But every society has a poor storm that wretches suffer in, and the attitude is always the same: either that the wretches, already dehumanized by their suffering, deserve no pity or that the oppressed, overwhelmed by injustice, will have to wait for a better world. At every moment, the injustice seems inseparable from the community’s life, and in every case the arguments for keeping the system in place were that you would have to revolutionize the entire social order to change it—which then became the argument for revolutionizing the entire social order. In every case, humanity and common sense made the insoluble problem just get up and go away. Prisons are our this. We need take more care.
Adam Gopnik, The Caging of America: Why do we lock so many people up, The New Yorker, January 30th, 2012
You know that mass incarceration has arrived as a social problem it is time to solve when literary writers who usually raise goose bumps on the arms of readers in book store cafes writing about Paris, brie and turkey (the food not the country) turns to the question of why so many Americans are fated to spend much of the rest of their lives in prison while the country in enjoying its lowest crime rates in decades. In a powerful essay wrapped around a discussion of several recent books on criminal justice in America, Adam Gopnik delivers up the most thoughtful understanding of mass incarceration yet to appear in American journalism (read it here).
Gopnik goes right to the point. Prison is cruel, even if you are not raped or in need of careful medical attention, because it turns the very gift of life itself, time, into a trap designed to produce pain. And it does. Of course America is not the only nation that adopted prisons, which appeared to be a humane alternative to torturing people in scaffolds or transporting them to Australia at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. The difference is that we send so many people and seek to incarcerate them so long.
Why? Drawing on excellent recent books on American punitiveness, including William Stuntz, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice; Robert Perkinsons, Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire, and Michelle Alexanders, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Gopnik suggests American proclivity for incarceration comes from different strains in our culture. One associated with the North, is a confidence in procedures to justice (as well as an optimism about machines to make things better, the penitentiary was a machine). Another associated with the South, is a commitment to forceful racial controls through degrading means (exemplified by Texas' tradition of plantation prisons described by Perkinson and in Michael Berryhill's just published, The Trials of Eroy Brown). Gopnik also mentions the rise of private prisons which also puts the profit motive behind building up and maintaining mass incarceration.
But as Gopnik recognizes, all of these features of American penality and life were present before the late 1970s, when the present run-up of incarceration began. The change was facilitated by the massive increase in urban crime that began in the early 1960s, and may have ended in the 1990s. This crime wave, often blamed on demography, but never adequately explained, reshaped American expectations about cities and insecurity in ways that transformed the routine activities of every generation since (just look at our locked down lives as well as our locked up prisoners). As the wave crested in the 1970s, alarming images of violent crime on the streets (serial killers) and in prisons (Gopnik mentions killings of guards at Marion federal prison in 1983 which initiated the first federal supermax prison, but the twisted story of the Attica prison uprising and retaking in 1971 may have already framed American prisoners as psychotic terrorists more than a decade earlier).
The fear of crime, named already as an object as well as problem by a New Yorker writer Richard Harris in 1969, has been with us ever since and forms the moral foundation for the mass incarceration state. It is this ingredient, above all, which has made prisons unassailable even at time when both the proceduralism and racism of our system have been widely exposed. Which is why the New York crime decline, charted by Zimring is so important. New York reduced crime vastly more than anyone else and did so while imprisoning fewer people and it did so largely using a grab bag of mundane police tactics. The key assumption of mass incarceration, that a prisoner in prison, is a long string of crimes avoided, is simply false.
Stripped of any pretense that prison reduces crime, it amounts to a cruel punishment now untethered to any limits of proportionality that as Durkheim argued provides the essential signature of the common consciousness in the will to punish. But even naked cruelty, can stand for decades, look at slavery or child labor. But if reducing crime is a matter of taking more care, as Gopnik apprehends, it will take a change of conscience, not a change in our criminologies (or not just a change, the truth is important) to unlock mass incarceration. Even now, the small steps back from the edge of proceduralism and racial control, like the reduction of the crack/powder sentencing differential in federal law, and the leeway granted by the Supreme Court to federal courts in sentencing under the no-longer mandatory guidelines, are under political pressure (hear Carrie Johnson's report "GOP Seeks Big Changes in Federal Sentences, on NPR here). Its not just our political parties,its our media, our urban landscapes, and ultimately our own imagination that keeps crime available as a construct to interpret our world and authorize power.
Which is why it is not just felicitous that a writer on food and culture takes an interest in prisons. Starting with the great wave of revulsion that greeted John Howard's State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777), writers and artists have played a crucial role in articulating the cruelty of prisons by touching the humanity of readers and observers.