Mass Incarceration on Trial

A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America

An innovative look at the radical Supreme Court ruling on California prison conditions as a national wake-up call on mass incarceration, by the award-winning author of Governing Through Crime

“One of the outstanding criminologists of his generation.” —Nikolas Rose, London School of Economics

Finalist, 2015 Media for a Just Society Award in the book category

For nearly forty years, the United States has been gripped by policies that have placed more than 2.5 million Americans in jails and prisons designed to hold a fraction of that number of inmates. Our prisons are not only vast and overcrowded, they are degrading—relying on racist gangs, lockdowns, and Supermax-style segregation units to maintain a tenuous order. In short, mass incarceration has proven to be a fiscal and penological disaster.

A landmark 2011 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Plata, has opened an unexpected escape route from this trap of “tough on crime” politics and points toward values that could restore legitimate order to American prisons and ultimately lead to the dismantling of “mass incarceration.” Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon—an internationally renowned critic of mass incarceration and the war on crime—argues that, much like the epic school segregation cases of the last century, this new case represents a major breakthrough in jurisprudence. Along with twenty years of litigation over medical and mental health care in California prisons, the 2011 Brown decision moves us from a hollowed-out vision of civil rights to the threshold of human rights.

Exposing the priority of politics over rational penal policy—and debunking the premise that these policies are necessary for public safety—this perceptive and groundbreaking book urges us to seize the opportunity to replace mass incarceration with a system anchored in the preservation of human dignity.


“Highly readable, stunning stuff. California is at the epicenter of a new American debate about prison policy, and Simon’s remarkable book places the state’s travails in national and historical context. I recommend it to anyone interested in the problem of prisons in America.”
—Todd Clear, author of The Punishment Imperative
“A powerful critique of California’s use of mass incarceration combined with an inspiring vision of a hopeful future created by landmark court decisions.”
—Jules Lobel, president, Center for Constitutional Rights
“UC Berkeley criminologist [Jonathan] Simon (Governing Through Crime) offers an eloquent critique of the American prison system. . . . Simon’s accessible and powerful book deserves widespread attention.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A masterful job of assessing the qualitative shift in the court’s analysis on human rights concerns as they apply to our notorious prison system, the book points the way to a legal strategy premised on human dignity as a means of challenging mass incarceration.”
—Marc Mauer, executive director, The Sentencing Project, and author of Race to Incarcerate
“In this groundbreaking book Jonathan Simon has with his usual clarity shown a route out of America’s damaging and ineffective experiment in mass incarceration.”
—Baroness Vivien Stern, senior research fellow, International Centre for Prison Studies, and member of the House of Lords

News and Reviews

Los Angeles Review of Books

Read Jessica Pishko on Mass Incarceration on Trial at the Los Angeles Review of Books

Publishers Weekly

Publisher's Weekly reviews Mass Incarceration on Trial