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May 20, 2008

Recalling the human realities of mass incarceration

A helpful reader sent me a link to this potent essay titled, "Society of the Incarcerated: Acknowledging the Voices of America's Ever-Increasing Prison Population."  The lengthy piece is worth a full read; here are some excerpts:

Who talks about prisoners these days?  Certainly not the US presidential candidates or most others up for election in 2008, unless it’s in tangential “get tough on crime” rhetoric. In the media, quality coverage such as Jeff Gerritt’s Pulitzer-nominated series on medical care in Michigan prisons, which appeared last year in The Detroit Free Press, is overshadowed by courtroom dramas and legal thrillers....

Authentic communication from and about prisoners exists, but it’s relegated to a niche market outside of most print and online news sources, of influential political blogs, of the catalogues of big publishers, and of the speeches of election year candidates.  Presumably, its minimal share of attention is justified because decision makers think their audiences don’t care much about prisons and the people in them.

It’s an odd assumption in the face of the prison industrial complex’s monstrous growth.  We incarcerate 500% more people today than we did thirty years ago.  The United States is home to a mere five percent of the world’s total population, and 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population: 2.3 million people, most of whom are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.  And that number doesn’t include those living under the thumb of the criminal justice system: probationers, parolees and those on tethers, the electronic monitoring devices worn by people on house arrest.

This makes the vacuum of nuanced coverage of prisons and prisoners in the media and by the candidates all the more baffling....

[The] 2.3 million men and women and children in prison are real people.  While they are disproportionately people of color and poor — hardly the demographic given center stage in media and electoral campaigns — they are connected to other people in a thousand ways.  We bear profound responsibility for the prison industrial complex we’ve built.  We must notice.  Human lives are at stake.

Some related posts on mass incarceration in the US:

Some recent posts on the failure of Campaign 2008 to discuss US incarceration realities:

May 20, 2008 at 12:09 PM | Permalink


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I have a suggestion that will help alleviate prison crowding -- not immediately, but over time. The suggestion does not require any governmental creativity.

It is this: People who are thinking of undertaking the sort of behavior that could wind them up in prison should reconsider and STOP.

To talk about imprisonment without talking about crime is very, very bizarre. It's like talking about why Americans have a high incidence of heart disease without talking about "diets" consisting of doughnuts and pizza.

Heart disease has a cause directly related to personal choices and personal behavior. So does incarceration.

It's always easy for human beings to blame their status on factors outside themselves and for which they bear no responsibility. Easy, but inaccurate, and unworthy.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 20, 2008 1:23:37 PM

I think you totally miss the point
The point could be is a 15 year sentence appropriate when the message is served with a 2 year sentence.

A non violent white collar defendant sent to prison for 5 years, lets say this is a person with no priors might be the cause of the problem. Could you reach the goals of sentencing by giving him or her 1 year. Remember it is really a life sentence because unlike a traffic ticket this does not go away.

Granted you are not 100% off base because if you make the right decisions in life you don't end up in this situation. But sometimes even good people make the wrong choices.

Posted by: | May 20, 2008 1:38:01 PM

Prison overcrowding is a network externality, Bill, like traffic. By definition, it's mostly other people's fault.

Posted by: Gray Proctor | May 20, 2008 2:19:06 PM

To 1:38:01,

I don't think I'm missing the point. I think the article is missing the point, intentionally, by discussing incarceration while remaining silent on what causes it.

Whenever the subject of "mass incarceration" comes up, what usually follows is the party line that the prisons are chock full of "non-violent first time offenders" who "made a one-time mistake" but are really "good people" victimized by The Evil System. In this recounting, there are simply no such things as thugs, strongarms and hoodlums.

I worked in the federal criminal justice system for a number of years, and in response to the party line, I often invite people to do this: Go down to your local federal courthouse every day for a week. Go from courtroom to courtroom, as you choose. Sit in the audience and just take in what's going on.

