Is It Time to Retire the Phrase “Mass Incarceration”?
Mass incarceration is a mischaracterization of what is better termed hyperincarceration. … Mass incarceration suggests that confinement concerns large swaths of the citizenry (as with the mass media, mass culture, and mass unemployment), implying that the penal net has been flung far and wide across social space. This is triply inaccurate. First, the prevalence of penal confinement in the United States, while extreme by international standards, can hardly be said to concern the masses. Indeed, a rate of 0.75 percent compares quite favorably with the incidence of such woes as latent tuberculosis infection (estimated at 4.2 percent) and severe alcohol dependency (3.81 percent), ailments which no one would seriously contend have reached mass proportions in the United States. Next, the expansion and intensification of the activities of the police, courts, and prison over the past quarter-century have been anything but broad and indiscriminate. They have been finely targeted, first by class, second by that disguised brand of ethnicity called race, and third by place. This cumulative targeting has led to the hyperincarceration of one particular category, lower-class African American men trapped in the crumbling ghetto, while leaving the rest of society — including, most remarkably, middle- and upper-class African Americans — practically untouched. Third, and more important still, this triple selectivity is a constitutive property of the phenomenon: had the penal state been rolled out indiscriminately by policies resulting in the capture of vast numbers of whites and well-to-do citizens, capsizing their families and decimating their neighborhoods as it has for inner-city African Americans, its growth would have been speedily derailed and eventually stopped by political counteraction.
The term “mass incarceration” merits careful scrutiny. It is a dramatic term, spurring political and academic demands that the United States take account of, and seek to reverse, its decades-long commitment to increased imprisonment. The term is justifiably dramatic in two senses. First, the American use of incarceration is, comparatively, an international anomaly and embarrassment. Second, the magnitude of the secondary effects of incarceration in the United States has been so great as to constitute a structural change in our social, economic, and familial life.
But “mass incarceration” is also a melodramatic term, implying some things about American criminal justice that are not entirely true or are flatly untrue. To some, the term may signify conspiratorial governmental control, with fascistic or Stalinist implications. While incarceration in the United States has indeed inflicted horrendous and disproportionate effects on poor and on minority groups, these harms stem far more from an accumulation of misguided policies — and from negligence or reckless indifference toward these harms — than from any monolithic state strategy of political control. To others, the word mass conveys the sense of an epidemic, with the implication that it is a self-generating or self-reinforcing phenomenon that may run beyond our control. But … recent events suggest that the incarceration rate is far more subject to control by very undramatic and mundane changes in policy than the imagery may suggest. Finally, mass suggests numbers that cannot bear any meaningful relationship to the legitimate goals of the criminal justice system. But no particular measured incarceration rate is inherently unjustified. The question is whether some proportion of our incarceration is unnecessary or is not cost-beneficial. It surely is …
What do you think? Agree, disagree? Both quotes are from the new Daedalus on mass incarceration (p. 78 and 124, respectively). I’ve had a chance to read some of the articles while on my hiatus, and I’m sure I’ll be blogging more excerpts as well as maybe some responses in the coming weeks. Also, I should be back to regular blogging speed by the end of this week.