I became passionate about the politics of incarceration after volunteering to teach a creative writing class at the local county jail a few years ago. It opened my eyes to a good deal of oppression and exploitation that takes place in the U.S., in the name of justice. In my opinion, and from my investigations, much of what we call “justice” in the United States is a cruel fantasy that not only causes needless suffering and perpetuates poverty but also is currently bankrupting we, the (so-called) good people.
I came across an op-ed written in the New York Times by Albert R. Hunt entitled “A Country of Inmates.” (reprinted at Truth-out.org) Despite the fact that crime rates have been dropping, incarceration has been on the rise. He points to the politics of incarceration. I would also mention that at this point, incarceration has become a for-profit enterprise and an important part of the economic fabric of many communities. So, it is politically not possible to be perceived as both “soft on crime” and also pull the plug on prison facilities that are now important economic engines.
A friend of mine and former student in a prison in Indiana was looking forward to getting some sort of post high school degree. (A felon can expect a 40% decrease in earnings potential when leaving prison.) The program was just cut.
Here are a few excerpts from the article:
“The U.S. prison population has more than doubled over the past 15 years, and one in nine black children has a parent in jail…
“The prison explosion hasn’t been driven by an increase in crime. In fact, the crime rate, notably for violent offenses, is dropping across the United States, a phenomenon that began about 20 years ago….
“’People ask why so many black kids are growing up without fathers,’ said Ms. [Michelle] Alexander. ‘A big part of the answer is mass incarceration.’….
“A hypothetical example: A black kid is arrested for selling cocaine to the members of a fraternity at an elite university. The seller gets sent away for 25 years. The fraternity is put on probation for a semester by the university and nothing else.
“In all likelihood, the convicted seller is quickly replaced, and few of the fraternity kids change their drug-use habits. The lesson: neither the supply nor the demand has changed, and the prison population grows…..
“Nevertheless, the politics of the crime issue cuts against any rational approach. Even if recidivism rates are low, it’s the failures that attract attention…’One case where a parolee does something very wrong is sensationalized,’ Ms. Alexander said, ‘and many, many others are kept behind bars for a long time.’”