It doesn't take much awareness of the news to recognize that the United States imprisons an incredibly high number of people, both in absolute terms and in relative to the whole population. Yet most people seem to be unaware of just how big of a problem America's incarceration rates are. The prisons themselves tend to be out of public sight in rural areas and the people imprisoned tend to be from racial minorities.
This is not an issue that should be swept under the rug, however, because of the extent to which if impacts so many families and communities. We all need to learn more both about what's going on currently as well as how America reached this point.
Marie Gottschalk writes in his book The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America:
The United States today has an incarcerated population that dwarfs that of China, a country that is several times larger and has at best only democratic aspirations and pretensions. The shock is all the greater in the U.S. case not only because of the enormity of the American carceral state, but also because of its invisibility – the invisibility of the numerous prisons that dot rural America and the desolate outskirts of urban areas; the more than two million men and women locked up on any given day; the hundreds of thousands released from prison each year with stunted employment, economic, educational, and social prospects; and the millions of families and children unhinged by the carceral state.
And just how bad is the state of incarceration in America? Marie Gottschalk provides some disturbing statistics:
Nearly one in fifty people in the United States, excluding children and the elderly, is behind bars today. In a period dominated by calls to roll back the state in all areas of social and economic policy, we have witnessed a massive expansion of the state in the realm of penal policy. The U.S. incarceration rate has accelerated dramatically, increasing more than five- fold since 1973. Today a higher proportion of the adult population in the United States is behind bars than anywhere else in the world. The United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, has nearly a quarter of its prisoners. America’s incarceration rate of 714 per 100,000 is five to twelve times the rate of Western European countries and Japan. Even after taking into account important qualifications in the use of the standard 100,000 yardstick to compare incarceration rates cross-nationally, the United States is still off the charts.
The reach of the U.S. penal state extends far beyond the 2.2 million men and women who are now serving time in prison or jail in America. On any given day, nearly seven million people are under the supervision of the correctional system, including jail, prison, parole, probation, and other community supervision sanctions. This constitutes 3.2 percent of the U.S. adult population, or one in every thirty-two adults, a rate of state supervision that is unprecedented in U.S. history. If one adds up the total number of people in prison, plus parolees, probationers, employees of correctional institutions, close relatives of prisoners and correctional employees, and residents in communities where jails and prisons are major employers, tens of millions of people are directly affected each day by the carceral state.
Yet as disturbing as all that is, there is one more fact which makes it all worse: we aren't really talking about it:
Most striking of all is that this vast, unrelenting, and costly punitive thrust in public policy has not been a central topic of political debate and political analysis. While politicians and public officials still regularly invoke the war on crime, the carceral state and its far-reaching consequences for U.S. society, economy, and polity have not been a leading political concern. Nor has the fact that disadvantaged groups in the United States, especially blacks and the poor, disproportionately shoulder the crushing weight of the carceral state.
As Marie Gottschalk explains in The Prison and the Gallows, the United States didn't always incarcerate such a high percentage of citizens. Not so long ago America's incarceration rates were similar to those in Europe and other industrialized nations. Things have changed dramatically, but there hasn't been any serious political debates over why.
People demand that the police crack down on crime, but no one talks about the consequences. Prisons are erected out of sight, the convicted criminals are removed from sight, and people pretend that nothing has happened. But something has happened and we do need to talk about it.