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America’s Prisons: Is There Hope?

Ruth Morgan
A scene from the play Uncommon Grounds, whose cast included both former offenders and survivors of violent crimes, 1999. Part of an RSVP community restoration program, the play was performed in several high-crime neighborhoods in San Francisco.

What accounts for the high rate of incarceration in the US, particularly of black males? Opinions vary, but for drug crimes in particular, part of the problem has to do with excessive surveillance of young black men by the police and other authorities. White youths may carry and use drugs just as often as blacks, but they seldom get caught, and if they do, they may be more likely to get off with a warning. In one recent study, 60 to 75 percent of black teenagers in Baltimore and Chicago said they were routinely harassed by the police. “Everywhere we go, we going to get stopped,” said one Chicago youth. Once he was approached by detectives as he and a friend were leaving the church they regularly attended:

They was like, “Do y’all got guns?” or something. “We heard shooting on the next block, y’all match the description. Where y’all just come from?” We like, “We just come out the church, y’all done seen it.” You know just, they stopping us for no reason.6

While police surveillance and harassment may explain the racial discrepancy in drug-related crime, it probably explains little of the same discrepancy in violent crime. When it comes to homicide, which is the most accurately measured crime of all, the data are clear: blacks are seven times more likely to be offenders and six times more likely to be victims than whites. This cannot be explained by discrimination in arrests and sentencing alone.

What would explain it? A controversial 1992 report by the US National Research Council proposed that some people might be genetically predisposed to violence; it recommended more research into identifying violence- inducing brain chemicals, and the development of drugs to alter behavior. Although the report did not claim that these factors were more common in blacks, the racial implications were clear, and the report was widely criticized.7

What should have been clear to the research council is that wide fluctuations in murder rates occur much more rapidly than changes in the human genome, which may take thousands of years. Today, homicide is more common in America than in Western Europe, but historians estimate that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, murder rates in London, Amsterdam, and Stockholm were just as high as they were in New York at the peak of the US crime wave in 1990.8 Until the 1960s, murder rates were generally lower in Africa than Europe,9 so a race-specific “violence gene,” if one existed,10 is unlikely to have come from Africa. The finding that RSVP worked as well as it did with blacks and whites alike shows that many violent men can change, and thus that their violent tendencies are not hard-wired.

Most experts maintain that the relationship between race and violence has to do with social conditions such as poverty and unemployment. For example, unemployed people are more likely to engage in crime, and some experts warn that the current economic crisis might already be contributing to an increase in domestic violence and to the recent spate of suicidal shooting sprees.11 However, the connection between crime and fluctuations in the labor market over longer periods of time is not clear. While most studies suggest that rising unemployment leads to an increase in property crimes, it seems to have a much smaller effect on violent crime.12 A few highly publicized tragedies notwithstanding, most violent crimes may be committed by a group of people who would be unemployed in any labor market.13

What most studies do find, however, is that violent crime is strongly associated with the activity of illegal drug markets, which tend to thrive in black neighborhoods.14 A 1988 study of homicide in New York found that 40 percent were associated with drug trade–related disputes, mostly among black men.15 So while whites and blacks may use drugs with equal frequency, blacks are more likely to be involved in the highly lucrative and dangerous business of packaging, distributing, and marketing them. The drug trade is violent because when disputes arise over prices, turf, or customers, there are no peaceful means of resolving them. Adversaries battle out such conflicts with weapons instead of lawyers. It is probably no coincidence that murder rates doubled during Prohibition in the 1920s, and fell sharply with the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933. Similarly, murder rates doubled again during the “crack epidemic” in the 1970s and 1980s, when the drug trade became more lucrative and competitive, and more dangerous.16

This makes the growing activity of drug cartels from Mexico and other countries particularly threatening.17 But as the Obama administration acknowledges, it does not help simply to blame the foreign drug traffickers alone. What can American policymakers do to get the drug trade out of black neighborhoods? Policing is important, but severe crackdowns could, like Prohibition, make matters worse.

