Academic journal article Social Justice

Five Theses on Mass Incarceration

Academic journal article Social Justice

Five Theses on Mass Incarceration

Article excerpt

According to the latest data published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS),in 2014 the prison population of the United States stood at 1361,500 (BJS 2015a, 1), If prisoners held in local jails are added to the count, the population confined behind bars reaches 2,306,100 (for an incarceration rate of 725/100,000), to which one should add the more than 4,7 million individuals currently on parole or probation. In total, more than 7 million people are currently under some form of penal control--almost 3% of the US population, the equivalent of what would be the second-largest city in the United States after New York (BJS 2014a, 2015a, 2015b).

However, the sheer extension of the correctional population in the United States does not convey the race and class dimensions of the US penal state--the result of a four-decade-long carceral experiment devised from the outset as a political strategy to restructure racial and class domination in the aftermath of the radical social movements of the 1960s (cf. Alexander 2010; Tonry 2011; Wacquant 2009). As of 2014, 59% of the male prison population was either African American (37%) or Latino (22%). The largest overrepresentation of black prisoners is among males aged 18 to 19: With an incarceration rate of 1,072/100,000, young black men are 10 times more likely to be in a state or federal prison than whites (102/100,000). In 2014, 6% of black men aged 30 to 39 were in prison, compared to 2% of Latinos and 1% of whites of the same age (BJS 2015, I). According to recent estimates, African American children born in 1990 of a high-school dropout black father had a 50.5% chance of having their male parent in prison by age 14, whereas for those born of a non-college-educated black father the probability was 30% (Wildeman 2009, 273). Black male high-school dropouts born between 1975 and 1979 had a 70% chance of spending some time in prison before reaching age 35 (Western and Wildeman 2009, 231).

In 2014, resuming a recent downward trend that had been momentarily reversed in 2013, the nation's prison population registered a modest 1% decline--15,400 fewer prisoners since the previous year. Approximately one third of this decline was due to a decrease in the federal prison population; once that number is subtracted from the count, the decline at the state level (where the vast majority of prisoners are held) goes down to a meager average of 200 fewer inmates for each US state in the period 2013-2014 (BJS 2015a, 2). Despite the ongoing national debate on the prison crisis and the recent wave of bipartisan initiatives to tackle the burgeoning costs of mass incarceration, in 2014 prison admissions actually rose in 18 states. Over the same period, California--whose 2011 Public Safety Realignment plan has been hailed by some as a blueprint for nationwide decarceration efforts--has witnessed a slight increase in the state prison population (+0.1%), largely due to the ongoing rise in the number of women behind bars (+1.3% in 2013-2014; ibid., 3). Indeed, since 2010 women have been the fastest-growing fraction of the US prison population, rising by an average of 3.4% annually, even as the number of incarcerated men was undergoing a modest decline (BJS 2014b, 6). These tendencies become even more evident if one observes the fluctuating population of local jails, which are increasingly transformed into modern-day poorhouses in charge of the low-cost warehousing of petty offenders now deemed unworthy of expensive stays in state prisons: In 2014 the total US jail population rose by 1.8% since the previous year, with the female jail population increasing by a notable 18% between 2000 and 2014 (BJS 2015b. 3).

Do these contradictory signals emerging from the penal field herald a turning point in the history of the American carceral state? Is it plausible, as Jonathan Simon (2014, 1) argues in his recent book, that "like a biblical flood, the age of mass incarceration is finally ebbing"? …

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