• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The American Prison Nightmare

Confronting Confinement: A Report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons

by John J. Gibbons and Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, co-chairs
Vera Institute of Justice,122 pp. (available at www.prisoncommission.org)


Among the many jarring sights I have witnessed as a reporter writing about poverty, one of the saddest involved a father, a son, and a maximum security prison outside Joliet, Illinois. The son, a voluble thirteen-year-old named Dwayne, wasn’t a bad kid but had become increasingly troublesome in class. His father had been locked up since Dwayne was five, but still had influence with the three children he had left behind. Or so their mother hoped. Alarmed at her difficulties controlling the family, she looked to the sound of a father’s voice to set things straight. It was a two-hundred-mile round trip from their home in Milwaukee, and I had the only car.

The Stateville Correctional Center is a gloomy fortress with high concrete walls that could serve as a prison movie set. About half its inmates were in for murder, including Dwayne’s father, a low-level crack dealer who had acted as the lookout during an attack on a rival in which a teenage girl was accidentally killed. Eight years later, Dwayne’s mother still missed him too much to settle down with another man. Dwayne claimed to give him little thought, though a school essay suggested otherwise. He had written about an abandoned mouse who was surrounded by predators, only to realize the abandoned creature was himself. “That’s about my Daddy!” he said.1

After sleeping through the drive, Dwayne struck a pose of boredom as we approached the main cell block, while his mother looked stoic and his siblings seemed alarmed. A guard led us to a room ringed by vending machines where a worn-looking prisoner said he was thankful for the rare chance to see his kids. I left them to a private visit, and when they reappeared Dwayne was sobbing and the others looked like they had witnessed a death. “They miss their father,” was all their mother could say. They piled in for a mournful ride home, a study in how many lives can be linked to one prison cell.

Bruce Western makes a crucial point at the start of his important book, Punishment and Inequality in America: “If prisons affected no one except the criminals on the inside, they would matter less.” But with more than two million Americans behind bars, the impact of mass incarceration is impossible to contain. Their fate affects the taxpayers who support them, the guards who guard them, the families they leave behind, and the communities to which they return. Not even the war in Iraq escapes the reach of prison culture; Sergeant Charles Graner, the villain of Abu Ghraib, worked as a Pennsylvania prison guard.

Everyone is affected, but not equally. Black men in their early thirties are imprisoned at seven times the rate of whites in the same age group. Whites with only a high school education get locked up twenty times as often as those with college degrees. Among the many impediments to reform has been the gap between the people who make criminal justice policy—mostly educated whites who favor imprisonment, especially during twelve years of Republican congressional control—and those who live with the consequences.

There is another impediment to reform: mass incarceration seems to have made the streets safer. The vast increase in the prison and jail population from about 380,000 in 1975 to 2.2 million today overlaps with equally stunning declines in crime. The homicide rate in the 1990s fell by 43 percent. Many critics of incarceration argue (a bit too quickly) that crime would have fallen without the prison boom. Perhaps. Still the value of safer neighborhoods is immediate, while the costs of excessive imprisonment are theoretical and vague.

Western’s achievement—a large one—is to make them less vague. He identifies mass incarceration as a major cause of modern inequality, with large and uncounted collateral effects. Imprisonment does more than reflect the divides of race and class. It deepens those divides—walling off the disadvantaged, especially unskilled black men, from the promise of American life. While violent criminals belong in jail, more than half of state and federal inmates are in for nonviolent crimes, especially selling drugs. Their long sentences deprive women of potential husbands, children of fathers, and convicts of a later chance at a decent job. Similar arguments have been made before, but Western, a Princeton sociologist, makes a quantitative case. Along the way, his revisionist account of the late 1990s detracts from its reputation as an era of good news for the poor. Its appearance coincides with several other instructive new studies of American incarceration.


For much of the twentieth century, about one American in a thousand was confined to a cell. The proportion of Americans behind bars started rising in the mid-Seventies, and by 2003 had done so for twenty-eight consecutive years. Counting jails, there are now seven Americans in every thousand behind bars. That is nearly five times the historic norm and seven times higher than most of Western Europe.

The penal population grew because crime increased; because the number of police and prosecutors grew (which raised the odds of punishment); and because policymakers, disillusioned with the ethos of rehabilitation, imposed tougher penalties. The increase in severity occurred on the front end with longer sentences and reduced judicial discretion to shorten them, and on the back end by making fewer prisoners eligible for early release.

