‘Nether Caste’

The July/August issue of the Boston Review is not yet up, but the article by Glenn Loury on the prison system in the U.S. is already available. Loury is a professor of social sciences at Brown, and in the piece he lays out the fundamental problem with the culture (and business) of mass incarceration:

Crime rates peaked in 1992 and have dropped sharply since. Even as crime rates fell, however, imprisonment rates remained high and continued their upward march. The result, the current American prison system, is a leviathan unmatched in human history.

According to a 2005 report of the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, the United States—with five percent of the world’s population—houses 25 percent of the world’s inmates. Our incarceration rate (714 per 100,000 residents) is almost 40 percent greater than those of our nearest competitors (the Bahamas, Belarus, and Russia). Other industrial democracies, even those with significant crime problems of their own, are much less punitive: our incarceration rate is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of France, and 12.3 times that of Japan. We have a corrections sector that employs more Americans than the combined work forces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart, the three largest corporate employers in the country, and we are spending some $200 billion annually on law enforcement and corrections at all levels of government, a fourfold increase (in constant dollars) over the past quarter century.

Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens. In December 2006, some 2.25 million persons were being held in the nearly 5,000 prisons and jails that are scattered across America’s urban and rural landscapes. One third of inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or robbery. But the other two thirds consist mainly of property and drug offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of society. On average, state inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately black and brown.

How did it come to this?

It’s a thought-provoking piece. Read it if you know what’s good for you.

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