It’s hard to find a better example of what today’s anthropology is about than the US prison system. The conjunction of cultural logics (the importance of punishing crime), racism and inequality (the impact on minority populations), social institutions (politics and media), and neoliberal capitalism (prisons as big business) come together to drive a nation-wide pattern: the systematic incarceration of our population. The United States now has more that 1 in 100 adults in prison, the New York Times recently reported. We incarnerate more people, in both absolute numbers and percentages, than any other country in the world. Those people happen to be more male than female, more poor than rich, more black and Hispanic than white.
The New York Times published an editorial on this fact today entitled Prison Nation. The editorial goes after the cultural logic: “Many Americans have come to believe, wrongly, that keeping an outsized chunk of the population locked up is essential for sustaining a historic crime drop since the 1990’s. In fact, the relationship between imprisonment and crime control is murky.”
It takes on the industry: “Persuading public officials to adopt a more rational, cost-effective approach to prison policy is a daunting prospect, however, not least because building and running jailhouses has become a major industry.”
It discusses options besides jail: “A rising number of states are broadening their criminal sanctions with new options for low-risk offenders that are a lot cheaper than incarceration but still protect the public and hold offenders accountable. In New York, the crime rate has continued to drop despite efforts to reduce the number of nonviolent drug offenders in prison.”
It provides the cost-effective justification: “The 50 states last year spent about $44 billion in tax dollars on corrections, up from nearly $11 billion in 1987. Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan and Oregon devote as much money or more to corrections as they do to higher education. These statistics… underscore the urgent challenge facing the federal government and cash-strapped states to reduce their overreliance on incarceration without sacrificing public safety.”
Cultural change happens all the time, but the systemic effects–when cultural ideology and practices, inequality and economy, and social institutions conspire–are often profoundly resistant to substantive change. Each piece relies too much on the other, often reinforcing the overall effect.
Punishment is a form of power, as Foucault showed us. We punish those we already think deserve less, rather than saying that we can take advantage of change and make a better life.
Another great American ideal is one of equality and freedom, of people getting an equal shot at life. I know that many won’t agree that prison is a form of institutionalized racism. But it took Katrina to show us that racism, and systemic disenfranchisement, is alive and all too powerful in the US. The prison system is a storm of our own making.
Elliott Currie is one of the people who offers both insight and options into our prisons, so here is his website and the Amazon link to his book Crime and Punishment in America, a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize.