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Monday, July 06, 2009

Mass Imprisonment: The Birth of a Social Problem

Looking around for a dissertation topic in 1986, I followed the lead of my adviser, Sheldon Messinger, and began to look more closely at California's rapidly growing prison system.  I came to focus in particular on the parole system that was supposed to guide prisoners back into society, but which instead seemed to keep them cycling back to prison (see my 1993 book Poor Discipline: Parole and the Social Control of the Underclass, 1890-1990 for the details).  California's prison population had already increased more than 100 percent since I began as an undergraduate at Berkeley nine years earlier in 1977 (we took our time in those days).  Many people, especially academic criminologists, doubted the wisdom of sending lots of felony offenders indiscriminately to prison (let alone parole violators), mainly because they did not believe it would reduce crime (others did believe, especially  James Q. Wilson).  Messinger  was one of the few beginning to worry outloud (although not in print) about how this massive increase in the scale of imprisonment would effect society more generally. I was able to communicate some of his disquiet empirically in Poor Discipline.

The turnabout in that perception is now quite visible in academic research, and increasingly in public discourse.  Erik Eckholm's excellent article on the children of the incarcerated in yesterday's NYTimes is a case in point.  But while the emergence of mass imprisonment as a social problem in its own right is an encouraging sign (for those of us who would like to reverse it), it will only get us part of the way there.

Eckholm spotlights the massive collateral growth of children who have grown up with a parent in prison and sociologist Christopher Wildman's recent research (may require log in) into the distribution of this experience among Americans born since the beginning of mass incarceration.  Featured in an alarming pop-out table in the online version, Wildman's data shows that nearly a quarter of black children born in 1990 had a father who had served time in prison before that child was 14, up from 13.8 percent for the cohort born in '78.  Among children of high school drop-outs that portion rises to slightly more than 50 percent. The article also cites  research by Sara Wakefield of UC Irvine's Criminology, Law and Society program, that documents how having a parent in prison substantively disadvantages.  See, also ethnographic work on the lives of family members of the incarcerated including Donald Braman's Doing Time on the Outside (2004) and Megan Comfort's Doing Time Together (2007).

This new scholarship is methodologically compelling, going to extraordinary lengths to tease out the compounding effects of incarceration, poverty, and criminal behavior by the parents on the lives of children and partners of the incarcerated.  It joins and builds on considerable work over the last decade specifying the social cost side of incarceration, including its influence on employment (Bruce Western's Punishment and Inequality), political participation (Jeff Manza and Chris Uggen, Locked Out) and community order (Todd Clear, Imprisoning Communities) and public health (Rucker Johnson and Steven Raphael). 

Much of this wave, not cataloged fully here, has followed a February 2000 conference at NYU organized by David Garland on the topic of what he called "mass imprisonment" (for the 2001 book)."  In the decade since the conference there has been a sea change in the  knowledge environment of penal practices in America.  Along with the current fiscal crises facing state governments, this altered knowledge environment is one of the reasons for some optimism that mass imprisonment may have run its course.  I'm not that optimistic.  Today mass imprisonment, along with crime itself, exists as a social problem which is being made visible by a self reinforcing spiral of academic and journalistic activity.  That is progress.  Indeed, part of what made mass imprisonment possible was the temporary absence of any potent restraining discourses.  But as I will try to argue in subsequent posts this week, the same factors that turned urban crime into an exemplary social problem for government between 1968 and 2000 (the subject of my Governing through Crime) remain quite potent today.  In short, raising the visibillity of the social costs of incarceration is only half the problem.  We also have to change the knowledge environment around which the public understands crime (and especially violent crime).

Posted by Jonathan Simon on July 6, 2009 at 11:48 AM | Permalink


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