FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Persistence of Mass Incarceration

by

Over the last four years, “we have turned the corner” has become the dominant narrative on mass incarceration. The basis for this optimism appeared sound. From 2009-2012, total prisoner numbers were down nationally for the first time since the late 1970s, with the figures for Blacks behind bars also declining. Moreover, people in surprising places were making conciliatory noises. Attorney General Eric Holder grabbed some new handles- champion of employment access for people with felony convictions and promoter of lighter sentences for those with drug offenses. Some New Jim Crow discourse even crept into his rhetoric. The New York Times consistently peppered their op-ed pages with condemnation of the bloated US carceral state, proclaiming in a May 10 piece that “The American experiment in mass incarceration has been a moral, legal, social and economic disaster. It cannot end soon enough.”

To top it off, the right wing joined the “softer on crime” fray. Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich sparked a conservative anti-imprisonment drift through their Right on Crime organization which decried the excessive use and cost of punishment. Then Rand Paul followed suit, standing shoulder to shoulder with Cory Booker to back a Redeem Act which would ease criminal penalties for juveniles. In the background a steady stream of popular advocacy combined with legislative and financial re-thinks appeared to be making major inroads into criminal justice orthodoxy. But last week, carceral optimism gave way to a much harsher reality.  The Bureau of Justice’s annual statistical report on national prison population revealed that incarceration numbers were up for the first time since 2009. The rise was a mere 0.3% but even this slight uptick may have burst the bubble of the new paradigm.

In fact, this miniscule upswing in prison population likely highlights much deeper contradictions that were there all along. Fourteen states hit new record high prison populations in 2013, while 31 states recorded an increase in prison admissions. To make matters worse, several icons of decarceration recorded population upturns.  Texas with the largest prison system in the country, has been perhaps the most widely marketed example of decarceration, dropping its prison population by 3.5% from 2011 to 2012 alone.  Yet for 2013 the Lone Star State led the reverse trend, with its count rising from 157,900 to 160,295 prisoners. Similarly, California, the second biggest state system and also a leading driver of population decrease in previous years, showed a slight expansion, from 134,211 to 135,981.

For, Judy Greene, Director of the anti-mass incarceration research group Justice Strategies, the figures for Texas and California reflected that the changes in previous years had been “narrowly felt in a handful of states.” She pointed out that between 2010 and 2012, more than 90% of the prison population reductions took place in three states, California, New York and Texas. With the failure of California and Texas to continue on the path toward decarceration, the rest of the country essentially continued with carceral business as usual. Predictably, the overall racial disproportionality also remained profound, with Black males of all ages still six times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts and two and a half times more likely to be locked up than Latinos.  The racial disparity in incarceration rates for Black women remained less dramatic, registering at about twice that of whites.

Some Good News

Sandwiched between the news of statistical reversal rested a few positive trends.  For the first time in recent years, total population in the Federal prison system declined, falling from 217,815 to 215,866. But the Feds are a small slice of the pie, constituting about 10 % of all those behind bars in the US.

In addition, a few states with consistent records of reducing prison populations continued on track. Star decarceration performers like New York and New Jersey, which have seriously reduced admissions through changes to sentencing and drug policy as well as easing parole conditions, both posted their seventh consecutive year of prison population decline.begging slogans3

Perhaps the other positive was in the realm of immigration. While not covered in the Bureau of Justice report, locking up immigrants has become a key component of mass incarceration in the 2000s.  In that regard, deportations did decline in 2013 after hitting a record level of over 400,000 in 2012. Moreover, felony convictions for immigration offenses also fell slightly, although average daily population in detention centers was up from 32,194 to 33,811. Still, the administration’s failure to implement comprehensive immigration reform, coupled with the 50,000 plus unaccompanied children on the border, hardly makes this issue a source of faith in the process and pace of change.

