Incomplete Thoughts: Mass Incarceration

Posted December 26, 2007

A friend who knows a lot about how and why the criminal justice system works in the United States put it into context for a group of folks a few weeks ago. Paul says we assume that prison conditions are bad, the issue is the number of people who will be subjected to them. Mass incarceration has been the most thoroughly implemented social experiment of the modern American era, made more effective because there is no centralized plan. And there’s no natural force to stop or contain it.

Hundreds of thousands of people much like you and me, like the people we stand next to in line at the market, or chat with in waiting rooms, are locked up today because they don’t fit in to post-industrial capitalism. And because they are in the part of the working class — they are black or brown — that needs social controlling, from capitalism’s point of view.

Paul identifies three specific legal dynamics at work — expansion of crime definitions, lengthening of sentences, and tightening of parole requirements. The result is Death by Incarceration for literally tens of thousands of young African American (and increasingly Latino) men. Alternative “reforms” like boot camps, which were sold as ways to keep youthful first offenders out of prison, instead confined kids whose violations would formerly have earned them parole.

This massive expansion of incarceration can only be addressed through sentence reform, in Paul’s view, and he knows that any such attempt is dead on arrival, even though he believes there is a basis for a bipartisan criminal justice policy. He thinks the third of us who are opposed to the death penalty, the two-thirds who are opposed to criminalization of marijuana, and the majority who recognize that racial disparities are apparent, egregious, and abhorrent add up to a bipartisan perspective that is nowhere reflected in public policy.

As hard-bitten as his own prison experiences have made Paul, I think his analysis misses how fundamentally powerful mass incarceration has been in shaping political dynamics in this country. Think of the hundreds of thousands of African American men (and women) removed from community life. From family life. From civic life.

The divide between your own vision of how society should be and the decisions that produce war and mortgage defaults and crippling credit policies is most likely a gaping chasm — think how much more power our voices would have if so many of them were not locked up.

Ta, Kate


One response to “Incomplete Thoughts: Mass Incarceration”

  1. dianne Avatar

    The experience of being on trial, convicted and put in jail or prison is quite different for men and women. Half of the women in U.S. prisons today wouldn’t be there if they were men.

    For example, most of women’s violent crimes are the result domestic abuse. Somewhere between 40-80% of the women convicted of murder acted in self-defense. However laws covering self-defense are still understood from the male experience.

    Women who murder their husbands or boy friends and who were the victims of domestic violence have higher conviction rates and longer sentences than others charged with homicide! The judge, jury and prosecutor think: “She should have just picked up and left.”