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An opportunity to look in the mirror, to more clearly see America

10 November 2009

Two of the most valuable magazines I read are the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books.  They give me a breath of view that I’d never have otherwise, with analysis of books I’d love to read but never will find the time to do so.

Here’s an example, important information for all Americans.

Can Our Shameful Prisons Be Reformed?, David Cole, New York Review of Books, 19 November 2009

Race, Incarceration, and American Values
by Glenn C. Loury, with Pamela S. Karlan, Tommie Shelby, and Loïc Wacquant
Boston Review/MIT Press, 86 pp., $14.95

Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice
by Paul Butler
New Press, 214 pp., $25.95

Releasing Prisoners, Redeeming Communities: Reentry, Race, and Politics
by Anthony C. Thompson
New York University Press, 262 pp., $39.00; $21.00 (paper)

Introduction

With approximately 2.3 million people in prison or jail, the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world — by far. Our per capita rate is six times greater than Canada’s, eight times greater than France’s, and twelve times greater than Japan’s. Here, at least, we are an undisputed world leader; we have a 40% lead on our closest competitors — Russia and Belarus.

… For one group in particular, however, these figures have concrete and deep-rooted implications — African-Americans, especially young black men, and especially poor young black men. African-Americans are 13 percent of the general population, but over 50% of the prison population. Blacks are incarcerated at a rate eight times higher than that of whites — a disparity that dwarfs other racial disparities. (Black–white disparities in unemployment, for example, are 2–1; in nonmarital childbirth, 3–1; in infant mortality, 2–1; and in net worth, 1–5.

In the 1950s, when segregation was still legal, African-Americans comprised 30% of the prison population. Sixty years later, African-Americans and Latinos make up 70% of the incarcerated population, and that population has skyrocketed. The disparities are greatest where race and class intersect—nearly 60% of all young black men born between 1965 and 1969 who dropped out of high school went to prison at least once on a felony conviction before they turned thirty-five. And the incarceration rate for this group — black male high school dropouts — is nearly fifty times the national average.

These disparities in turn have extraordinary ripple effects. For an entire cohort of young black men in America’s inner cities, incarceration has become the more-likely-than-not norm, not the unthinkable exception. And in part because prisons today offer inmates little or nothing in the way of job training, education, or counseling regarding their return to society, ex-offenders’ prospects for employment, housing, and marriage upon release drop precipitously from their already low levels before incarceration.

That in turn makes it far more likely that these ex-offenders will return to criminal behavior — and then to prison. Meanwhile, the incarceration of so many young men means more single-parent households, and more children whose fathers are in prison. Children with parents in prison are in turn seven times more likely to be imprisoned at some point in their lives than other children. As Brown professor Glenn Loury puts it in Race, Incarceration, and American Values, we are “creating a racially defined pariah class in the middle of our great cities.” …

Conclusion

… At the same time, our addiction to punishment should be troubling not only because it is costly and often counterproductive, but because its race and class disparities are morally unacceptable. The most promising arguments for reform, therefore, must appeal simultaneously to considerations of pragmatism and principle. The very fact that the US record is so much worse than that of the rest of the world should tell us that we are doing something wrong, and the sheer waste of public dollars and human lives should impel us toward reform. But as the authors of these three books make clear, we will not understand the problem fully until we candidly confront the fact that our criminal justice system would not be tolerable to the majority if its impact were felt more broadly by the general population, and not concentrated on the most deprived among us.

Articles about income inequality

  1. Have we fallen behind our parents?“, Katharine Mieszkowski, Salon, 14 May 2008 — “Author Nan Mooney argues that the middle class is slipping, and fixing it is going to take more than cutting out lattes.”
  2. Income inequality and poverty rising in most OECD countries“, OECD, 21 October 2008

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the following:

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Posts looking at inequality in America:

  1. A sad picture of America, but important for us to understand, 3 November 2008
  2. America’s elites reluctantly impose a client-patron system, 5 November 2008
  3. Inequality in the USA, 7 January 2009

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below. Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post. Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. ripprr permalink
    10 November 2009 1:01 am

    Can Our Shameful Prisons Be Reformed?

