Locked Up

This article on mass incarceration is a must-read:

For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest, say. For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. Ours is, bottom to top, a “carceral state,” in the flat verdict of Conrad Black, the former conservative press lord and newly minted reformer, who right now finds himself imprisoned in Florida, thereby adding a new twist to an old joke: A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been indicted; and a passionate prison reformer is a conservative who’s in one.

The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.) Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized. Though we avoid looking directly at prisons, they seep obliquely into our fashions and manners. Wealthy white teen-agers in baggy jeans and laceless shoes and multiple tattoos show, unconsciously, the reality of incarceration that acts as a hidden foundation for the country.

The rest of the article, which details how we got to this point, is really phenomenal. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions — and I think Zimring’s theories in particular are pretty problematic — but it’s still worth reading. Read, read, read.

22 comments for “Locked Up

  1. Dank
    January 24, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    This is especially frustrating because violent crime rates are the lowest they’ve been in decades.

  2. January 24, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Wow, I’ll admit at first the article wasn’t impressing me but I’m glad I kept reading. It really is very good.

    Small quibble: The article didn’t hit enough on the the issues with mental health care in the US. People with mental health issues in many cases aren’t getting the help they need and instead are falling into the criminal justice system which isn’t set up to deal with them really at all. It becomes a vicious cycle in which they get locked up long enough to get medicated/stabilized and released back on to the street only to fall off their meds, do something minor, get arrested, and locked back up again.

  3. Northland Heights
    January 24, 2012 at 7:11 pm

    Pretty well sums up my intuitive thoughts on the f–ed up prison culture in this country.

  4. Mezzanine
    January 24, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    Honestly? I’d find it less inhumane if criminals were simply flogged.

  5. Donna L
    January 24, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    I think Zimring’s theories in particular are pretty problematic

    If that’s the case, then what’s your explanation for the dramatic decline in New York’s crime rate over the last 30 years despite the fact that (unlike in the rest of the country) the incarceration rate has dropped as well? According to this article, at least, the standard explanations (changing demographics, “broken window” policing, etc.) are inadequate to explain it.

  6. trees
    January 24, 2012 at 11:37 pm

    In some places, incarceration is such a part of life, an expectation really, that you have to force yourself to recognize that it doesn’t have to be that way. I grew up in a place where people without experience with the criminal justice system were the exception to the norm.

  7. karak
    January 25, 2012 at 1:33 am

    @Officer A—

    I used to work in the mental health field, and I often found that probation officers were often caught flat-footed when trying to deal with people with serious mental illnesses with uncontrollable symptoms, and they were desperate to eject these people from the system because mentally ill people were nothing but a money pit. They bent over backwards to keep my clients out of jail; not out of kindness, but so they (and the state) didn’t have to pay/deal with my client’s mental illness.

  8. Marksman2010
    January 25, 2012 at 1:55 am

    +1. Thank you for posting this, Jill.

    I’m preparing to read two books on these issues: “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire” by Robert Perkinson, and “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness” by Michelle Alexander.

    Any time I consider our criminal “injustice” system, my blood begins to boil. There is so much that’s broken and unfair and corrupt in this system that’s it’s impossible to discuss all of it. Take, for example, the West Memphis Three, who were recently released from prison after 18 years. Of course, they were only released because they agreed to an Alford Plea. That police investigation was completely fouled up, but because of the nature of the crime everyone wanted to see a conviction paired with a stiff sentence. Nowadays everyone knows they’re innocent, but they have little or no legal recourse because of the terms of that type of plea. And from what I’ve read, the governor of Arkansas has no plans to pardon them.

    What a great deal. But if you’d been unjustly incarcerated for 18 years, you might also take whatever arrangement the prosecution offered.

  9. Doublylinkedlists
    January 25, 2012 at 9:38 am

    I just want to note that since China does not publicize their incarceration rates, it’s impossible to know if the US has a higher incarceration rate.

    I also think that incarceration statistics need to be combined with other metrics like due process research and execution statistics if we’re going to compare punitive criminal justice systems.

    The US will still come out looking terrible, but I’m skeptical that it’s the worst.

