America's prison dilemma
Article 10 of 11-part series on race in America.
By Glenn C.
Trice Edney .
Even if every convict were
/ sentenced, America's vast, racially skewed incarceration system wotild still
*^be morally indefensible.
''Over the past four decades,
' the United States has become a vastly punitive nation, without historical precedent or
''international parallel. With
'roughly 5 percent of the world's poptilation, the U.S.
'currently confines about
;?bne-quarter of the world's
'prison inmates. In 2008,
" one in a hundred American adults was behind bars. Just
I what manner of people does
"bur prison policy reveal us
America, with great armies deployed abroad under a
^.banner of freedom, nevertheless harbors the largest
^infrastructure for the mass
^deprivation of liberty on the planet. We imprison nearly as great a fraction of otir population to a lifetime in jail (around 70 people ofor every 100,000 residents)
Xthan Sweden, Denmark, and
'^Norway imprison for any
^ duration whatsoever.
That America's prisoners are mainly minorities, parjticularly African Americans,
^ h o come from the most disadvantaged corners of our unequal society, cannot be ignored. In 2006, one in nine Black men between the ages of 20 and 34 was serving time. The role of race
;4n this drama is subtle and
¿important, and the racial
^breakdown is not incidenftal: prisons both reflect and
»exacerbate existing racial and class inequalities.
Why are there so many
mandatory minimum-type behavior. Rather, the larger statutes such as California's • society is implicated in a
Three Strikes Law, are dif- criminal's choices because ficult to justify. we have acquiesced to social
The ideological justifica- arrangements that work to tion for the present American our henefit and to his detriprison s\?stem also ignores the ment, that shape his confact that the hroader society sciousness and his sense of is implicated in the existence identity in a way the choices of these damaged, neglected, he makes (and that we mtist feared'and despised com- condemn) are nevertheless mtm^ities. People who Hve compelling to him in these places are aware
Put simply, the structure of outsiders \'iew them with our cities with their massive suspicion and contempt. ghettos is a causal factor in
(I know whereof I speak in the deviancy among those this regard, because I am myself a child of the Black ghetto, connected intimately to ghetto-dwellers hy the bond of social and psychic affiliation. Whüe in general I am not much given to advertising this fact, it seems appropriate to do so here.)
Americans in prison? It is my belief that such racial disparity is not mainly due to overt discriminatory practices by the courts or the police. But that hardly exhausts the moral discussion. To begin ^vith, let's remember the fact that the very definition of crime is socially constructed; as graphically ültistrated hy the so-called "war on drugs," much of what is criminal today was not criminal in
joh training, mental health escape povertv^ or preserve programs, a n d other social the often meager value of initiatives. As a result, it is a n their property. arena in which social stratiHuge racial disparities in fication, social stigmas, a n d the incidence of incarcerau n i q u e l y A m e r i c a n social tion should therefore come as and racial dramas are rein- no surprise. The subordinate forced. status of Black ghetto-dwellWe s h o u l d also r e m e m - ers — their social deprivaber that "punishment" a n d tion and spatial isolation in
"inequality" are intimately America's cities — puts them
Unked — causality r u n s i n at greater risk of embracing b o t h directions. Disparities dysfunctional behaviors in punishment reflect socio- that lead to incarceration, economic inequalities, b u t