    One thing that might be done – and should be done – some form of legalization – decriminalization of drugs. I’m no expert on this or anything else either – but it seems obvious that much unnecessary incarceration is due to insane drug laws and the even more insane war on drugs. Solution – no – step in the right direction – yes.
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    FM reply: I agree.

    Like

  2. oldmanchronos permalink
    10 November 2009 3:16 am

    I agree that there is much that needs to be decriminalized. I don’t think the skin color of an inmate is particularly relevant. If you look at the treatment people like Bill Cosby get for suggesting that African-Americans take responsibility for their actions, it’s not surprising their current representation in jails.

    I think OECD and similar reports are rather useless since rich and poor are often undefined. What we consider poor in America would be a life of luxury in many countries. Plus, as the OECD report notes, wealth transfers aren’t included in their statistics so they can embellish the reports conclusions.
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    FM reply: IMO that seems a cavalier dismissal of the data. Esp the racial disparities. Why not just cover your eyes and ears while shouting “Ya Ya Ya.”

    “I think OECD and similar reports are rather useless”

    These are our peers. Whatever the limitations of the data, the comparisons are stark. Esp the number in jail as a fraction of the population. a hard number which I don’t see how you can ignore. These are complex matters, with neither easy diagnosis nor easy cure. But they clearly indicate we have a problem.

    Like

  3. oldmanchronos permalink
    10 November 2009 6:01 am

    Let use abstracts. For every 10 green people in a group there is 1 blue person. Blue people are 10 times more likely to commit murder. You wouldn’t expect 10 green people for every 1 blue person to be in jail for murder, you’d expect the ratio to be 1 to 1. I see no reason why 9 blue killers need to be set free so the the jail population matches the general population.

    These are our peers. The OECD may be your peer group. Again abstracts. Person A makes 100,000. Person B makes 10,000. That is a 10 to 1 ratio and the way the OECD and the federal government runs the data. But if 20,000 is taken from Person A and given to Person B, the ratio shifts quickly to 2 and a 3rd.

    It’s hard to link to a federal sites since they tend to use different standards. But this shows that earning nothing gets a person $37,000.

    But as I first said, there is much that needs to be decriminalized. But at the same time, the African-American community could use some leaders that support personal responsibility.
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    FM reply: Nobody mentioned here suggests “killers to be set free so the jail population matches the general population.” That’s one of the dumbest strawman arguments I’ve seen in a long time. This suggests that you either didn’t read the article or managed to totally miss the point.

    Please follow the comment policy: comments are to be relevant to the post.

    Like

  4. 10 November 2009 6:21 am

    What’s the unemployment rate for people like you?

    Find out using this calculator at the New York Times website.

    Like

  5. ripprr permalink
    10 November 2009 6:37 am

    FM: “But at the same time, the African-American community could use some leaders that support personal responsibility.

    Yep.
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    FM reply: That might not suffice. Perhaps drastic steps are needed, such as becoming vigilantes, to clean up their neighborhoods, as no outside force can easily do. They played a sometimes positive role in the frontier west. Example: San Francisco Committee of Vigilance. Desperate measures…

    Like

  6. oldmanchronos permalink
    10 November 2009 6:53 am

    FM: “IMO that seems a cavalier dismissal of the data. Esp the racial disparities.

    You chose to toss race in to the ring. I don’t care about a persons race or any other leftist termed groups, I just care about their character.
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    FM reply: Race is a “leftist termed group”? Bizarre, delusional. It is a the major explanatory factors when looking at most American sociological dynamics. Reality does not care what you think about the real world (e.g, race, gravity); it exists outside your mind. Also, race is a major theme of the article in this post, so I did not “toss race into the ring.”

