The statistics are shocking: One out of every 99 adults is quarantined behind bars in the United States, with larger and larger swaths of the civilian work force deployed as a captor class. Although academic scholars have been analyzing the social costs of our 30-year punishment binge for some time, the American public has been oddly disinterested in our de-evolution into a full-blown prison nation.
Finally, that appears to be changing, perhaps in no small part due to the staggering financial costs of mass incarceration during these tough economic times. The direct costs of prisons have quadrupled over two decades, to almost $40 billion a year in the 40 states sampled in a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice's Center on Sentencing and Corrections.
Now, award-winning New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik has stepped up to ask the essential question: WHY do we lock up so many people?
After all, he points out in "The Caging of America," New York City has managed to buck the incarceration trend, while seeing its crime rate plummet by as much as 80 percent (the topic of criminology scholar Franklin E. Zimring's new book, The City That Became Safe).
Gopnik writes with the outrage of an outsider whose blindfolds were suddenly yanked away to reveal the carceral state in all of its nightmarish savagery:
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.
The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least 50,000 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.)
How did we get here? How is it that our civilization, which rejects hanging and flogging and disembowelling, came to believe that caging vast numbers of people for decades is an acceptably humane sanction?
To answer his question, Gopnik weaves together two strands of American history, what we might call the Southern and the Northern penal traditions.
The Southern strand, most recently articulated by Michelle Alexander, posits that penal colonies arose to replace the slave plantations in the post-Reconstruction South, with mass incarceration functioning as "The New Jim Crow" for poor African American men in the post-civil rights era. It's hard to argue with the statistics: More than half of American black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives, and more of these men are trapped in today's criminal justice system than were enslaved prior to the Civil War:
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.
Many of you may be familiar with this notion of South's white supremacist contribution to the carceral state, but you may be surprised to learn about the North's major hypothesized contribution: the Bill of Rights.
Wait a minute. Weren't our founding fathers all about protecting our rights, making sure that we were never again victimized by the cruel rule of tyrants?
In blaming the Bill of Rights, Gopnik channels Harvard Law School professor William J. Stuntz, who died just before last fall's publication of The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, which argued that the Enlightenment era saw the elevation of procedural rights at the expense of moral justice.
The trouble with the Bill of Rights, [Stuntz] argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles...This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice.
Thus, in our increasingly impersonal and bureaucratic world, rather than the nemesis of the brutal prison, due process is actually its mirror image:
The more professionalized and procedural a system is, the more insulated we become from its real effects on real people...Once the procedure ends, the penalty begins, and, as long as the cruelty is routine, our civil responsibility toward the punished is over. We lock men up and forget about their existence.
Gopnik's essay, which I highly recommend, can be found HERE.