Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment

Edited by Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind, The New Press, 2002, 368 pgs.

Review by Silja J.A. Talvi

Mass imprisonment, according to
criminal justice experts Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind, is the direct outgrowth of social and legal policies that have, for the past two decades, firmly favored incarceration over treatment, rehabilitation and alternate forms of sentencing.

With 450,000 people sent to prison every yearand nearly two million African Americans now under some form of correctional supervisionthe editors of Invisible Punishment make a compelling case that mass imprisonment has taken a heavy toll in the form of "collateral consequences."

Those consequences, as outlined in Invisible Punishment by some of the best thinkers in the fields of criminal justice and penology, don't stop at the experiences of down-on-their luck prisoners. As the contributors to this cohesive anthology explain sixteen well-written chapters, the collateral damage of mass incarceration is bleeding over into the very fabric of American society.

As the nation's prison population has swollen past the two million mark, evidence of overcrowded, understaffed and abuse-prone prison systems is not hard to come by. But The Sentencing Project's assistant director Mauer and respected criminologist and women's studies professor Chesney-Lind go further to argue that the overreaching impact of the nation's incarceration policies (particularly those related to the war on drugs) has been to destabilize entire families and communities.

The destabilization, as it were, is most pronounced in lower-income urban centers, and within communities of color as a whole. But the contributors to Invisible Punishment make their case that the residual impact is now being felt across the nation. Mass incarceration has exacerbated mental illnesses and poverty; denied citizens the right to vote (both temporarily and permanently) through felony disenfranchisement laws; left drug and alcohol problems untreated; and even contributed to outbreaks of serious infectious diseases ranging from hepatitis C to tuberculosis.

According to contributors Gwen Rubinstein and Debbie Mukamal, prisoners released from incarceration often return to their communities to find that their criminal records severely hamper genuine efforts to reintegrate. In addition to social stigma and shame associated with incarceration, ex-offenders quickly find out about the recent federal bans on eligibility for welfare, food stamps and public housing for individuals with felony drug convictions or evidence of drug-related criminal activity.

Among the book's most exceptional chapters is "Incarceration and the Imbalance of Power," authored by American University Washington College of Law Professor Angela J. Davis. In this carefully constructed essay, Davis outlines the ways in which stringent drug war sentencing guidelines, in particular, have accorded prosecutors a disproportionate amount of power in the criminal justice system; disadvantaged the ability of defense attorneys to investigate cases and defend the rights of their clients; and tied the hands of judges in their abilities to decide on just punishment and sentence lengths.

Particular attention is paid in Invisible Punishment to the phenomenal growth of women in the criminal justice system. With well over 160,000 women in American prisons and jails-and 3.2 million arrests and detentions of women annuallythe rapid rate at which female incarceration has increased in the previous two decades has earned far too little academic and journalistic interest.

"Although designed with a largely male image of the `criminal' in mind, the development of mass imprisonment has taken a particularly heavy toll on women," writes Beth E. Richie in her essay, "The Social Impact of Mass Incarceration on Women. "Incarcerated women have a history of unmet social, educational, health and economic needs in addition to a history of victimization ... [B]y far, the majority of women who are incarcerated in this country are women of color."

This situation, writes co-editor Chesney-Lind in her own chapter, "Imprisoning Women: The Unintended Victims of Mass Imprisonment," is largely attributable to the drug waras well as to declining economic prospects for low-income women of color.

"It is now increasingly clear that the huge increases seen in women's imprisonment are due to an array of policy changes within the criminal justice system rather than a change in the seriousness of women's crime," writes Chesney-Lind. "Often, these policy changes were implemented with absolutely no thought to their impact on women's livesparticularly the most vulnerable of women living on society's economic margins."

In addition, as Chesney-Lind demonstrates through a careful culling of relevant studies and statistics, most women entering the prison system bring with them extensive histories of sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse, often dating back to childhood and continuing through their adult lives. Logically, Chesney-Lind questions the priorities of a society that allows women to descend (and to be punished for) their own self-destructive, self-medicating and "criminal" behaviors in the absence of counseling, preventative services, public education, and other supportive services.

Other chapters raise troubling questions about the collusion of immigration and punitive-minded criminal justice policy (a collusion which has led to the mass detention and deportation of immigrants with criminal, records, for instance), as well as the international implications of America's penchant for law-and-order imprisonment, racial profiling, prison privatization, prison labor and draconian drug laws.

"Ultimately, the impact of mass imprisonment on American society needs to be considered not just in terms of efficacy or benefits but as a moral question as well," the co-editors write in their conclusion. "Americans may continue to lead the world in incarceration, but it comes at a terrible social cost, and increasingly isolates us from the rest of the world."

Order from PLN for $22.95. Write Invisible Punishment on the order form on page 38. (Add $5 s/h on orders under $25) g

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login