Monday, July 6, 2009

Mass Imprisonment: The Birth of a Social Problem

Looking around for a dissertation topic in 1986, I followed the lead of my adviser, Sheldon Messinger, and began to look more closely at California's rapidly growing prison system. I came to focus in particular on the parole system that was supposed to guide prisoners back into society, but which instead seemed to keep them cycling back to prison (see my 1993 book Poor Discipline: Parole and the Social Control of the Underclass, 1890-1990 for the details). California's prison population had already increased more than 100 percent since I began as an undergraduate at Berkeley nine years earlier in 1977 (we took our time in those days). Many people, especially academic criminologists, doubted the wisdom of sending lots of felony offenders indiscriminately to prison (let alone parole violators), mainly because they did not believe it would reduce crime (others did believe, especially James Q. Wilson). Messinger was one of the few beginning to worry outloud (although not in print) about how this massive increase in the scale of imprisonment would effect society more generally. I was able to communicate some of his disquiet empirically in Poor Discipline.

The turnabout in that perception is now quite visible in academic research, and increasingly in public discourse. Erik Eckholm's excellent article on the children of the incarcerated in yesterday's NYTimes is a case in point. But while the emergence of mass imprisonment as a social problem in its own right is an encouraging sign (for those of us who would like to reverse it), it will only get us part of the way there.

[to read the rest of this post with all the links on Prawsfblawg]

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