Concerns About The Change Process

Ultimately, the report along with events like those in Ferguson, Missouri, reinforced the concerns of many anti-mass incarceration campaigners that current changes were not digging deep enough to yield long lasting results.  Peter Wagner, Director of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, highlighted the need for states “to decide whether the people they are sending to prison really need to be there” and the corresponding issue of deciding which people “currently in prison can go home.” Instead, he lamented, states are continuing to hike “the number of people they send to prison for new offenses and violations of parole and decreasing the number of people they let out.”

Author and activist Ruthie Gilmore, who currently is associate director of the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at CUNY, argued that the BOJ statistics have exposed the shortcomings of “opportunists” who have “blown up real solidarity.” She maintains that moderate reforms have promoted “the delusion that it’s possible to cherry pick some people from the prison machine” rather than undertake a broad restructuring of the communities which have been devastated by mass incarceration.  Mariame Kaba, head of Project NIA which practices transformative justice as a foil to youth incarceration in Chicago communities, concurred with Gilmore, stressing that “the rationale for and logic of punishment is unchanged. The targets of our punishment mindset also remain overwhelmingly black and poor.”

Kaba points out that the discourse has altered but policy seems to have lagged behind. “Talk and actions are not the same thing,” she said, “there is a need to move beyond awareness and take steps to address mass incarceration in real ways.”

What are the “real ways”?

The question is: what are these “real ways”?  Mainstream reformers have pushed for a number of changes: laws to reform harsh sentencing policies, especially for drug offenses.  Reentry has been another area of emphasis, with the Feds alone having put over $100 million into Second Chance Act initiatives to smooth the return for those coming home from prison. Relaxing drug laws, including the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, may have some impact, especially in the Federal system where more than 50% of the population has drug offenses. But in the state institutions, which hold over 85% of the nation’s prison population, only 16% are locked up for drug convictions while more than 50% have cases involving violence. To date, few reformers want to consider releasing or easing up on sentencing for those convicted of violent crimes.  Even many reentry initiatives avoid people with convictions for violent crimes.

Greene argues that it still boils down to serious sentencing reform which would go beyond merely those with drug convictions. The need, she argues, is to  “both to sharply reduce the number of people we send to prison and to shorten the inordinate amount of time those sent to prison have to serve before they are released.” Gilmore extends the sphere of change to focus on “the foundations on which mass incarceration has been built – structural racism and structural poverty and the capitalism that is devouring the planet.”

Convergence of Agendas?

One certain outcome of this statistical shift will be heightened debate amongst those involved in efforts to roll back the US prison system. As Gilmore put it, “the fact that prison numbers rose in 2013 is a testament to the deep fragmentation of social justice work in the USA.”  While a year ago, a so-called “convergence of agendas” looked a likely prospect, the Bureau of Justice report in the wake of high profile police violence and failed immigration policies, foretell an intensified struggle between those who argue that the system is broken but can be fixed and those who like Mariame Kaba contend that “reform is not enough, that we need much more urgent and radical (as in getting to the root of the problem) solutions. This is the only way that we will successfully address mass criminalization.”

James Kilgore is a Research Scholar at the University of Illinois’ Center for African Studies and an activist with the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice in Illinois. He is the author of three novels, all of which were drafted during his six and a half years of incarceration. His forthcoming book, to be published by the New Press in 2015, is titled Understanding and Ending Mass Incarceration: A Primer.  He can be contacted at  waazn1@gmail.com

 

 

 

James Kilgore is a writer and activist based in Urbana, Illinois. He spent six and a half years in prison. During those years, he drafted three novels which have been published since his release in 2009. His latest book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Era will be published by The New Press in September. He can be contacted at waazn1@gmail.com

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Gilbert Mercier
Donald Trump: Caligula of the Lowest Common Denominator Empire?
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Robert Dodge
On President Obama’s Hiroshima Visit
Andrew Moss
Bridge to Wellbeing?
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Ed Meek
The Republic of Fear
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
David Yearsley
Elgar’s Hegemony: the Pomp of Empire
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail