The Extent of Mass Incarceration

“More African American Adults are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parol—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” Michelle Alexander writes this in her book, The New Jim Crow, to demonstrate the extent of mass incarceration in the United States. Mass incarceration is simply the term we use to describe our extensive and high number of arrests and level of imprisionment, and it is a problem because the justice system in many ways does not operate like the blind and fair system we imagine or would like. Criminal justice in the United States, and truly everywhere, depends on humans. We have to have humans to set the laws, arrest the rule-breakers, determine the appropriate punishment, and then deliver a sentence. Throughout The New Jim Crow, Alexander demonstrates how this system has broken down in our country because of the humans, because of our inability to see people without prejudice, and because of a history of race that we cannot simply forget with colorblind glasses.

“The mass incarceration of people with color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.” When we do not think about criminal justice, and when we do not think about people as people, we allow systems to grow that operate with the worst parts of our nature. Our tribalism takes over and we begin seeing other people and other groups as somehow less than ourselves and the groups to which we belong. We start to look at cultures that are not our own and find ways in which those cultures seem to be inferior to our culture, and then we justify the inequality which benefits us while disadvantaging those from the other tribe.

“The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.” What Alexander is explaining is that we are (as a society and as a whole) responsible for the actions, behaviors, and cultures that we see around us and describe as inferior. Concentrated poverty has a disastrous impact on the future of young children, and it was our society and our housing and zoning policies that lead to the segregated ghettos that produced those cultures that we so heavily criticize today. Our decisions, our tribal brains, our self-interest, our ability to exploit others for our own gain, our ability to rationalize our success, our ability to blame the individual for their failure, and our ability to de-humanize those who we see as less than ourselves lead to a nation where we have restricted certain groups of individuals, denied them economic and social mobility, and arrested them for their inevitable humanity. Mass incarceration is not an honest reaction to crime, violence, danger, and a need for punishment. It is a cancerous outgrowth of policy and decisions made in bad faith to protect those who have been favored at the expense of those who have been exploited.

Our Environment, Incarceration, and Societal Responsibility

In my last post, I wrote about Cory Booker’s reactions to meeting inmates at a prison when he was in law school. Having a chance to speak with inmates and ask them about their lives, the environments they grew up and lived in, and how they approached life in jail was very impactful for Booker. He began to look at people in prison as real people, and began to look at them beyond just the negative things they had done. In short, he began to see a more full picture of who the people he met were. Reflecting on the experience Booker wrote, “I could walk out of that place instead of remaining not just because of my own choices but also because of the abundantly privileged environments in which I had lived.” It was where Booker grew up, the support his family provided, and the schools Booker was able to attend that shaped his life and the choices he could make. Throughout his life he has certainly had to make smart decisions and has certainly had to work hard, but because he grew up in a more affluent part of New Jersey and because his family was able to provide for him (both financially and in terms of being role models) Booker saw a true avenue and opportunity to make the right decisions.

 

Many of those who end up in jail do not start out with the same advantages as Booker. It is not to say that we can excuse the crimes and mistakes they have made, but if we truly want to correct behavior, and if we truly want to put an end to crime throughout society, we must think about what we provide for others and what the environment is like where these individuals grow up, work, and live.

 

As Booker left the prison he thought about the people society has left behind and the decisions society has made to lock problems away in prisons. “I walked out of the prison free, and yet I was shackled to what I now knew,” Booker writes, “I was implicated. I couldn’t take my full measure of pride in our greatness as a society if  I was not willing to take responsibility for our failures.” In America we place a lot of responsibility on the individual and we celebrate individual achievement and success to a high degree. We are also quick to point out the moral shortcomings and negative traits in others that lead to failure. Our society is quick to celebrate individual accomplishments and we are able to view ourselves in the success stories of others, taking pride in one person’s accomplishments as a reflection of the potential within our society. When one fails however, we are not quick to latch on to their negative outcome and identify ways that their failure could be attributed to society.

 

Great  wealth is a result of a superior capitalistic society and freedom, when local sports teams win it is a result of community support and fandom, and when a new business opens up it is because our community is so vibrant and wonderful that we attract the interests of those who want to give us more. Failure on the other hand, is a result of an individual being unable to accurately read the economy. Crime stems from personal moral failures. And poverty exists because other people are lazy and don’t want to take jobs. This split in how we all share success but view failure as individual shortcomings is an inaccurate and shortsighted view of society.

 

Booker’s time visiting the prison helped him to see that how society is organized impacts the opportunities that people face. How society supports or abandons people makes it easy for some to make good decisions and generate wealth, and it places others in positions where crime and poverty are hard to avoid. It is hard to take pride in society when we leave behind so many people and focus all our attention instead on a relative few that achieve great success.

Those in Jail

Senator Cory Booker shares a story about visiting a prison in his book United, and he describes the people he met behind bars. In his passage he describes the men in a way that elevates their humanity, which is a shift from the descriptions most people have of men in prison, which reduces their humanity. Booker writes,

 

“What struck me was how similar this talk was to the ones I’d had in the law school cafeteria with my classmates. The men were sharp and sophisticated. What struck me was how normal they seemed to me; they seemed like guys I knew. By no means did I lose sight of the fact that some of them had committed horrible crimes, but it was also clear that these human beings were much more than the crimes they had committed. To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson, they were much more than the worst things they had done.”

 

It is easy to look at people who have made mistakes and those who had done wrong and to judge them by their shortcomings alone. We seem to do a great job of seeing the flaws in others and criticizing other people’s actions, especially if they are hypocritical, in an effort to elevate ourselves and feel better about the things we have done. Recognizing that other people, especially those who have made large mistakes, are still human and share many aspects of humanity with us requires that we step back, look at ourselves and our own mistakes, and try to understand where individuals made mistakes and how they can move forward from them. It is hard to see people as more than the bad things they have done, and those mistakes can hang over them forever, constantly preventing them from moving on with their lives.

 

Stepping back and looking at others in a way that highlights their humanity over their mistakes is a practice that Marcus Aurelius described. When looking at himself relative to other people he writes, “consider that thou also doest many things wrong, and that though art a man like others; and even if thou dost abstain from certain faults, still thou hast the disposition to commit them, either through cowardice, or concern about reputation or some such mean motive, thou dost abstain from such faults.” This awareness can help us understand that the individuals in prison still matter and that the gap that separates us from them is smaller than we would like to think.

 

Not seeing the humanity in those we arrest leads those individuals to become ostracized from the community, making it harder for them to reconnect with society after they have served their sentence. By treating them as sub-human, rather than recognizing that we have many of the same urges to commit crimes, and by focusing on their worst actions we limit their possibilities. We deny government aid and federal housing assistance to those with criminal backgrounds and employers avoid hiring those who were arrested. Focusing so much fear and avoidance on these individuals makes it difficult for them to feel like citizens, and drives the punishment of their crime well beyond their time in prison. There should be punishment for serious mistakes, but when that punishment extends into perpetuity, we risk pushing people toward more crime in a negative feedback loop that seems to run against the stated purposes of our criminal justice system.