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Imprisonment is a political act. Until early-nineteenthcentury reforms, lockups most often confined people awaiting trial. Earlier political elites, kings and queens for example, locked away their opposition, critics, or competitors in dungeons or, in the case of enemies of the English Crown, the Tower of London. Common criminals were often executed, were banished, or received corporal punishment. The concept of the European and North American prison as a primary form of punishment was a reform advocated by individuals such as the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) and the American reformer Jeremy Bentham. Early American prisons in Pennsylvania and New York were thought to provide a more reasonable alternative than previous practices, which reformers believed were too often cruel and capricious.
Imprisoning offenders provides a rational means of punishment because the length of incarceration can be tied to the severity of the offense or offenses. Which crimes people will be imprisoned for and for how long are decisions that are made in political arenas. In the late twentieth century the Soviet Union, South Africa, and the United States were the nations with the largest portions of their populations in custody. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent release of political prisoners, the demise of apartheid and the consequent liberation of democracy advocates and freedom fighters, the United States moved into the lead. Since then, the war on drugs and other “get tough” practices have led to a quadrupling of the number of American inmates. Officials of both major political parties have supported such practices because they want to run for reelection on “get tough on crime” platforms, and they fear being painted as “soft on crime” by the opposition. Thus, the consequences for criminal acts, including length of incarceration, are essentially outcomes of the political process, involving politicians, public interest groups, and advocates.
Decisions have been made against a backdrop of two competing visions of the role of prisons. Is their primary purpose punishment or rehabilitation? Estimates of recidivism rates frequently have surpassed two-thirds when corrections officials were concerned about rehabilitation and when punishment was stressed. With such limited success with either philosophy, legislatures often “reform” and alter sentencing and imprisonment policies based on what will garner votes, rather than a rational penology.
Prison Systems in America and Abroad
Evidence of the political and economic underpinnings of imprisonment in the United States can be seen in the history of race and American incarceration. Prior to the Civil War very few blacks were ever confined in prison. Most African Americans lived in southern states and most were slaves. Freedmen found guilty of crimes were frequently re-enslaved. Bondsmen who were thought to violate the law were more likely to be punished by their owners and not imprisoned (even though white offenders might be locked up), because to do so deprived southern elites of workers. After the demise of Reconstruction in the late 1870s the prisoner lease system was instituted in the South. This system of “renting” convicts (which included more blacks, now that they were not enslaved) to work on plantations, in mines, on railroads, and in other laborious or dangerous industries provided cheap labor, but it also buttressed the Jim Crow racial caste structure that emerged. Although Jim Crow laws no longer exist in the United States, an argument among researchers remains: What role does race play in the rates of imprisonment, and what percentage of minority imprisonment can be justly accounted for by minorities’ higher levels of involvement in crime?
In societies with heterogeneous populations race and ethnicity are important determinants of imprisonment. Michael Tonry’s Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration (1997) presents studies of race, immigration, crime, and criminal justice practices in Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States. The countries included, with the exception of Australia, do not have the oppressive domestic racial history of the United States or its level of racial disparity in imprisonment. In Australia the treatment of Aboriginal people has been racist. Nevertheless, studies included by Tonry document important shifts in criminal justice practices as the number of people defined as “outsiders” grows. Within the United States, the debate continues to be not about whether racial unfairness results in disproportionate confinement of African Americans and Latinos, but how much of observed racial disparities in imprisonment are due to unwarranted, discriminating treatment. As European nations develop more diverse populations it is likely that they too will have growing disparity in imprisonment and debates that parallel those in the United States. Europeans will have to consider what portion of racial and ethnic imprisonment disparities result from higher criminal involvement among “others”—probably in part a result of their political, economic, and social disadvantages within the society—and what portion are consequences of the politics of imprisonment.
Nations still use prisons to stifle political dissent: Amnesty International regularly publishes lists of nations that use prisons to violate human rights. Litigation resulting from U.S. policies that lock up “criminal combatants” in the “war on terror,” with neither constitutionally guaranteed due process nor supposed Geneva Convention protections, is likely to continue for decades in either American or international courts.
Effects on Economy and Community
There are two additional important aspects of imprisonment: its differential economic effects and its effects on communities. In 2004 Bruce Western and his colleagues showed that racial and class inequalities have been maintained, in part, by U.S. imprisonment patterns. For example, their research shows that the reduced number of unemployed African Americans is a consequence of the increased number of blacks who are held in confinement rather than as a result of any improving economic fortune; they have simply been removed from both the labor market and the unemployment roles. When eventually released, they will then have considerably poorer employment prospects than before their incarceration.
The massive increase in U.S. imprisonment has also been detrimental to communities. In 1998 Dina Rose and Todd Clear demonstrated that when large numbers of people are forcibly removed from communities by incarceration, the social structure is destabilized, opening the door for social problems, including increased crime. Also, released inmates tend to return to the same neighborhoods they lived in prior to imprisonment. They bring back their increased social and economic disadvantage and social stigma. When the released are concentrated in already disadvantaged neighborhoods, they further destabilize those communities.
Few argue that imprisonment is not a better form of punishment than the arbitrary and frequently cruel practices that it replaced, and even fewer will suggest that incarceration is not a necessary practice in complex societies. Too often, however, there is little recognition of the political nature of imprisonment and the social and economic consequences of incarceration.
- Pettit, Becky, and Bruce Western. 2004. Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration. American Sociological Review 69 (2): 151–169.
- Rose, Dina R., and Todd R. Clear. 1998. Incarceration, Social Capital, and Crime: Implications for Social Disorganization Theory. Criminology 36 (3): 441–479.
- Tonry, Michael. 1997. Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Western, Bruce, Meredith Kleykamp, and Jake Rosenfeld. 2004. Crime, Punishment, and American Inequality. In Social Inequality, ed. Kathryn M. Neckerman. New York: Russell Sage.
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