Now maybe what you'll see is a bunch of good citizens unfairly accused by The Fascist Prosecutor. But I have never had a single person to whom I issued this invitation say that's what they witnessed. I believe what you'll see is what I saw, to wit, one tough customer after the next who thought he could bamboozle someone (or a lot of people) out of their money (Ken Lay, call your office), or just take it by force, or sell meth to somebody's 16 year-old, or smuggle guns up the Interstate to the local street gang in DC, etc., etc.

I'll say this, though. Your response is relatively realistic and moderate in tone, as when you note that "if you make the right decisions in life you don't end up in this situation." And for that I thank you.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 20, 2008 2:26:46 PM

Gary Proctor:

"Prison overcrowding is a network externality, Bill, like traffic. By definition, it's mostly other people's fault."

Traffic has no moral dimension, and no volitional component attributable to a particular individual. Sticking a gun in someone's face to relieve him of him of his wallet does, however. So does selling heroin.

In the world as it exits, you can't really choose not to be in traffic. But you can choose not to steal or sell dangerous drugs or smuggle machine guns or any of the other behaviors that send people to prison. Choice is not an externality.

Still, I appreciate for its candor your quite forthright statement that a criminal's punishment, to wit, imprisonment, crowded and presumably otherwise, is "mostly other people's fault."

I wonder if any of the Presidential candidates wants to run on THAT platform.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 20, 2008 2:46:52 PM

Presume away, buddy. Whatever floats your prison barge.

Posted by: Gray Proctor | May 20, 2008 3:06:39 PM

By the way - here's what a network externality actually is.

Granted, it is a little counterintuitive to think of prisoners as consumers of prison. HOwever, "choice is not an externality" is a meaningless statement. One individual's decision to perform an act that leads to his incarceration obviously has no direct effect on how crowded it is when he gets there.

Posted by: Gray Proctor | May 20, 2008 3:12:55 PM

Bill, noone would disagree (despite your claims about defense attorneys) that a criminal (most of the time; some of them are actually innocent)makes a choice to commit a crime and so therefore must (consistent with due process) suffer the consequences. What consequences? The issue is whether it is beneficial to society to have such a high incarceration rate. There is no drug problem in Singapore. Why?

Does our society benefit with such a high incarceration rate? Or are there other ways to reduce crime without a high incarceration rate? Do you acknowledge the social costs associated with a high rate of incarceration? If not, I invite you to walk into Newark, New Jersey and question the residents about the criminal justice system and its impact on their lives. I have. There's another side to the issue. At least acknowledge it.

Posted by: John | May 20, 2008 3:48:02 PM


To your point that there are a lot of people in U.S. prisons simply because there are a lot of U.S people who did things to get themselves there: It seems to beg some follow-up questions, the answers to which could perhaps round out your idea:

Why do you suppose there are so many more people in the U.S. doing those kinds of things? Do we just have a lot more bad people than almost all other countries? Or, are other countries just less judicially efficient because they don't lock up more of their people? Or is the current spike in incarceration just the inevitable consequence of past laxness coming around to be dealt with (harshly) to get things straightened back out?

And one other question that I think is more important than any of the above regardless of how you answer them:

What are going to be the long-term consequences of all that incarceration (assuming we don't kill all that many of those incarcerated) when most of them come back out?

Scott Taylor

Posted by: | May 20, 2008 3:55:13 PM

What bothers me about prison admissions is the high percentages of probation and parole revocations. A probation revocation means the judge did not think that prison was an appropriate sentence and the judge was wrong. A parole revocation means the parole board thought the prisoner was a good risk for early release and they were wrong. When I find a case where shock probation was used for an individual who has been in prison on three prior occasions I wonder if the judge was thinking.

What judges complain about are the nonviolent repeat offenders that keep coming back. The ABA policy is that incarceration should be reserved for persons who are a threat to public safety (I assume that means violent offenders) and habitual offenders (how many returns to prison does that mean?). If incarceration in prison was reserved for violent offenders and habitual offenders were placed on rigorous supervision the prison population would be smaller but the property and drug crime rates would probably be larger.