    Last notice, please focus your comments on the post. This is not a “what oldmanchronos thinks” thread.

    Like

  7. oldmanchronos permalink
    10 November 2009 7:06 am

    4. What’s the unemployment rate for people like you?

    Silly link. They can’t even get the baseline unemployment data right. But it does show your need to focus not on American’s as a people, but fragment people for political exploitation.
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    FM reply: This would be a useful comment — but only with evidence. Please stop making these assertions without giving us some evidence. It’s a waste of readers’ time. Last warning, before I moderate future comments.

    Like

  8. 10 November 2009 7:44 am

    Not only are prisons unjust, but they are incubators for gangs.

    This is not just a US phenomenon. This Youtube describes how Stalin’s gulag became the incubator for today’s Russian mafiya:

    Like

  9. oldmanchronos permalink
    10 November 2009 7:52 am

    You do an excellent job of embracing and rejecting an issue at the same time.

    FM reply: “Nobody mentioned here suggests “killers to be set free so the jail population matches the general population.” That’s one of the dumbest strawman arguments I’ve seen in a long time.

    Then why even bring up the issue of race in relation to prison population and why attack an abstract.

    “Race is a “leftist termed group”? Bizarre, delusional.”
    Not what I wrote.

    “I don’t care about a persons race or any other leftist termed groups,”
    The left likes to break people in to groups and portray them as victims for political power. Some on the right do it to. I don’t care about the physical properties of the people who work for me. If they work well, they will be paid well regardless of penis or vagina or tint of skin.
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    FM reply: How can you say that is “not what you wrote? It is an exact quote. Also, please stop telling us what you think, as if that determines the state of the universe. While its nice that you are an equal opportunity employer, there are other factors at work in the world.

    Like

  10. oldmanchronos permalink
    10 November 2009 7:59 am

    #8 Prisons aren’t unjust. There are people that need to be removed from society. I think most people here agree that there are far too many laws on the books. Unfortunately both parties support locking up people for consensual activities.
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    FM reply: It takes an astonishing degree of ignorance about prisons to say such a thing. Note the widespread acceptance of rape within prisons, to cite just one of many example.

    Like

  11. Captain Ramen permalink
    10 November 2009 8:17 am

    I agree with FM in #5. Too bad the state hates competition. They will spend far more time and effort shutting down The Batman than they will going after actual murdering gang-bangers.

    Like most of the things we do modern prisons are a half-assed middle-of-the-roado solution that placates certain voting blocks and makes the underlying problem much worse – warehousing far too many people; instead of leaving potheads alone, liquidating the truly reprehensible and making a serious effort to rehabilitate the rest.

    Like

  12. oldmanchronos permalink
    10 November 2009 7:45 pm

    I’m not saying prisons are well run, just that they serve a legitimate purpose. I don’t think you’re going to take the position that the DC sniper should be set free because he might face the risk of prison rape.

    I strongly believe that if government incarcerates a person, they are 100% responsible for the welfare of the inmate.
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    FM reply: I suspect you are writing too many comments, too fast. Slow down, think it through. We don’t know what you mean, just what you write.

    Like

  13. kfofb permalink
    10 November 2009 10:53 pm

    “At the same time, our addiction to punishment should be troubling …. but because its race and class disparities are morally unacceptable.”

    – “Addiction” to punishment is overbaked.

    But why are race and class disparities morally unacceptable?

    Like

  14. oldmanchronos permalink
    10 November 2009 11:32 pm

    FM reply: How can you say that is “not what you wrote? It is an exact quote. Also, please stop telling us what you think, as if that determines the state of the universe. While its nice that you are an equal opportunity employer, there are other factors at work in the world.

    You extracted a segment of a sentence and then removed words. Exact quote doesn’t fit the bill.

