Once a Con, Always a Con

Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, Ed. Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind (The New Press 2002).

As 2003 begins, more than two million people are incarcerated in American jails and prisons. While the absolute number of U.S. prisoners is staggering, even more disturbing is our incarceration rate: the U.S. locks away more people per capita than any country in the world: 702 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants (Russia is second with 664 per 100,000). Meanwhile, another five million people are under parole or probation supervision.

What happens to prisoners, their families, and society as a consequence of America’s obsession with harsh criminal sanctions, especially incarceration? Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment attempts to answer that question, in a collection of essays that are incisive, wide-ranging, provocative and backed up with solid data.

A Variety of Essays Take on A Common Topic: Mass Imprisonment’s Fallout

Much has been written about the “prisonization” of American (Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation is a good recent example, which I also reviewed for this site). Invisible Punishment’s essays–which are written by criminologists, sociologists, anthropologists, policy analysts, and law professors–are a useful adjunct to that body of literature.

Collectively, they address the unseen effects of the American way of punishment–the stigmas and deprivations that linger, often for a lifetime, long after a sentence has been served and the prison gates flung open. They examine, respectively, the lifetime consequences of convictions on prisoners; the prosecutors and prison entrepreneurs who create the infrastructure of mass incarceration; and the impacts of this misguided policy on families, communities, and national and international society.

Once a Con, Always a Con: How Society Pushes Former Offenders Back Into Crime

It is common knowledge that many felons lose their right to vote (some forever, unless the disability has been removed by court order). What is less well-known, however, is that disenfranchisement has the potential to have significant impact on local and federal elections.

As reported by Marc Mauer in the essay “Mass Imprisonment and the Disappearing Voter,” in Florida, more than 200,000 convicted felons (any felony conviction bars voting for life there) could not vote in the close 2000 presidential election. And across the country, four million Americans were banned from the polls during that election because of prior convictions.

Meanwhile, it is not only at the voting booth that prior convictions spell trouble. Some felony and misdemeanor convictions bar a person from being licensed as a barber, plumber, security guard, or teacher. And federal laws enacted in the “get-tough-on crime” 1990’s deny ex-convicts a host of government entitlements, as discussed in “Welfare and Housing–Denial of Benefits to Drug Offenders” by Gwen Rubenstein and Debbie Mukamal.

As Rubenstein and Mukamal explain, someone with a drug conviction cannot live with or visit a family member or friend who resides in public housing unless the tenant wishes to risk eviction (a rule the Supreme Court upheld in 2002 in the case of Department of Housing and Urban Development v. Rucker). A drug conviction bars one from being eligible for public housing, federal educational aid, food stamps, and other welfare benefits.

These deprivations are the most wide reaching of “invisible punishments”–so-called because most defendants and lawyers don’t know about them; they get slipped into Congressional bills unnoticed, and are tied to states’ receipts of federal funds.

The American Bar Association has called for states to reveal post-prison consequences at plea-bargain and sentencing hearings, and its recommendation should be heeded. Defendants should know the true extent of the penalties they will face.

Rending the Social Fabric: Another Consequence of Mass Incarceration

In “Families and Incarceration,” anthropologist Donald Braman writes about the impact of mass incarceration on families and neighborhoods. The data he cites are alarming–over half of the members of the African-American male population in Washington, D.C. between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five are under some probation or parole supervision, and over 10 percent are in prison on any given day.

If current trends hold, over a lifetime, seventy-five percent of Africa-American men in the District will be incarcerated. Similar statistics, and social impact, are reported in Baltimore, Maryland and New Haven, Connecticut.

Other essays dealing with the effect of incarceration policies on families describe the heart-breaking emotional strain on family members and prisoners who are isolated from each other by virtue of geography and strict visitation policies. Family members of prisoners, including children, in effect are punished, too.

Mass incarceration deprives families and neighborhoods of fathers and mothers (young women represent prisons’ most rapidly expanding population). “Imprisoning Women: The Unintended Victims of Mass Imprisonment,” by criminologist Meda Chesney-Lind, describes the profound effect of mothers’ incarceration on their children. A majority of women in prison were raising their children alone before they were incarcerated, leaving the children without a caregiver once their mothers are incarcerated.

