Book Review: City of Inmates by Kelly Lytle Hernández

Kelly Lytle Hernández. City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

We are living in an era of human caging on a massive scale. Each night, 2.2 million people fall asleep locked inside one of more than 6,000 prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, and juvenile correctional facilities in the United States – a vast network of cages that sprawls across the land of the free.

Historians have done tremendous work documenting the expansion of incarceration in the late 20th century. The war on crime and the advent of militarized policing were strategic efforts to eradicate Black rebellion in the late 1960s and 1970s. The war on drugs, draconian sentencing laws, and the dramatic expansion of zero-tolerance policing in the 1980s and 1990s caused the prison population to nearly quadruple between 1980 and 2000.

And yet, it is significant that Kelly Lytle Hernández’s City of Inmates ends in the year that most narratives of mass incarceration begin – 1965 – concluding with the event that is often considered the catalyzing moment of the late-20th century carceral “frontlash”: the Watts Uprising (195). In this framing, Hernández joins scholars excavating the roots of the carceral state deep in the U.S. past, such as in Reconstruction-era convict labor and the early 20th-century criminalization of Black life.

The Los Angeles lens, however, offers a radically new perspective. The settler colonial and immigrant history of California indisputably shaped the caging policies and practices that emerged in the City of Angels. In six distinct histories spanning nearly two centuries, Hernández locates the origins of the carceral state in longstanding efforts to eliminate Native populations as sovereign entities, to control and exploit the labor of non-settler populations, and to exclude racialized immigrants from settler territory.

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A Los Angeles police officer, armed with a shotgun, searches bag of African-American woman while another woman holding baby watches, August 14, 1965, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Hernández excavates the legal architecture and cultural assumptions that made incarceration the answer to so many distinct questions: Indigenous resistance to colonial labor regimes, vagrancy among white male seasonal workers, the presence of Chinese laborers on the West Coast, the growing Mexican population in the borderlands, the increasing activism of Black L.A. – these posed distinct problems for a white supremacist settler society, and yet the solution to each of them was the same: incarceration. Why?

Hernández answers that incarceration is a form of elimination, and elimination is inherent to the settler colonial project. Adopting incarceration as a strategy to remove Native peoples from settler L.A., to undermine their resistance, and to compel them to labor for a society from which they were simultaneously excluded in every meaningful way, Los Angeles officials established a template that would be flexibly applied in subsequent eras to “tramps,” Chinese, Mexicans, and African Americans as the city grew.

Evidence for this recycling abounds in City of Inmates, but the clearest example is the use of public order charges to incarcerate a shifting array of “targeted populations” throughout the city’s history (1). Beginning in the 1850s, Los Angeles officials criminalized Indigenous “vagrancy” and swept up Tongva and other Native peoples to work on roads and public works projects in chain gangs, including auctioning convicts to private employers.

By 1910, Los Angeles had one of the largest jail systems in the nation, and the labor of its convicts built many of the city’s roads and public infrastructure, including Sunset Boulevard. By this era, nearly all of the city’s incarcerated were white, largely temporarily unemployed seasonal workers, targeted for removal on public order charges. As the Los Angeles Herald advocated in 1902, “It is infinitely better to take tramps and vagrants into custody on minor charges, than to permit them to roam about the city unmolested” (quoted on 51).

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Broadway at 8th Street, Los Angeles, California, ca. 1920, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As the city’s Mexican and Black populations grew, they became the focus of L.A.’s carceral apparatus. From 1928 to 1939, 86 percent of the LAPD’s arrests of Mexicans were for public order charges. In the same era, Black activists protested the LAPD’s overzealous enforcement of those charges in Black neighborhoods, arguing that it “unfairly corralled African Americans, namely the poor, into jail for nonviolent crimes” (159).

City of Inmates concludes with the voices of several activists fighting mass incarceration today. Their stories illustrate how public order arrests still operate to remove people from their neighborhoods, now in service of gentrification. As Hernández makes clear, selective enforcement of public order laws strip targeted populations of their “right to be” in the city (148).

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Chinese pharmacy, Los Angeles, California, 1899, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

With its groundbreaking emphasis on immigrant incarceration, City of Inmates “sutures the split” between histories of mass incarceration and immigrant exclusion (5). This is an essential intervention, and not merely a historiographic one; viewing them as separate systems blinds us to their ongoing relationship. The carceral and nativist states have long shared overlapping targets, discourses, strategies, and even the same literal structures.

Hernández focuses on the 1892 Geary Act (explicitly aimed at removing Chinese laborers from the nation) and the Supreme Court cases it provoked, which determined that deportation is not punishment for a crime, but that immigrants could nonetheless be legally be detained during the deportation or exclusion process. These decisions formed the judicial anchor for our contemporary system of immigrant detention and deportation, the legal framework by which immigrants are denied the most basic protections of the criminal justice system, such as the right to counsel or protection from indefinite detention.

With unlawful residence thus removed from the purview of criminal law, legislators responded to the growing Mexican population in the Southwest by criminalizing unlawful entry in 1929, making first-time offenses a misdemeanor and unlawful reentry a felony. Within a decade, tens of thousands of Mexicans had been imprisoned for illegally entering the United States. This dramatic influx of immigrant prisoners led Congress to expand the federal penal system in the 1930s, including constructing the first federal prison in the U.S.-Mexico border region in 1932.

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Mexican quarter of Los Angeles. One quarter mile from the City Hall, Dorothea Lange, February 1936, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

City of Inmates demonstrates incontrovertibly that the systems of immigrant exclusion and mass incarceration emerged together and fed each other. Incarceration was a weapon in the war against immigration, and anti-immigrant policies drove the expansion of the carceral state. This is an important lesson for those of us working to build a world free from human caging.

Los Angeles shaped and was shaped by national transformations, and Hernández moves seamlessly between urban, national, and transnational frames. Lest we feel compelled to dismiss L.A.’s story as too unique to be representative, Hernández reminds us that Los Angeles locks up more people than any city in the United States – the nation, of course, that imprisons more people than any country on earth. Los Angeles is, in this sense, the global epicenter of the human caging catastrophe, and its history offers insight for us all.


Llana Barber is associate professor of American Studies at SUNY Old Westbury. Her first book, Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945-2000, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2017, and won that year’s Kenneth Jackson Award from the Urban History Association. She is currently researching the history of militarized exclusion of Haitian migrants and the formation of the nativist state.

Featured image (at top): Chinese Features, La Fiesta de Las Fleures [i.e. Flores], Los Angeles, Cal., c. 1903, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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