During her visit to Boulder on September 28-29, Dr. Kelly Lytle Hernández sat down with Erstwhile Managing Editor Julia Frankenbach to talk about her new book City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965. The historiography of incarceration in the United States, Lytle Hernández explained, centers on the urban north and the American South. But the “carceral capital of the world” lies in the American West. In detention facilities, prisons, and jails, Los Angeles cages more people than any other city in the world. Lytle Hernández studied the fragmented records of L.A.’s carceral past and unearthed the story of a system premised not on crime control but on the elimination of indigenous and racialized outsiders from the city’s social fabric. Incarceration in Los Angeles, Lytle Hernández found, served the evolving agendas of a settler society.
Stream or download our conversation below. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow. Audio correction: Dr. Lytle Hernández is Professor of History and African American Studies and the Director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Julia Frankenbach: You open your new book with a sentence that encapsulates one of your main ideas in City of Inmates: “Mass incarceration is mass elimination.” Can you sketch out for our listeners what this sentence means to you?
Kelly Lytle Hernández: When I first looked into writing the history of incarceration in Los Angeles, I ran into a series of archival troubles. The issue was that the persons and the institutions who were assigned to manage the jails at Los Angeles have destroyed the vast majority of their records. So, I was put into a position—actually, in hindsight, given the opportunity—to look for the story of the rise of incarceration in Los Angeles through a series of back doors.
Those back doors led me to a profoundly new understanding of what’s happening in our nation’s jails, prisons, and detention centers: that, in particular, we live in a settler society, and in settler societies there is a strong bend—a constant bend, an enduring bend—toward eliminating indigenous communities and disappearing racialized outsiders. What the archives that I was able to find—what I have described as a “rebel archive” because it survived destruction by the LAPD and the L.A. Sherriff’s Department and many other government institutions—taught me over the course of two hundred years in Los Angeles is that in a settler society our carceral institutions do lots of different work. One of the forms of work that they do is to eliminate and to disappear indigenous and racialized communities. So the main punchline of City of Inmates is that our jails, our prisons, and our detention centers are a means of eliminating targeted populations from land, life, and society.
JF: What is the significance of the American West as a region of study—particularly the importance of the legacy of conquest in the American West—to the story that you tell?
KLH: Well, this is a really important question. The historiography of incarceration in the United States is largely located in the urban north and the American South. In turn, the questions, the tensions, and the thematics that we tell the story with hew most closely to the historiographies of those regions. In particular, we have learned an extraordinary amount about the importance of racial capitalism in the rise of incarceration and the turn to mass incarceration. That scholarship really allowed us to leap forward in our critical analysis of incarceration.
What looking at the rise of incarceration in the American West does is it allows us to tap into a different historiography and a different set of questions. So for me, as a historian of the American West, what I was bringing to the study of incarceration through the lens of Los Angeles was all the debates that we have in the American West about borderlands, and borders, and indigeneity, and non-white migrations in particular, and all that historiography that I was able to bring to the table to think about the variety of communities that have been targeted for incarceration over time and place in the American West. What the American West does is provide a new intervention to our thinking about incarceration in the United States. For me, one of the major contributions is thinking about the enduring significance of conquest and occupation of indigenous lands and territories and lives upon the making of these carceral institutions.
JF: In the first chapter of City of Inmates you write about how the first publicly owned building in Los Angeles was, in fact, a jail and that one of its principal functions was the elimination of indigenous peoples from the Tongva Basin. Can you tell us more about the beginnings of incarceration in Los Angeles—and how it evolved over time?
KLH: Well, it’s a story that predates the U.S. era, certainly—the hyper-criminalization and arrest of indigenous communities in the region—certainly as early as the Mexican period. As Mexican rancheros were claiming more and more land in the Tongva Basin to establish their large cattle operations, they had a vested interest in squashing native sovereignty in the region and laying claim to native bodies and labor. One of the ways they did that was via criminalization. That project continued into the U.S. era. As Anglo-American settlers moved into Los Angeles in the 1850s, in particular, they harnessed the history of policing indigenous peoples: Tongva-Gabrielino, in particular, but also the other displaced California Indians who were coming to live in the basin. From the state legislature to the local municipality a series of vagrancy laws were passed in order to incentivize indigenous people to work or to leave the city. If indigenous peoples were found at leisure or living independent lives in the city, they were subject to vagrancy codes and arrested and forced to labor on local road and water projects. So that’s really the origin of incarceration in the city.
What’s so interesting about this is that by the early U.S. period—in the 1850s again, in particular—Los Angeles was known as the murder capital of the country. It was an extraordinarily violent place. And yet, the jails were not a site for housing violent offenders. The jails, by and large, were a site for housing indigenous peoples. This story is difficult to find and to parse out from the record, because we don’t have all of the jail logs anymore; we have some but not many. However, what was effectively the city council at that time referred to the jail warden as the “Indian warden,” who was paid for boarding Indians in the jail. So from that kind of evidence, we can see what role incarceration was playing in the city.
I begin the history of incarceration in Los Angeles in this moment—this originary moment, this foundational moment—to begin a longer argument about the function of incarceration in this city. When we tell the story from the very beginning—from the first jail and the first carceral theme that is the targeting and criminalization and locking up of indigenous peoples—it is an opportunity for us to think about the dynamic of conquest as a carceral dynamic.
JF: Right—and about the process of elimination as just that: as a process, something that evolved over time.
KLH: Yeah, and it’s really important to point out—and I try to do this throughout the book—that elimination is an agenda; it’s not ever fulfilled. Targeted populations constantly upend this project of elimination and disappearance. What I’m looking at is the process and the attempt of elimination, not that it’s ever fulfilled.
JF: You organize City of Inmates in six sequential stories, each of which explores the travails and in many cases the triumphs of a different target population within the evolving carceral system in Los Angeles. Can you tell us about your encounters with what you have named the “rebel archive?”
KLH: The only way to tell the story was by finding scraps of paper that have been left behind throughout Los Angeles, throughout the country, and even down in Mexico, that were often authored by the people who fought the rise of incarceration in the city and beyond. Authored in one way or another—literally penned by them or inserted into the standard archive by their resistance, by their refusal to be disappeared. So, for example, newspaper articles on breakouts from the jail: that registers within the rebel archive.
Now, what this rebel archive helped me to do was to find the evolving themes of incarceration in the city, the evolving priorities of incarceration in the city. City of Inmates isn’t in any way a comprehensive history; it is simply about the major moments of incarceration throughout L.A.’s history. The six stories that the rebel archive revealed to me were that: native peoples were the first targets of incarceration; that poor white itinerant males at the turn of the twentieth century were targets of incarceration; the extraordinary anti-Chinese movements of the late nineteenth century translated into a carceral chapter as well; the attempt at immigration control and deportation was linked to incarceration in the United States; we also have stories about how Mexican incarceration surges during the era of the Mexican Revolution; and the rise of African American incarceration. Now, what the rebel archive did was give me the perspective of the people who were fighting all these moments. For example, in the late nineteenth century, when United States Congress, in response to demands from the American West, passed first the Chinese Exclusion Act (1880) and then later the 1892 Geary Act which invents deportation, Chinese immigrants across the United States rebelled against the idea that they could be singled out, locked up, and kicked out of the country. It’s their rebellion, that pushes courts throughout the country to grapple with this new thing called deportation, that left an extraordinary documentary record of the invention of immigrant detention. So, it’s those kinds of stories—it’s the resistance of Chinese immigrants; it’s the revolutionary activity of Mexican immigrants; it’s the refusal of poor white male itinerants to comply with the settler ideal; it’s indigenous peoples who consistently break out of the jail and assert their sovereignty in the region—that left a record for the story to be told.
JF: Your first book gave readers an in-depth look into the history of the U.S. Border Patrol. How did your training as a historian of immigration and the borderlands help you to tackle this new project on incarceration?
KLH: Well, I think it’s partially training. But it’s also personal perspective. I grew up on the border. I see almost everything through that lens. My first encounters with the carceral state were at, along, and through the border, whether it was with the Border Patrol prior to Operation Hold the Line, when they used to police within our communities looking for anyone of so-called Mexican appearance, or as a black youth growing up on the border during the era of the War on Drugs and being aggressively policed in that way. So everything that I do comes from the border.
Historiographically, my grounding in the history of immigration to the United States, the history of the American West, and the history of the border I think simply opened new windows into the rise of the carceral state that very few people have been able to crack open to date. I was always ready, aware, and able to pursue stories about the intersections of immigrant detention and incarceration in particular. I would say that that’s what it gave me—was the opportunity to keep my eyes open to stories that historiographically have been told separately. We have immigration histories, and we have prison histories. By and large, the two have not mixed. But my training allowed me to weave those together.
JF: You close your book with a collection of documents from contemporary activists who are working to counteract the social consequences of mass incarceration in Los Angeles. What, in your opinion, is the role of historical scholarship in this project? How is a historian to be in the world, as an activist?
KLH: The book, substantively, ends at the Watts Rebellion of 1965. However, this is a topic that is very much of the present moment. One of the strategies that I used, after one of those meandering epilogues that brings us from 1965 to the present, was to curate a rebel archive from the contemporary moment of some of the most, in my estimation, radical voices that are resisting, pushing, working to end mass incarceration in the city today. That was one means of engaging in the contemporary conversation, but doing so in collaboration with the people who really know this issue as a present issue far better than I do. So I would pose this as a collaborative project. I did some of the historical work, but the contemporary work is happening on the ground in the city today. Much of my analysis was certainly—not influenced, but sharpened—by working with organizers in the city today, informed by working with them in the city today. In some cases throughout this book I’m responding to debates that are deep within the historiography or among scholars. In some cases I’m responding to urgent needs and questions on the ground—questions such as what impact does diversity on a police force have? Well we’ve got stories from the past that can help us understand that diversifying a police force does not address issues of police violence and police brutality. Perhaps those stories can help us today. We have stories from the past about the role of white supremacy in the construction and enforcement of immigration law. Perhaps those can be helpful to us today in a moment when we’re also seeing surging numbers of deportations that are highly racialized. It’s hard to pinpoint how, when, and why they became so racialized; it feels natural. We can historicize that. So, this book is answering to many audiences, and one of those audiences is the rebel archive.
Warm thanks to Dr. Kelly Lytle Hernández for her generous participation. Her books are City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 and Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol.