Saturday, September 11, 2010

Glenn Loury, the Town Crier

How did America's astonishingly large increase in incarceration happen? By any empirical measure, the U.S. is a wide outlier in imprisonment rates not only compared to the rest of the world, but compared to our own past. The rate has exploded in the last 40 years, from 100 per 100,000 of the population to nearly 700 per 100,000 today.

And why has this not gotten more attention? To me, it's been the elephant in the room in America since the end of the Cold War. But the economy was so strong that the governing powers could pay for the prisons - and they did, creating a huge industry. Eisenhower famously warned of the military industrial complex. Who could have forseen then that dealing with a prison industrial complex would become an equally daunting challenge?

Finally, however, the wall of silence around the incarceration escalation is starting to crack. In 1999, the conservative scholar John J. Dilulion opined in the Wall Street Journal that 2 million prisoners was enough. Two years later, in The Culture of Crime Control, David Garland described the spread of ever-wider coercion exercised through the correctional system.

More recently, Glenn Loury, a sociologist at Brown University, has taken up the role of - in his words - town crier, warning of the dangers to our society of mass incarceration.

The sheer numbers numbers are huge - 2.3 million in jail or prison on a given day, and nearly another 5 million on probation or parole. So it absolutely is, in the term used in the current issue of Daedalus, mass incarceration.

And yet, as Loury remarked to the privileged, predominantly white kids he teaches at Brown, it is also not really mass incarceration in the sense that it affects everyone equally. It is hyperincarceration of certain elemoents of the population, particularly racial minorities.

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