incarceration and unequal policing to control racialized subalterns long before Reconstruction. It also shows that, while antiblackness is at the heart of our modern incarceration crisis, human caging was an integral component of the nineteenth-century national project of indigenous genocide. With this, Lytle Hernández encourages readers to consider the intersection of race and prisons with that of nationhood and indigeneity. In so doing, incarceration is understood more broadly as an essential component of the national project of white supremacy, within which antiblackness has taken center stage in the last century.

The remaining chapters similarly expand our understanding by widening the historical lens. Chapter 2 explores the first significant expansion of the Los Angeles jail in the early years of the twentieth century, undertaken to cage the overwhelmingly white tramp population that migrated to the Southern California metropolis each winter. Chapter 3 examines the caging of Chinese immigrant populations in conjunction with the 1892 Geary Act, thereby highlighting perhaps the first instance of criminalizing and caging immigrants. Chapter 4 focuses on the life of Ricardo Flores Magón, the intellectual father of the Mexican Revolution. Magón fled to the US to escape arrest but was eventually caught and imprisoned in Los Angeles, where he continued to help lead the opposition to Mexican president Porfirio Diaz. The prison activism of Magón is especially illuminating in light of recent texts exploring the heroic efforts of more recent prison activists, artists, and writers in Attica and elsewhere.[2]

Chapter 5 reanimates many of the themes of chapter 3, exploring the origins of criminalizing border crossings as a way to cage large numbers of Mexican migrant laborers in the 1920s and 1930s. Lastly, chapter 6 explores the origins of black Los Angeles in the South Central neighborhood, and shows how the disproportionate arrest of blacks, for “violations” similar to those of Native Americans nearly a century prior, corresponded directly with the growth of the black population in the decades before World War II.

By the time Watts erupted in 1965, therefore, human caging as a means of social control of racialized bodies was nearly two centuries old in Los Angeles. Here, again, is Lytle Hernández’s strength. By extending our historical lens of incarceration she reveals that human caging has been a fundamental component of our entire national project, predating the Progressive Era, postwar liberalism, and the War on Drugs. This is not, again, to disprove the fundamental understandings brought to the fore by CPS scholars but instead to reframe recent manifestations of incarceration within a much longer national project.

CPS is one of the most important fields in academia today. It blends scholarship and activism in a manner many scholars seek but too few achieve. City of Inmates is an essential contribution to CPS.

[1]. Micol Seigel, “Critical Prison Studies: A Review of a Field,” American Quarterly 70, no. 1 (March 2018): 136.

[2]. See, for example, Heather Ann Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (New York: Pantheon Books, 2016); and Jordan Camp, Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016).

Citation: Justin Gomer. Review of Hernández, Kelly Lytle, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965. H-California, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52381

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.