Meanwhile, the “war on drugs” led to the arrest of growing numbers of small-time users and dealers. By the late 1990s, 60 percent of federal inmates were in for drug offenses. The result is an ever-growing prison system, populated to a significant degree by people who need not be there. It was no liberal advocate but Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy who offered a damning view of criminal justice in the United States: “Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.”

Despite the crackdown, white men with college degrees are only slightly more likely than previously to end up in prison. Among black men with college degrees, the odds of imprisonment have fallen. But by 2000, high school dropouts of either race were being locked up three times as often as they had been two decades before. And racial disparities have become immense. By the time they reach their mid-thirties, a full 60 percent of black high school dropouts are now prisoners or ex-cons. This, Western warns, has resulted in “a collective experience for young black men that is wholly different from the rest of American society.”

Much about black underclass life is tragic, but the racial imbalance in the prison population is particularly extreme. For example, while blacks are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, they now go to prison eight times as often. We are used to thinking of prison as at least partially a byproduct of the larger tragedy of poverty; Western depicts it as a cause. Through mass incarceration, he writes, “the poor are made poorer and have fewer prospects.”

This happens in part because an inmate’s earnings prospects fall. Most men in their twenties and thirties experience rapid earnings growth, as their skills and contacts expand. Those in prison atrophy and leave stigmatized. Devah Pager, a Northwestern University sociologist, conducted an experiment in which pairs of otherwise identical men applied for jobs with one identifying himself as an ex-con. The disclosure of a prison record reduced the chances of getting a second interview by half for whites and by two thirds for blacks. Using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Western estimates that a prison record reduces a man’s annual earnings by 30 to 40 percent, through less work and lower pay. For the average black man, the lifetime loss comes to $86,000. (Whites, with more to lose, lose more: $114,000.)

Incarceration taxes family life, too, leaving disadvantaged men with even weaker prospects as husbands and fathers. A prison record reduces a black man’s chances of getting married by 11 percentage points. Married or not, most jailed men have kids, making the prison boom a growing source of disadvantage for young people. As the gloomy trip to the Joliet prison made clear, the whole family does the time. From 1980 to 2000, the number of children with fathers behind bars rose sixfold to 2.1 million. Among white kids, just over 1 percent have incarcerated fathers, while among black children the figure approaches 10 percent.

It may be tempting to view these men—dope sellers, petty thieves—as fathers in name only, with few ties to their kids. But nearly half are living with their children at the time of their arrest. And the perpetual surprise about bad parents is how much their children need them anyway. In marginalizing so many men, in the cause of stabilizing their community, the prison boom risks destroying the communities it aims to save. Mass imprisonment, Western writes, “may be a self-defeating strategy for crime control.”

There is a rejoinder, of course—locking them up makes streets safer, especially the streets of poor neighborhoods. Western acknowledges that “the 1990s crime drop provided a remarkable improvement in public safety and quality of life, particularly for the disadvantaged.” But his analysis gives the prison boom just 10 percent of the credit. The theory is partly one of diminishing returns: we are locking up people who pose little threat, and keeping others long past their most dangerous years (typically ending in their mid-thirties). And prison time, Western says, can turn minor offenders into hardened criminals, through the influence of other inmates and the denial of later opportunities.

My own sense is that Western may be underestimating the role that increased imprisonment has played in reducing crime. A fivefold increase in prison rates is a huge change; it may have had effects that statistical models missed. Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago and William Spelman of the University of Texas have each done statistical analyses that give rising incarceration about a third of the credit for reduced crime.2 Whatever the number, one can accept that imprisonment has helped reduce crime, while appreciating Western’s disclosure of the costs and sharing his sense that the urge to incarcerate has gone too far.

The 1990s were said to be a time when rising tides finally did lift all boats. Western warns that part of the reason, statistically speaking, is that many poor men have been thrown overboard—the government omits prisoners when calculating unemployment and poverty rates. Add them in, as Western does, and joblessness swells. For young black men it grows by more than a third. For young black dropouts, the jobless rate leaps from 41 percent to 65 percent. “Only by counting the penal population do we see that fully two out of three young black male dropouts were not working at the height of the 1990s economic expansion,” Western warns. Count inmates and you also erase three quarters of the apparent progress in closing the wage gap between blacks and whites.

  1. 1

    I was following Dwayne’s family for my book about the welfare system: American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare (Viking, 2004).

  2. 2

    Other possible explanations include changes in demographics, an improved economy, an expanded police presence, gun control laws, the shrinking impact of crack, and perhaps most controversial, the legalization of abortion.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print