Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Confronting the Mass Incarceration Mindset

with 2 comments

A few weeks ago, I posted the always-shocking data on the rise of mass incarceration in the United States over the past 30 years. That data, however, is just the most visible way of measuring the rise of the American carceral state. And in turn, dismantling mass incarceration will require more than simply reducing the jail and prison population—which is merely a symptom of a deeper phenomenon.

What I mean is this: Mass incarceration is not just about the number of people actually behind bars. It’s also about a cultural mindset that turns to the criminal justice system—either literally or as a model—as the first response to almost any problem or disruption, even something so minor as a schoolchild’s misbehavior. In his book Governing through Crime (Oxford, 2007), Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon argues that over the past 40 years, our society has reconceptualized virtually every social problem—extreme poverty, educational inequality, mental illness, undocumented migration, etc.—through the lens of crime, creating a culture of fear in which every citizen is defined first and foremost as a victim.

At the same time, this culture also defines certain members of our society as criminals—everywhere they go. As sociologist Victor Rios puts it, in a 2006 article,*

one of the most brutal yet unexamined collateral consequences of punitive criminal justice policies and mass imprisonment is that of the non-criminal justice institution being penetrated and influenced by the detrimental effects of the criminal justice system. Youth of color are hypercriminalized because they encounter criminalization in all the settings they navigate.

Rios found, in his interviews with black and Latino teenage boys in the San Francisco Bay Area, that many experienced their daily lives almost as if they were in jail — so pervasive has become the criminal justice system’s reach into schools, community centers, and even families. He gives the example of “Jr.”:

Jr. reported that teachers at his school had direct contact with the school officer and his probation officer. When Jr. got in trouble in the classroom his teacher filled out a card from the school’s police officer. The police officer would check in with the teacher every afternoon and if Jr. had a mark on his card the officer would come and make threats, handcuff him, and/or throw him in the back seat of the police car for long periods of time in front of his peers at the school. The constant surveillance and threats imposed by the police officer at his school made him feel that he was “doing time” in jail while at school. For Jr., school was like jail in the sense that the minute he stepped into it he was under strict supervision and faced the threat of severe punishment with every move he made.

After school Jr. would walk to the local community center to “hang out” and meet with his probation officer who was stationed at the community center. Jr. would walk into the center, greet the staff, check out a basketball and play with some of his friends. At seven o’clock he would drop the ball and walk a few offices past the gym to meet with his probation officer. His probation officer was stationed at the community center due to a grant that the community center received from the county juvenile justice department. The purpose of the grant was to provide services at the community center to juvenile delinquents. The condition was that the center was to provide a probation officer an office space to meet with clients. The result was a combining of social services with state surveillance in one location. As the study went on I realized that the punitive arm of the state, the criminal justice enterprise, had percolated itself into traditionally nurturing institutions like the family and the community center. … What happens then when the punishing arm of the state imposes itself physically and procedurally onto nurturing institutions?

In his conclusion, Rios suggests that adults who work closely with children and teenagers ought to more critically evaluate their own assumptions:

While most of the adults in the community care about the youth they interact with, most are uncritical of how their epistemology shapes the way in which they treat and criminalize the youth they are attempting to support. I observed mothers asking their kids when they would be arrested again, teachers calling police officers to report spit ball incidents, and community center staff actively collaborating with probation departments. It was not only the field of the dejure policing and surveillance that affected these youth but also the field of de facto criminalization at school, home, and community centers that impacted them at an everyday level.

In a more general sense, I think this lesson applies to everyone, not just adults who work with teenagers: When interacting with our neighbors, classmates, co-workers, constituents, fellow citizens, etc., in any context, we must constantly resist the temptation to categorize each other merely as “criminals” and “victims.” We need to reframe our conversations about neighborhood safety, community development, immigration, employment, education, mental illness, drug abuse, poverty, etc., etc., in a way that avoids this dichotomy, or we will perpetuate the mindset of mass incarceration, implicitly limiting our reform efforts to the dismantling of the carceral state’s more blatant abuses rather than the system as a whole. This year was the first in decades that state prison numbers fell, and the movement for criminal justice reform has gained impressive momentum in recent months. But for many politicians and policymakers, the economic crisis has been the primary impetus for reconsidering the expense of operating prisons and jails. That means the past year’s progress could all disappear once the economy bounces back, unless we also leverage this reform moment to confront the underlying mindset of mass incarceration. And I particularly worry that some politicians and policymakers may not be interested in reforming the penal system so much as in shifting its target away from drug users toward immigrants—which would not, in my estimation, amount to progress at all.

* Full cite for article discussed: Victor Rios, “The Hyper-Criminalization of Black and Latino Male Youth in the Era of Mass Incarceration,” Souls 8, no. 2 (July 1, 2006): 40-54.

** Tangential sidenote: Given that American politicians and voters have handed over to the criminal justice system the mandate to deal with just about every social problem in recent decades, it strikes me as a a bit of a paradox that there has been such resistance to funneling War on Terror prosecutions through the regular criminal justice system. On the other hand, maybe this is not such a paradox after all: Perhaps the criminal justice system has become stretched into such an all-purpose substitute for so many other institutions that it has come to seem, to many, totally unmoored from its origins as a system for adjudicating and punishing “evildoers,” too much of a small-fry system to deal with global terrorists. This is all just speculation on my part… any thoughts, esteemed readers?

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this post. I have been thinking a lot about this idea of a PIC mindset and what to do about changing it. It seems to me that while prisons are ubiquitous in our culture, they also remain stubbornly invisible to most people. they are often located far from cities and you can think about it as a place where the “bad” people go.

    Overcriminalization decimates some communities while allowing others to live within their own cloaks of invulnerability. The issue about the War of Terror stands outside of this PIC mindset for most people because it has been cast as an existential threat. The “terrorists” are going to get their hands on nuclear weapons and end civilization as we know it… or so we are told. In the face of such a threat, the criminal legal system (which people KNOW is ineffective and unjust) seems like taking too much of a gamble. What if the system is too broken to be able to keep the terrorists from destroying the planet? I think that it is a function of how broken people feel the criminal legal system is that they are not willing to take a chance on trying the arch-enemy “terrorists” in that system. These are my two-cents… Not as coherent as I would like but here they are just the same.


    August 9, 2010 at 10:08 am

  2. coming from the world of public mental health I would go further and say that we are in the business now of creating a class of people that will be legally/medically defined as structurally incapable of self-control (as suffering from personality disorders) and so in need of constant surveillance and medication.


    August 9, 2010 at 1:43 pm

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