Raising Questions About America's Big Prison System
IN THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER, the growth and size of the American prison system was examined in detail. That examination brought numerous facts to light, but it did not attempt to explain any of these facts in any detail. In this chapter, several questions are raised about America's prison system with the intention of exploring what lies behind American's big prison model.
There are numerous reasons that can be forwarded to explain the rapid rate of prison growth in contemporary America. For any of these explanations to be viable, they must not only explain the pattern in imprisonment, but must also explain why policy makers and politicians have helped to carry out a plan of action that continually increased the size of America's prison system.
To be sure, policy makers' obsession with incapacitation and deterrent approaches—the idea that locking up offenders prevents them from committing crimes while incarcerated, or deters others from committing crime by example, is the most apparent explanation. Most assuredly, as Sutton (2004) noted, prisons could not expand unless their expansion was supported by government officials. But asserting that prisons expanded because of the decisions of policy makers is a less than useful or adequate explanation. Sutton's assertion does not, for example, help us understand the expansion of prisons because it fails to describe why policy makers decided that it was the right time to expand America's prison system, and why the expansion should be so dramatic and so long-lived. Thus, while it may be impossible to explain prison growth