    The point is I look at people as people. I don’t feel the need to divide them in to groups, give them often misleading attributes and turn them against each other.
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    FM reply: I gave an exact quote. What you are attempting to say is that I took your words out of context. I disagree, but that’s a matter of interpretation. As for your ethics, I am impressed but don’t care. Please stop tellings us about them.

    Like

  15. oldmanchronos permalink
    10 November 2009 11:48 pm

    Re #13

    The problem is over criminalization. An American, on America soil, can be tried in an American court for violating the law of a foreign country. Better give a damn citation (The Lacey Act).

    “But why are race and class disparities morally unacceptable?”

    There not. If you’re going to break down prison population by race and claim, strike that, point out a racial group is over represented in the prison population, it’s only fair that you examine the value system of that racial group. If you do you might find some thing like this: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/homicide/race.htm

    Like

  16. cynicalatheist permalink
    11 November 2009 12:02 am

    From FM reply to #5: That might not suffice. Perhaps drastic steps are needed, such as becoming vigilantes, to clean up their neighborhoods, as no outside force can easily do.

    Fabius, this is actually an interesting point. It may be the case that in certain chaotic situations (like the one you linked to, the lawless state which gave rise to SF Committee of Vigilance), vigilante justice may actually be the best option. However, I would like to argue that urban blacks essentially already tried this solution in the 1960s and 70s: they created the Black Panthers. (“The Black Panther Party: Action section“, Wikipedia). From the Wikipedia article:

    Survival Programs
    Inspired by Mao Zedong’s advice to revolutionaries in the The Little Red Book, Newton called on the Panthers to “serve the people” and to make “survival programs” a priority within its branches. The most famous and successful of their programs was the Free Breakfast for Children Program, initially run out of an Oakland church.
    Other survival programs were free services such as clothing distribution, classes on politics and economics, free medical clinics, lessons on self-defense and first aid, transportation to upstate prisons for family members of inmates, an emergency-response ambulance program, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and testing for sickle-cell disease.[20]

    The Black Panthers had some success, and also became symbolically very important for both their supporters and detractors. However, their movement was essentially destroyed by the state, which considered them to be a threat: (“Black Panther Party, section Conflict with COINTELPRO“, Wikipedia).
    (“Fred Hampton, section: Death Following Chicago Police Raid“, Wikipedia)

    From the Fred Hampton link:

    The raid was organized by the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan using officers attached to his office.[9] At 4:00 a.m., the heavily armed police team arrived at the site, (2337 W. Monroe, Chicago, IL) dividing into two teams, eight for the front of the building and six for the rear. At 4:45, they stormed in the apartment. Mark Clark, who had been in a front room with a shotgun in his lap, was killed instantly after firing off a single round; the only shot the Panthers fired. The automatic gunfire converged at the head of the bedroom where Hampton slept. He was laying in the bedroom with his pregnant girlfriend. Two officers found him wounded in the shoulder, and fellow Black Panther Harold Bell reported that he heard the following exchange:

    “That’s Fred Hampton.”
    “Is he dead?… Bring him out.”
    “He’s barely alive; he’ll make it.”
    Two shots were heard, which it was later discovered were fired point blank in Hampton’s head. According to Deborah Johnson, one officer then said:

    “He’s good and dead now.”[10]

    Like

  17. complexfatwa permalink
    11 November 2009 10:23 am

    Great post Fabius. This is an important issue that is too often overlooked, and that I fear is a ticking time-bomb in America’s social substrate. A few points:

    – The War On Drugs is central to the prison issue, as are excessively punitive sentencing laws (i.e. Three-Strikes). These are perfect examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences; when we undertook this shift towards heavier enforcement in the 1980s I doubt anyone understood the ramifications of those decisions. An excellent case for what might be called a precautionary principle of public policy.

    – While reform of the system is absolutely essential, unfortunately, like so much in America, powerful interests have no desire to see a realignment of the broken status quo. Police & Prison-guard Unions and Prison-management Contractors have actively opposed reforms in the past, at least in California; they’ve been very successful at killing reform before it even gets off the grass-roots, as they wield very very deep pockets and perform functions the state sees as indispensable. Once again, entrenched interests subvert the public good, the story of our times….