It is unrealistic to expect that children can establish or maintain a normal bond with parents who are in prison. The rarity of opportunities for contact, the strain of emotional, stilted visits in the presence of correctional officers, and the economic deprivation brought on by incarceration (and, perhaps for a lifetime thereafter) all have long-lasting, multi-generational effects on families, and on society as a whole. For instance, children whose parents have been incarcerated are twice as likely to be incarcerated themselves.

In “Entrepreneurial Corrections: Incarceration As a Business Opportunity,” criminal justice policy specialist Judith Green explains how state and federal prisons tend to be clustered in rural areas, where they are often the mainstay of local economies. There, prison doors–and the revolving door of release and recidivism–must stay open to ensure jobs.

International Condemnation of U.S. Incarceration Policies and Rates

“Incarceration as Socially Corrosive” by Vivien Stern, a British MP, examines the impact of U.S. policies on the rest of the world and international criticism of these policies.

Stern explains why, in spite of America’s widespread cultural influence, its love of harsh punishment has not spread to other societies. Most of the world is appalled by the death penalty–especially its use on the mentally ill and juveniles. Beyond that, Europeans believe that the American methods are a “de-civilizing” force on society as a whole, and they want no part of them.

A January 2, 2003 article in The New York Times describes how, in 30 years, Finland reversed its correctional policies. Finnish policies had originally mirrored those of Russia and the United States. Now, however, Finland has the lowest incarceration rates in the world (52 incarcerated persons per 100,000 persons. (Remember, the U.S. has a staggering 702).

Why and how did Finland accomplish this?

Finland studied the effects of its retributive policies and found that they simply were not working. Crime was going up, even by low Scandinavian levels, violence in prisons was high, and recidivism was rampant.

The Finnish government then shifted to a new model of incarceration–one that mirrors good parenting practices. Indeed, juvenile guards are actually thought of as parents. And more generally, incarceration is used as a rehabilitative tool to teach self-control, not to punishment.

Accordingly, prisons are more like schools than armed camps. Guards do not carry guns or wear military-type uniforms. Prisoners are schooled, coached in sports, and trained in trades. The societal goal is reform, not revenge.

Finns have found that incarcerating fewer citizens led to less, not more, crime. If only the U.S. would similarly shift its goals and priorities.

Invisible Punishment as a Form of Social Control: A Broader View

Beyond these specific topics, some essayists in Invisible Punishment take a far broader–and more radical–view. One is Jeremy Travis, who was formerly a director of the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice (where his policy recommendations, unfortunately, are now rarely implemented by the government), and currently is a fellow at the Urban Institute.

Travis authored the collection’s opening essay, “Invisible Punishment: An Instrument of Social Exclusion.” Travis comes close to–but stops short of–suggesting that American’s policies are part of an intentionally designed method of social engineering and control that guarantees a growing disenfranchised, marginalized, underclass.

Nevertheless, his and other thoughtful essays in the collection set out plenty of incriminating evidence indicating that the government (and those who run private prisons) may have ulterior motives for favoring incarceration, beyond pure retribution and revenge.

After all, imprisonment is a potent form of social control, one that, in this country, continues far beyond prison walls, or even the probation officer’s building. Chances are you already–or soon will–know someone who cannot get a job, rent a house, drive a car, or vote because he or she had a criminal conviction once in their lifetime.

In 2003, more than 615,000 prisoners will attempt to reenter society, and some of the strongest obstacles to their doing so will have been erected by their own government. Released inmates who want to make a life for themselves will be systematically denied the opportunity to do so. As a result, recidivism, which keeps the prison economy flourishing and exponentially adds to the numbers of underclass citizens, will be assured.

Invisible Punishment exposes the hidden, repugnant retribution policies of the American criminal justice–or, more accurately, injustice–system. It leaves the reader to judge whether the policies were well-intentioned (albeit misguided) efforts to deal with crime, or deliberate acts of a vengeful society that can’t get enough of mean justice.

ELAINE CASSEL practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia and is a contributor to Counterpunch and Findlaw.com, where this review originally appeared. She is the chair of the American Bar Association’s Behavioral Science Committee of the Science and Technology Law Section and is the author, with Douglas Bernstein, of Criminal Behavior (Allyn & Bacon, 2001). She also teaches law and psychology. She can be reached at: cassel@counterpunch.org.