"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."
Think about that. I regard the Soviet Union with horror; it was a giant murder mill and prisoner factory spanning a dozen time zones. And yet, according to Gopnik, today's America is in an important way even worse. How is that possible in the country that defeated Communism? How have we let ourselves get so bad?
And then there is prison rape. We all know about it. We joke about it, or fear it, or try to ignore it, or sometimes say (cruelly) that it is just punishment. Here's what Gopnik has to say:
"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."
There are two theories for how the modern U.S. prison system came into being (and let's remember it's a fairly new institution, compared to what we had before): a result of Northern efficiency and procedural justice without room for judges to make commonsense, common law rulings; or a continuation of the Southern slave plantation by other means. Regarding that latter theory, writes Gopnik:
"'American prisons trace their lineage not only back to Pennsylvania penitentiaries but to Texas slave plantations.' White supremacy is the real principle, this thesis holds, and racial domination the real end. In response to the apparent triumphs of the sixties, mass imprisonment became a way of reimposing Jim Crow. Blacks are now incarcerated seven times as often as whites. 'The system of mass incarceration works to trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage,' the legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes. Young black men pass quickly from a period of police harassment into a period of 'formal control' (i.e., actual imprisonment) and then are doomed for life to a system of 'invisible control.' Prevented from voting, legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives, most will cycle back through the prison system. The system, in this view, is not really broken; it is doing what it was designed to do. Alexander's grim conclusion: 'If mass incarceration is considered as a system of social control—specifically, racial control—then the system is a fantastic success.'"
And then there is the more recent phenomenon of for-profit U.S. prisons, run as corporations, whose only source of growth, perversely, is more and more inmates:
"It's hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible. No more chilling document exists in recent American life than the 2005 annual report of the biggest of these firms, the Corrections Corporation of America. Here the company (which spends millions lobbying legislators) is obliged to caution its investors about the risk that somehow, somewhere, someone might turn off the spigot of convicted men:
"'Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. . . . The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.'"
Gopnik goes on to describe how falling crime rates -- about a 40 percent decline in crime throughout the Western world in the 1990s -- cannot be explained by increased incarceration; the numbers so far defy easy explanation. But New York City is a different story: its crime rate decreased 80 percent. Why? Not for the reasons often cited. New York is not richer or whiter than it was, in fact, it is twice as black and Hispanic today compared to 1961. Nor did "broken-window" policing do it:
"In the nineties, the N.Y.P.D. began to control crime not by fighting minor crimes in safe places but by putting lots of cops in places where lots of crimes happened— 'hot-spot policing.' The cops also began an aggressive, controversial program of 'stop and frisk'— 'designed to catch the sharks, not the dolphins,' as Jack Maple, one of its originators, described it—that involved what's called pejoratively 'profiling.' This was not so much racial, since in any given neighborhood all the suspects were likely to be of the same race or color, as social, involving the thousand small clues that policemen recognized already. Minority communities, [researcher Franklin E.] Zimring emphasizes, paid a disproportionate price in kids stopped and frisked, and detained, but they also earned a disproportionate gain in crime reduced. 'The poor pay more and get more' is Zimring's way of putting it."
"Zimring said, in a recent interview, 'Remember, nobody ever made a living mugging. There's no minimum wage in violent crime.' In a sense, he argues, it's recreational, part of a life style: 'Crime is a routine behavior; it's a thing people do when they get used to doing it.' And therein lies its essential fragility. Crime ends as a result of 'cyclical forces operating on situational and contingent things rather than from finding deeply motivated essential linkages.' Conservatives don't like this view because it shows that being tough doesn't help; liberals don't like it because apparently being nice doesn't help, either. Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry."
And what about NYC's rate of incarceration?
"'New York City, in the midst of a dramatic reduction in crime, is locking up a much smaller number of people, and particularly of young people, than it was at the height of the crime wave,' Zimring observes. Whatever happened to make street crime fall, it had nothing to do with putting more men in prison."
And these facts lead Gopnik to the inevitable but "radical" conclusion that:
"...since prison plays at best a small role in stopping even violent crime, very few people, rich or poor, should be in prison for a nonviolent crime. Neither the streets nor the society is made safer by having marijuana users or peddlers locked up, let alone with the horrific sentences now dispensed so easily. For that matter, no social good is served by having the embezzler or the Ponzi schemer locked in a cage for the rest of his life, rather than having him bankrupt and doing community service in the South Bronx for the next decade or two."
Gopnik admits this goes against our current "common sense" and even a lot of "liberal" studies on crime prevention:
"To read the literature on crime before it dropped is to see the same kind of dystopian despair we find in the new literature of punishment: we'd have to end poverty, or eradicate the ghettos, or declare war on the broken family, or the like, in order to end the crime wave. The truth is, a series of small actions and events ended up eliminating a problem that seemed to hang over everything. There was no miracle cure, just the intercession of a thousand smaller sanities. Ending sentencing for drug misdemeanors, decriminalizing marijuana, leaving judges free to use common sense (and, where possible, getting judges who are judges rather than politicians)—many small acts are possible that will help end the epidemic of imprisonment as they helped end the plague of crime."
This should give us all hope. And it should serve as an example that systemic change does not necessarily result from "changing the whole system," but rather from small, high-leverage interventions which turn self-reinforcing vicious cycles backwards, turning them into virtuous ones.
Why do we lock up so many people?
By Adam Gopnik
January 30, 2012 | New Yorker