Mass Incarceration on Trial

By Scott McLemee

The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. It has come down a sliver over the past six years: the all-time peak rate was in 2008, with 754 prisoners per 100,000 population.

As of 2013, that figure had fallen to 716, but the U.S. has retained its carceral supremacy, even so. While home to roughly 5 percent of the global population, it holds 25 percent of the world’s inmates. And the recent decline in the rate of incarceration – down 3 percent, across 5 years – looks especially underwhelming in the context of the last few decades. The rate of imprisonment held fairly steady in the U.S. between 1925 and 1975, apart from a modest and not too surprising increase for a while in the late 1930s. It then grows an astonishing 500 percent between 1975 and 2000, before starting to slow down (but still to grow!) in the early years of the new millennium.

Growth of that kind doesn’t just happen, somehow, through the operation of blind forces. Prisons exist, operate, and expand according to decisions that some people make — and that most of the rest of us acquiesce in, if only through the luxury of not paying that much attention.

Please note use of the expression “most of us,” not “most of you,” since there is no piece of moral high ground to which I can stake any claim. It is easy (unless you are Simone Weil, perhaps) to learn some troubling statistics from the news and then not think about them again. Human beings invented statistics in an effort to understand and control the world, but they are also pretty good at keeping reality at a distance.

In his new book Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America (New Press), Jonathan Simon fits the numbers into a frame that renders them disturbingly intelligible. In journal articles and a previous monograph, Simon, who is a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, has argued that the metaphor of a “war on crime” has become entirely too central to public life in the United States. Besides pervasive surveillance cameras, unrelentingly sensational mass media (“if it bleeds, it leads”), political candidates uniformly vowing to be “tough on crime,” and an essentially militarized police presence in some urban neighborhoods, we have gotten used to a prison-construction boom with economic effects described in a report prepared for Congress four years ago:

“About 770,000 people worked in the corrections sector in 2008. The U.S. Labor Department expects the number of guards, supervisors, and other staff to grow by 9 percent between 2008 and 2018, while the number of probation and parole officers is to increase by 16 percent. In addition to those working directly in institutions, many more jobs are tied to a multi-billion dollar private industry that constructs, finances, equips, and provides health care, education, food, rehabilitation and other services to prisons and jails. By comparison, in 2008 there were 880,000 workers in the entire U.S. auto manufacturing sector.”

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