    – The issue of lack of job-training and education programs in prison is totally central to our massive recidivism-rates and the entrenchment of prison gangs; there is effectively nothing to do in prison but learn to be a criminal. Once again, the law of unintended consequences. Perhaps equally as relevant is John Robb’s theory that in the age of a declining nation-state, increased enforcement efforts instead catalyze a professionalization of the remaining actors, spurring “criminal entrepreneurs” to innovate under the new conditions.

    – What will happen if (when?) we cannot afford to maintain this massively expensive prison infrastructure, say in the event of a Treasury bond-market dislocation? We all know what happened in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed. The wildcard here is the critical-mass of extremely-professional Latin gangs, which actively cultivate Narco ties, enjoy cultural and historical roots in California and the Southwest, and often experience virtually no assimilation into American society (Spanish is the most commonly spoken language in California and Arizona prisons). A powder-keg indeed….

    – Whenever people call America the “Land of the Free”, I chuckle at the irony.

    – Does anyone else see the dramatic rise in “Prison Reality-TV” as an alarming example of America’s moral decline and disconnection from reality?

    Like

  18. cynicalatheist permalink
    11 November 2009 11:07 am

    From #17:

    These are perfect examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences; when we undertook this shift towards heavier enforcement in the 1980s I doubt anyone understood the ramifications of those decisions. An excellent case for what might be called a precautionary principle of public policy.

    I often think there must have been people who understood it all too well, and promulgated the “Three-Strikes” policies precisely because they would result in massive incarceration rates. (“Prison-Industrial Complex“, wikipedia)
    From the link:

    The term prison-industrial complex refers to all of the businesses and organizations involved in the construction, operation, and promotion of correctional facilities and the services they provide. Such groups include private corrections companies, corporations that contract prison labor, construction companies, surveillance technology vendors, and the lobbyists and interest groups that plurally represent them.

    The term often implies a network of actors who are motivated by making profit rather than solely by punishing or rehabilitating criminals or reducing crime rates. Proponents of this view believe that the desire for monetary gain has led to the growth of the prison industry and the number of incarcerated individuals. …

    Like

  19. oblat permalink
    11 November 2009 12:29 pm

    The explosion in the US prison population is really a temporary phase. At some point they will be too big to be funded and the system will collapse to the conventional arrangement found in other large third world countries – a higher crime rate, selective enforcement and greater corruption.

    The defining characteristic of a third world country is it’s lack of social cohesion. Criminal behavior not only becomes much more socially acceptable, even reasonable, but the level of suspicion of everyone else in the society is much higher then in the first world. America is well on it’s way to this. It’s ironic that paranoia about black crime is being replaced with the more socially acceptable paranoia about everyone.

    The solution isn’t vigilantes it is private security guards (conveniently just back from the two failed wars) more and more enclosed communities, and start positioning your relatives in key government agencies for leverage – because the flip side of more crime is more corruption.

    Like

  20. newmanchronos permalink
    11 November 2009 8:42 pm

    Even though I’m banned here, I agree with cynicalatheist. Nelson Rockefeller went with the lock up the pot users for life idea. Regan pretty much new that that the war on drugs wouldn’t work but would get him votes.

    Radley Balko writes about crime. He has various stats the show murder, rape and robbery have been declining for 20 years yet the federal government has so broadly written criminal law that the average man on the street commits 3 felonies a day. So the prison-industrial complex term works for me.
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    FM reply: This is a good comment, and hence allowed through.

    Like

  21. cynicalatheist permalink
    13 November 2009 10:58 am

    By the way Fabius, thanks for posting that graphical unemployment calculator thingy-dingy. Very interesting, esp. the way it shows the unemployment values for that specific group over time.

    Like

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