The U.S. leads the world in both total number of persons behind bars (2.3 million) and in the more meaningful statistic of incarceration rates (751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population).Since 1970, our incarceration rate has increased five-fold. America currently cages 1% of the adult population.
A rather Toquevillian NY Times article published today parses out a series of comparative prison statistics from around the globe. America imprisons far more of its population than the rest of the world with Russia and China coming in the No. 2 and 3 spots respectively. The NY Times doesn't really tell us anything new. A discussion of race is brushed aside in the account because:
"Many specialists dismissed race as an important distinguishing factor in the American prison rate. It is true that blacks are much more likely to be imprisoned than other groups in the United States, but that is not a particularly distinctive phenomenon. Minorities in Canada, Britain and Australia are also disproportionately represented in those nation's prisons, and the ratios are similar to or larger than those in the United States."Perhaps America is not "exceptional" among democracies with regard to imprisoning its minorities; however, we might ask why democracies have such predilection for putting them behind bars. The political democratic process itself is implicated by the Times analysis of the American exception:
"Most state court judges and prosecutors in the United States are elected and are therefore sensitive to a public that is, according to opinion polls, generally in favor of tough crime policies. In the rest of the world, criminal justice professionals tend to be civil servants who are insulated from popular demands for tough sentencing."American fear tactics, used by a predominantly white political establishment to drum up votes, necessitate high incarceration rates. We start caging humans at the ballot box. Ever heard white New Yorkers speak wistfully about how Guilliani "cleaned up" the city?
It reminds me of a passage in The Autobiography of Malcom X (1965), which was written shortly before the explosion of incarceration rates:
"You never heard your name, only your number. On all of your clothing, every item, was your number, stenciled. It grew stenciled on your brain. Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars—caged. I am not saying there shouldn't be prisons, but there shouldn't be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars." (p. 155)It may seem strange that Malcolm X protested the existence of bars in prisons rather than the existence of prisons themselves. However, his statement, illustrates for us the political problem of imprisonment: he takes the bars as a metonym for the prisoner, not the prison. Imprisonment uses a series of techniques to discipline men and women to obey orders, to labor in prison yards, to submit themselves to a continual examination, but never to be "reformed," for the social processes giving rise to crime are seldom within an individuals' control and never solved by the existence of prisons. Malcolm X found hope and salvation in prison when he converted to Islam in the 1950s, so our problem is further complicated by the fact that the Malcolm X of the 60s was, in a certain sense, a product of his imprisonment in the 50s. We can only understand his statement if we read "bars" as a sign for the part of the person or that part of the population that always remains a prisoner—a psychological and social imprisonment that persists outside the strict walls of the prison itself.
Interestingly, Louisianans are the most incarcerated population in America at 1,138 per 100,000, which is 50% higher than the national average.
But more on Louisiana in the next post!