Posted by: John Neff | May 20, 2008 5:59:56 PM

John: "There is no drug problem in Singapore. Why?"

Probably because Singapore executes its drug dealers. In fact, in recent years, Singapore has executed more people than the US. Most of them are drug dealers. Do you support capital punishment for drug dealers?

Posted by: realist | May 20, 2008 7:34:04 PM

Gary Proctor:

"Presume away, buddy. Whatever floats your prison barge."

A provacative analysis. Could you be a little more specific in step 5?

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 21, 2008 9:34:38 AM


Just one quick point.

What I want from defense attorneys is the same thing I want from prosecutors, public and private sector lawyers, the police and, if a point be made of it, the rest of the human race. It's this: To be forthcoming, honest, candid and above-board in whatever you're doing.

If that's a crime, I plead guilty. Lawyers don't get a special exemption from the morals I would teach any eight year-old.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 21, 2008 11:54:54 AM


I suppose all those countries that do not have crime and incarceration rates as high as ours are merely fools for not recognizing the simple fact that it is simply a matter of choice. It's the old nature/nurture debate and the tough on crime punishment only rhetoric, that evil people make evil choices, is now acknowledged as flawed. The Second Chance act focuses once again on nurture.

But as the Washington State study found, we can go one step deeper and actually prevent crime before it starts by not relying solely on severe punishment as a deterrent. Search the study for "nurse" to find something that actually works but is expensive in the short term but cost saving in the long term. When the government starts doing what works I'll start believing the motive really is a concern for victims. As it stands, the motive seems to be a police state that, like in the movie "Little Shop of Horrors" can only scream, "Feed me! Feed me!"

The result is the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Posted by: George | May 21, 2008 11:56:19 AM

Mr. Otis, your argument in a way makes the claim that a snapshot is life, when in reality that 8-year-old has an 8-year long movie to contend with.

8-year-old: Pass the bread please.

Father: be forthcoming, honest, candid and above-board in whatever you're doing.

8-year-old: Can I go over to John's?

Father: be forthcoming, honest, candid and above-board in whatever you're doing.

8-year-old: How come you never say you love me?

Father: be forthcoming, honest, candid and above-board in whatever you're doing.

I dare say by the time the kid is 18 he might end up in prison for cutting out his father's tongue. Put another way, what difference does child abuse make when the child as a child and throughout adulthood need only make the right choices? Indeed, it is possible by "murdered soul" we mean damage to the ability to make healthy choices fundamental to healthy citizenship and personal relationships.

Posted by: George | May 21, 2008 12:21:27 PM


1. "Mr. Otis, your argument in a way makes the claim that a snapshot is life, when in reality that 8-year-old has an 8-year long movie to contend with."

I actually have no idea what you're talking about. Could you explain?

2. You then go into a bizarre script about a robot father who urges living honestly to his kid when the kid asks if he can have the butter, go over to John's, etc. But I suggested nothing even vaguely resembling this script. Again, what are you talking about?

3. Teaching a child to live an honest and straightforward life does not murder his soul. It nourishes his soul. It also builds the basis for earned, as opposed to faked, self-esteem. And it gives him a better chance at a happy and productive adulthood, because the people he meets are far more likely to form positive relationships with those who act with honesty and candor than with those who don't.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 21, 2008 2:54:33 PM

"Teaching a child to live an honest and straightforward life does not murder his soul."

I didn't argue that it did. My post really wasn't that difficult to understand.

Posted by: George | May 22, 2008 11:24:30 AM

Then it shouldn't be that difficult to explain.

From what little I can gather of it, the gist of your post is that I suggested robotically telling a kid to live an honest and straightforward life as rote repetition, in response to everything and anything the kid might say. But I did nothing of the kind.

It's distressing to see that sticking in a word for honesty brings such a derisive response. Would you prefer that children be taught to be DIShonest?

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 22, 2008 10:35:02 PM

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