After Prison

Br_prisons2_jul_aug_08 The Boston Review has a special issue on incarceration and what happens afterwards, with pieces by Bruce Western, Mary F. Katzenstein and Mary L. Shanley, and Robert Perkinson.  Western:

The British sociologist T.H. Marshall described citizenship as the “basic human equality associated with full membership in a community.” By this measure, thirty years of prison growth concentrated among the poorest in society has diminished American citizenship. But as the prison boom attains new heights, the conversation about criminal punishment may finally be shifting.

For the first time in decades, political leaders seem willing to consider the toll of rising incarceration rates. In October last year, Senator Jim Webb convened hearings of the Joint Economic Committee on the social costs of mass incarceration. In opening the hearings, Senator Webb made a remarkable observation, “With the world’s largest prison population,” he said, “our prisons test the limits of our democracy and push the boundaries of our moral identity.” Like T.H. Marshall, Webb recognized that our political compact is based on a fundamental equality among citizens. Deep inequalities stretch the bonds of citizenship and ultimately imperil the quality of democracy. Extraordinary in the current political climate, Webb inquired into the prison’s significance, not just for crime, but also for social inequality. The incarceration bubble has not burst yet, but Webb’s hearings are one signal of a welcome thaw in tough-on-crime politics.

There are now 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons and jails, a fourfold increase in the incarceration rate since 1980. During the fifty years preceding our current three-decade surge, the scale of imprisonment was largely unchanged. And the impact of this rise has hardly been felt equally in society; the American prison boom is as much a story about race and class as it is about crime control.