  10. LG
    January 25, 2012 at 9:51 am

    Re: The New Jim Crow

    Absolutely the best book I’ve read in years. This New Yorker article pays lip service to Michelle Alexander’s argument, but fundamentally sidesteps the racial truths of our criminal justice system. Race is the dominant factor of mass incarceration, not just a statistical tragedy.

  11. matlun
    January 25, 2012 at 11:20 am

    I just want to note that since China does not publicize their incarceration rates, it’s impossible to know if the US has a higher incarceration rate.

    Actually, it seems pretty clear. Most sources actually gives China a fairly low incarceration rate (giving them a smaller prison population even in absolute numbers), so I do not think they are a good candidate for a country with a higher incarceration rate (even if the figures are inaccurate).

    At least some estimates give North Korea a higher rate, though.

    Anyway, it hardly matters that much if the US really has the highest rate. Just look at the figures. The differences are not small.

  12. Hannah Marie
    January 25, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    Like a few people have already said, The New Jim Crow is a must read on this subject.

  13. Esti
    January 25, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    If you’re interested in the subject, I can’t recomend The Collapse of American Criminal Justice highly enough. Bill Stuntz — who died of cancer almost a year ago, at the age of 52 — was perhaps the leading criminal justice scholar of this generation, as well as an incredible teacher and an outstandingly kind person.

    He explained the genesis of our current over-criminalization as a combination of liberal-supported criminal procedure rules, conservative-supported sentencing laws and broad definitions of crime, and no support from anyone for sufficient funding for the criminal justice system to operate as designed. That lead to enormous prosecutorial discretion, overwhelming pressure to dispose of charges with plea bargains rather than trials, and massive inequalities and inconsistencies in how justice is administered — most notably, in its disproportionate effect on black Americans.

  14. Kathleen
    January 25, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    I looked up the source for the accompanying photo — a photo essay by Steve Liss called “children behind bars”. oh god.

  15. Marksman2010
    January 25, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    Thanks for the posts. I can’t wait to read Alexander’s work.

  16. rayuela23
    January 26, 2012 at 12:28 am

    @Donna L: I think Jill’s problem with Zimring was his rather horrifyingly blase endorsement of stop-and-frisk.

    At least I hope that’s what it was. That sure was my problem, and feminist hive-mind, ya know?

  17. January 26, 2012 at 8:05 am

    @ Karak

    This is what I was referring to as it mirrors my experience. I don’t work in Iowa but we have a crisis of mental health services funding too.

    Link to NAMI article.

  18. Donna L
    January 26, 2012 at 8:18 am

    @Donna L: I think Jill’s problem with Zimring was his rather horrifyingly blase endorsement of stop-and-frisk.

    At least I hope that’s what it was. That sure was my problem, and feminist hive-mind, ya know?

    OK, that makes a lot of sense. That’s probably what Jill meant.

  19. makomk
    January 28, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    Of course, in some cases the prison system isn’t “essentially a slave plantation continued by other means”, it’s literally a slave plantation continued by other means.

  20. Bitter Scribe
    January 28, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    Overzealous prosecutors are another big problem.

    There was a notorious recent case in suburban Chicago where a Hispanic man was browbeaten into confessing to the murder of a young girl. Subsequent DNA testing later revealed his DNA did not match semen found inside the victim. A retrial was ordered and he was convicted again. Then another retrial was ordered, and he was convicted again. The prosecution explained away the DNA discrepancy by claiming the victim, age 11, had consensual sex with someone else before being killed. I can only imagine how this made her mother and identical twin sister feel.*

    Finally, an appeals court put an end to this nonsense and ordered the man freed a few weeks ago, with harsh words for the prosecutor’s office. This same prosecutor ignored DNA evidence in a few other high profile cases. When you view convictions as a game instead of a chance to seek the truth, this is what you get.

    *IMO, throwing around half-baked theories about an 11-year-old having voluntary sex, purely to cover your ass, is very wrong, and I am not interested in getting sidetracked into a discussion over whether this is or isn’t some form of slut-shaming, OK?

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