Politics & Law

The iron cage: Why it’s so hard to escape mass incarceration

Jonathan Simon

For more than three decades state and local officials, egged on by the mass media and interested public employee unions, stoked the growth of prison systems in almost every state by greatly expanding the range of people considered eligible to go to prison.

Plenty of local ne’er do wells that county prosecutors and judges would have kept in the community in jail, or under probation, got shipped up to the state prison system, which was expanding rapidly, breaking down previous customary barriers to incarceration.

Once in prison, the same local ne’er do wells now found themselves subject to both the pressures of statewide prison gangs (usually pretty formidable criminal organizations and often racists to boot), and when they get out, to far tougher scrutiny by state parole officers than they received in the past, with the result that many of them returned to prison. And so on… But you know the rest.

The nation’s incarceration rate quadrupled, and in some neighborhoods a term in state prison had become bigger than college, the military, or marriage as a pathway to adulthood. But all of that is so 2005.

In 2012 we are two years into a national trend away of imprisonment. In some states, efforts have quietly been underway for years to reduce the flow of new prisoners and to move some prisoners out earlier.

In other states like California, it has taken a massive federal lawsuit, backed by the Supreme Court, to force the state to reduce its population to relieve severe overcrowding that had created a humanitarian crisis.

While there is a growing sense that mass incarceration has been morally wrong, it is primarily fiscal pressure that accounts for the progress made thus far. The real question is whether this can continue once there is less pressure on state budgets.

If it is to be sustained it will require a generation of state leaders capable of taking on the powerfully embedded rationalities that supported mass incarceration and that make it so very hard to let it go. To understand just how powerful those rationalities are and how widespread the responsibility for maintain them is, consider the New York Times.

No national media source has done more recently to question the status quo of mass incarceration with numerous stories on prison conditions, wrongful convictions, and excessive severe sentencing. Yet on the front of its June 17, 2012 Sunday edition is a story by Sam Dolnick that has “Welcome Home Willy Horton” written all over it (read it here).

Horton, you will recall, was the furloughed prisoner whose crime escapades — while released on an administrative leave from prison during Michael Dukakis’ governorship of Massachusetts — became a major theme of the 1988 Presidential campaign. This time it is a Republican Governor Chris Christie whose Presidential ambitions look to be majorly damaged by the story headlined “As Escapees Stream Out, A Penal Business Thrives.”

While the story has a distinctly New Jersey air of state political cronyism, the master narrative is pure 1990s crime fear stoking. The title of the series which this leads off is “unlocked” (get it). Here is the tabloid version without the Times style empiricism.

Tens of thousands of New Jersey prisoners every year are being let out of prison early to go to “half way houses” and every year scores of them “escape” (or actually walk out since in most cases the facilities have no legal authority to prevent anyone from leaving. Some of those “escapees” commit crimes. Indeed there is a neat illustration running across the right half of the full double page spread that the story opens up to.

With the words “Crimes on the Run” in the middle, a graph showing escapes by the week from 2009 and below a photo line up of criminal faces (shades of Lombroso), mostly black and brown but some white and a list of ominous crimes including “murde,” “assault on a police officer” or being arrested with a “cache of weapons and drugs” (what was that, five pocket knives and a lid of weed?) No doubt some of these are serious crimes.

The main one profiled involved the murder of a young woman by a possibly mentally ill prisoner who became involved with her while in prison and then broke out of the half way house he had been released to after she tried to break things off. He persuaded her to get in a car with him and she was later found strangled.

Against this background state officials, and especially Governor Christie, are shown as feckless if not corrupt, praising well-connected companies and expanding their contracts without evaluating the effectiveness of the programs or responding to the escapes (even after a Times investigation began last year).

No doubt the story raises important questions about how state contracts are made and evaluated and on whether industrial scale “halfway houses” are a productive way to do “reentry”, but for now let’s consider how the story frames efforts to reduce prison populations as endangering the public, without any basis.

First, you have to read way into the story to realize that the thousands of people coming from prison to halfway houses are doing so at virtually the end of their prison sentences. They are spending weeks or possibly a couple of months in a halfway house where they can begin seeking employment and restoring ties to their community rather than paroling directly from prison several weeks or a month or two later.

So all of the danger that the article invokes in its image of thousands of prisoners in poorly secured halfway houses completely ignores the fact that all of them would be out on the streets without a halfway house in a short time. Would that additional six weeks in a state prison have made New Jersey citizens safer?

The Times provides no evidence at all that additional time in prison would have rehabilitated or deterred these individuals, or that the additional weeks of incapacitation would have done anything more than shift the dates of future crimes by a few weeks. The implication throughout the story is New Jersey was safer when these folks were behind bars, yet no evidence is presented that crime rates have gone up as a result of the program.

The real deterrence here is for politicians who think about defying decades of wisdom that the only safe prisoner is in a prison cell.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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