Mass Incarceration Is Not Inevitable

by Daniel A. Rosen |

Sitting here in my prison cell tonight, I’m wondering: What will it take to end America’s addiction to mass incarceration?

For decades, too many powerless people were stuffed down the yawning maw of this greedy beast until 2.3 million of our fellow citizens languished in its distended belly. Millions more were spit out only to stay tethered to its far-reaching tentacles on probation or parole, or in debt. And it’s still hungry.

It should shock us that one of two Black adults has had a family member in jail or prison. And that 77 million Americans – almost one of every three adults – have a criminal record. And that over 11 million arrests are made every year. Somehow, many remain apathetic about mass incarceration, or downright supportive of it. “Law and order” platforms appeal to people’s fears and win votes. The appetite for punishment seems endless.

We call it “corrections” now, because that makes us feel better, but jail and prison don’t correct anything. Not anti-social behavior, nor addiction, and certainly not mental health problems. The justice system’s harms seem always to be someone else’s problem – unfortunates, minorities, inner city youth, the homeless, addicts – all the “lesser” among us. The attitude seems to be: As long as the nightly news’ horrors don’t show up on the doorsteps of middle-class suburban parents, it’s best to just look away.

Police and handcuffs are not the answer to most problematic societal questions like addiction, domestic violence, or mental health crises but we keep acting like they are – particularly given the lack of funding for other types of public safety or public health responses. Full cells have become the inevitable end result, and the impact on public safety is not credibly affected.

Worse yet, we’ve all but given up on rehabilitation. We accept recidivism as inevitable, and our failure to prevent parolees’ return to prison is a national shame secondary only to the outsized incarceration rate that takes first prize. Two of three leaving jail and prison will be back within a few years, and four of five will return within five years. That’s an astounding rate of failure that ought to prompt hard questions about what help those awaiting trial or convicted are getting behind bars.

No prison administrator, public official, or bureaucrat would ever say they want inmates to come back, but it happens at alarming rates everywhere. They feign surprise, pass bills, and show auditors stacks of expensive re-entry workbooks. But if they’re not to blame, who or what is? Apathy? Inertia? Racism? Greed? What are the addresses for those vile nouns, so we can go picket and protest outside their doors? A sin of omission is still a sin.

There are policy choices available to address the revolving door problem: providing a temporary basic income post-release; expunging criminal records post-probation; bonding and tax incentive programs for hiring former felons; reforming licensing procedures that discriminate against ex-cons. None are widely in use because preventing recidivism has little constituency – it doesn’t profit anyone, monetarily or otherwise.

Legions of activists, reformers, writers, academics, organizers, and family members spend their days promoting change at the local, state, and federal levels, year after year. Organizations working on prison and justice reform number in the many hundreds. Hundreds more nationwide help those incarcerated or recently released with legal aid, family support, re-entry assistance, and other services. Advocacy and assistance organizations proliferate while the profits and stock prices of prison profiteers climb.

Meanwhile, the misery industry warehouses human beings at a rate that guarantees nothing productive will come of their time behind bars. There are simply too many drug offenders, probation violators, and mentally ill inmates filling cells for those who need rehabilitation in prison to ever get it. Roughly half the inmates behind bars likely don’t belong there at all. If there were cameras in prisons, a lot might change. Actually, there are cameras – you’re just not allowed to see the footage. There are good reasons for that.

The racial aspects of punishment can’t be ignored either. The justice system has always served as a means of controlling America’s underclass, most of whom are minorities. Chain gangs and convict leasing were a tidy solution after slavery ended. We use nicer names like “correctional enterprises,” but the system still exists. We exert control now by emptying inner cities of antisocial youth, locking them away in prisons far from their neighborhoods and their families. As if that will solve the problem, instead of just deferring it to another time and place.

There are times when this catastrophe seems so complex and unwieldy that solutions seem unreachable. States and localities make their own decisions on justice and policing as they see fit. Best practices are shared, but worst practices seem to have a more corrosive and lasting impact.

That said, a great wave of financial divestment is now shaking the prison-industrial complex, and reducing profits can only help spur reform. Shame has proved insufficient to fix what’s broken; perhaps economics can do better. We need a politics that incentivizes state-level reform and replicates local best practices.

There’s nothing inevitable about the systemic injustice we’ve allowed the justice system to become. These are choices we’ve made that can be unmade, difficult as it may be. It’s past time for intention to trump inertia, and for people to prevail over profit.

Senator Cory Booker recently wrote (quoting Ben Franklin) that “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” Well, 77 million are affected, not counting family members. Those who think they’re unaffected by incarceration rates that high may be delusional.

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