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Bandy X. Lee M.D., M.Div.
Bandy X. Lee M.D., M.Div.

Prisons as a Form of Societal Violence

A massive structure of violence perpetration needs reconsideration.

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The criminal justice system is an example par excellence of violence as a societal mental disorder. While arising out of Roman emperor Justinian’s (where the word “justice” comes from) understanding the need for a centralized system of protecting the public safety, in the U.S. it has turned into a massive instigator of violence.

Broadly, there are two major philosophies in the approach to crime and punishment. The first can be termed restorative justice, and it emphasizes that crime is an act against another person and the community; that crime control should rest in the community; and that accountability should be direct as well as involve reparation. The second is retributive justice, and it reflects the view that crime is against the state or a violation of the law; that the criminal justice system should control crime; and that offender accountability lies primarily in taking the punishment.

Germany and the Netherlands increasingly exemplify the former style of dealing with criminality, while the U.S., which has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners, has taken the latter to unprecedented levels. Beginning around the mid-1970’s, the U.S. embarked on an experiment of mass incarceration that within forty years resulted in the highest imprisonment rate of any nation on record—sevenfold greater than the average in its history up to that point. With up to 756 people per 100,000 population behind bars at times, and almost 7 million adults under some kind of correctional supervision, the scale has been large enough to influence the nation’s culture.

Apart from the sheer magnitude of the figures, the demographics also point to major flaws: African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly seven times the rate of white males (Pettit, Sykes, and Western, 2009), while Hispanic males are incarcerated at nearly three times the rate of white males (Guerino, Harrison, and Sabol, 2012). While purporting to protect the public, even after the national crime rate dropped by more than 40 percent in the last 25 years, the rise in the incarceration rate since the mid-1970’s has remained steady.

It was in response to a profound shift in ideology, leading to the introduction of harsher punishments, sentencing guidelines requiring longer sentences, less discretion for parole authorities, and—perhaps most important—the elimination of rehabilitation programs. Such drastic actions are not without profound economic effects: In many states, public investment in prisons outpaces that in higher education, raising questions about priorities and efficacy. The social experiment of unprecedented scale in both cost and magnitude notwithstanding, the massive attempt to be “tough on crime” did not seem to make a dent in violence rates. Rather, imprisonment and violence rates rose together through the 1970’s, 1980’s, and until the mid-1990’s, when finally violence rates dropped dramatically—during a period that saw an equally dramatic drop in rates of unemployment (Lee, Wexler, and Gilligan, 2014).

It is becoming apparent to all that mass incarcerations and community sanctions, whose ostensible purpose is to deter crime and serve justice, are having the opposite effect. Perhaps most important are the negative social influences that they are having on poor and minority groups, whose disproportionate share of broken families, difficulty in finding post-prison employment, and loss of voting and other political rights of participation are just a few of the more obvious results. Repeat offenders are common, while medical and mental health problems are rising. Meanwhile, spending billions on prisons every year diverts funds from alleviating the poverty that fuels criminal activity in the first place (Drucker, 2013).

The topic of legitimacy is of growing theoretical and practical importance in the criminal justice field. It distinguishes criminal justice from brute, “might makes right” principles and is the hallmark of a civilized society. Public trust in policing, adjudication, and corrections is important because, for justice to be effective, citizens must see it as legitimate and fair. Institutional legitimacy is the foundation of public compliance with the law and societal commitment to the rule of law, but racial bias is undermining the legitimacy of the U.S. justice system.

African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to be imprisoned for the same robbery charge, and their number on death row has not changed in twenty years even though the homicide rate among African-Americans has decreased (Tonry and Melewski, 2008). Even though African-Americans and whites are homicide victims in nearly equal numbers, four out of five executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty have involved white victims (Amnesty International, 2003). This bias has led some scholars to call mass incarceration a system of control: bringing in entire segments of minority communities and branding them as criminals relegates them to a permanent second-class status upon release, stripping them of the right to vote, to serve on juries, to be free of legal and employment discrimination, and to access education and other public benefits (Alexander, 2010). In this manner, it becomes a vehicle of violence that systematically injures individuals and tears apart communities, rather than a mode of prevention. Due to the racial disparities, the deterrent effect of the criminal system is weakest among these very populations.

In criminology, this is sometimes called the “Pyrrhic defeat” theory: as opposed to a Pyrrhic victory, where one ostensibly wins at great cost, a Pyrrhic defeat involves losing at great cost but some part of the system benefits enough—for example, private prisons profit—to keep it going despite the great overall cost. This has led to a call for abolishing prisons altogether (McLeod, 2015), and this week, prison strikes are spreading across North America to protest for better conditions (Pilkington, 2018). If a system does not serve its purported function (deter crime) but operates a caste-like system that targets minorities and migrants to serve as a surrogate ghetto, then the whole system is inherently destructive and requires reconsideration—and a healthy society should be capable of doing so.


Alexander, M. (2010). New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, NY: New Press.

Amnesty International (2003). United States of America: Death by Discrimination—The Continuing Role of Race in Capital Cases. London, U.K.: Amnesty International. Retrievable at:

Drucker, E. (2013). A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America. New York, NY: New Press.

Guerino, P., Harrison, P. M., and Sabol, W. J. (2012). Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin: Prisoners in 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

Lee, B. X., Wexler, B. E., and Gilligan, J. (2014). Political correlates of violent death rates in the U.S., 1900-2010: Longitudinal and cross-sectional analyses. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 19(6), 721-728.

McLeod, A. M. (2015). Prison Abolition and Grounded Justice. UCLA Law Review, 62(1), 1156-1239.

Pettit, B., Sykes, B., and Western, B. (2009). Technical Report on Revised Population Estimates and NLSY 79 Analysis Tables for the Pew Public Safety and Mobility Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Pilkington, E. (2018). Major prison strike spreads across U.S. and Canada as inmates refuse food. Guardian. Retrievable at:…

Tonry, M., and Melewski, M. (2008). The malign effects of drug and crime control policies on black Americans. Crime and Justice, 37(1), 1-44.

About the Author
Bandy X. Lee M.D., M.Div.

Bandy Lee, M.D., is a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine and project group leader for the World Health Organization Violence Prevention Alliance. She also authored the textbook Violence.