Fifteen years ago, mass imprisonment was largely an invisible issue in the United States. Since then, criticism of the country’s extraordinary incarceration rate has become widespread across the political spectrum. The huge prison buildup of the past four decades has few ardent defenders today. But reforms to reduce the number of people in jail and prison have been remarkably modest so far.
Meanwhile, a tenacious carceral state has sprouted in the shadows of mass imprisonment and has been extending its reach far beyond the prison gate. It includes not only the country’s vast archipelago of jails and prisons but also the far-reaching and growing range of penal punishments and controls that lie in the never-never land between the gate of the prison and full citizenship. As it sunders families and communities and radically reworks conceptions of democracy, rights and citizenship, the carceral state poses a formidable political and social challenge.
The reach of the carceral state is truly breathtaking. It extends well beyond the estimated 2.2 million people sitting in jail or prison today in the United States. It encompasses the more than 8 million people – or 1 in 23 adults – who are under some form of ...
—Lewis E. Lawes, warden of Sing Sing prison, 1920–41
The Great Recession has spurred the reexamination of many penal policies, from the war on drugs to alternatives to incarceration, but not the widespread use of life sentences.1
The United States continues to be deeply attached to condemning huge numbers of offenders to the “other death penalty” despite mounting evidence that lengthy sentences have minimal impact on reducing the crime rate and enhancing public safety.
Life sentences have become so commonplace that about one out of eleven people imprisoned in the United States is serving one. Nearly one-third of these life-sentenced offenders have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP).
The total life-sentenced population in the United States is about 141,000 people – or about twice the size of the entire incarcerated population in Japan. These figures on life sentences do not fully capture the extraordinary number of people who will spend all or much of their lives in U.S. prisons ...
Death fades into insignificance when compared with life imprisonment. To spend each night in jail, day after day, year after year, gazing at the bars and longing for freedom, is indeed expiation.
Race, Incarceration, and American Values. By Glenn C. Loury with Pamela Karlan, Tommie Shelby, and Löic Wacquant. MIT Press. 88 pp. $14.95.
A few years ago, Graterford state prison outside Philadelphia hosted a large and unprecedented family fun day for imprisoned men and their families. Afterwards, a seven-year-old sent Superintendent Donald DiGuglielmo a letter thanking him for the “most fun I’ve ever had.” Sounding alternately proud, bemused, and troubled as he recalled this story, DiGuglielmo asked his largely suburban audience at a recent workshop on children and incarceration: what does it say about us as a society that the best day of this child’s life was a day spent behind the walls of a maximum-security prison?
Much recent research on prisoners and their families emphasizes the uniformly devastating economic, social, and political impact that mass incarceration has had on families and communities. Glenn C. Loury and his contributors survey some of the wreckage in Race, Incarceration, and American Values. But as Megan Comfort shows in Doing Time Together, the families ...
Doing Time Together: Love and Family in the Shadow of the Prison. By Megan Comfort. University of Chicago Press. 256 pp. $55.00 cloth. $22.00 paper.
How did this happen? Why didn’t politicians from Republican Barry Goldwater to Democrat Bill Clinton face more public opposition to the proliferation of harsh talk and harsh penalties, like mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws, life sentences, and capital punishment? After all, public opinion polls show that Americans’ views of crime and punishment are not uniformly harsh. Indeed, it wasn’t until the early 1990s--two decades into the prison boom and just as the crime rate was plummeting--that the public identified crime as a leading national problem.
Liberal disillusionment with rehabilitation beginning in the 1970s together with attacks from the right and left on sen-tencing policy (notably indeterminate sentences) certainly provided major openings for penal policy to ...
Throughout American history, politicians and public officials have exploited public anxieties about crime and disorder for political gain. The difference today is that these political strategies and public anxieties have come together in the perfect storm. They have radically transformed U.S. penal policies, spurring an unprecedented prison boom. Since the early 1970s, the U.S. prisoner population has increased by more than fivefold. Today the United States is the world’s warden, incarcerating a higher proportion of its people than any other country.