Policymakers could start by improving schools in black neighborhoods, which suffer severely from underinvestment, overcrowding, class disruption, and high dropout rates. This endangers us all, and should be addressed, because the likelihood of incarceration falls with increasing education, especially for black men. According to one estimate, 23 percent of the discrepancy in black/white incarceration rates could be eliminated if blacks stayed in school as long as whites, and that was in 1980, before the thirty-year surge in black incarceration got underway. An even greater effect was seen with violent crime, such as murder and assault. According to the authors of this study, a one percent increase in the graduation rate could save $1.4 billion that would otherwise be spent keeping these men behind bars.18

A high school diploma itself seems to help keep black men out of trouble. The likelihood of incarceration drops fourfold among black high school graduates compared to those who make it only to tenth or eleventh grade.19 It is unlikely that there is anything special about the twelfth-grade curriculum that would explain this. However, graduation may indicate a relatively positive attitude toward society and toward oneself that is more important for keeping black youths out of trouble than any skill or knowledge acquired in school. Some studies suggest, remarkably, that a diploma may matter more than one’s income, or even whether one has a job at all.20 Prison education programs that allow inmates to earn college degrees have also been associated with a drop in recidivism.21 Thus the decision of former New York governor George Pataki to end these programs in the mid-1990s may well have had consequences for public safety.

Education may help keep black kids out of trouble, but as Schwartz found, for those already involved in crime, helping them gain self-esteem through education is not always sufficient to get them out of it. Drug dealing and gangs provide more than a livelihood to otherwise poorly educated and difficult-to-employ young men. They also provide an alternative society in which their courage, toughness, and entrepreneurship are valued. More importantly, they are a way out of the shame of being poor, jobless, and unable to support a family.22 It is this very sense of shame that a growing number of psychiatrists maintain is at the root of violent behavior.23

During the 1980s, James Gilligan, the psychiatrist who evaluated RSVP, was in charge of mental health services in the Massachusetts prisons, where he conducted thousands of therapeutic consultations with homicidal inmates. He soon came to realize that they were especially likely to harm or kill someone when they felt insulted or humiliated. What these men seemed to fear most were feelings of weakness and shame—the shame of being seen as inadequate or contemptible—and they struck back violently against anyone who set off those feelings, whether it was a sarcastic, unfaithful girlfriend or a rival drug dealer attempting to impinge on their turf.

Many killers told Gilligan that the fear they saw in the eyes of their victims made them feel powerful and respected, reinforcing a “tough” self-image and seeming to justify aggressive reactions to any sign of disrespect, however minor or unintended.24 A sense of honor was essential in this outlaw world and Gilligan wondered whether this was not precisely because these men had so much to be ashamed of. Like the San Bruno inmates, most of his homicidal patients had experienced humiliating abuse as children and failures in school or in getting jobs. Gilligan theorized that these painful life experiences led them not only to be especially sensitive to individual instances of disrespect, but to build entire subcultures based upon the promotion of masculine honor, however hollow and boastful, as a fortress against shame.

As an undergraduate in the 1950s, Gilligan was fascinated by the work of anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict who classified cultures as being preoccupied predominantly with, on the one hand, notions of honor and shame or, on the other, notions of pride and guilt. While guilt and shame have much in common, Benedict argued that they have different implications for culture and behavior. Guilt, the sense that you have done something wrong and should feel bad about it whether others know it or not, tends to lead to private turmoil. But shame implies awareness of the contempt of others, and therefore has potentially greater implications for relationships. Pride, like guilt, is an internal feeling of accomplishment, whereas a sense of honor, like shame, depends on the attitudes of others toward oneself.

When Gilligan began working as a prison psychiatrist years later, he recalled Benedict’s ideas. “When I first walked into a prison,” he told me recently, “I realized I was in the midst of an honor culture.” Since the 1960s, other prominent experts on behavior, including Thomas Scheff, John Braithwaite, and Helen Lewis, have also characterized shame as a “master regulator” of the emotions, and a key to understanding violent behavior.25 When Scheff looked back at ten years of taped therapy sessions with his patients, he claims he never saw an explosion of anger that was not preceded by an incident that evoked a fleeting expression of shame.

A scene in the 2008 French film The Class (Entre les Murs), a fictionalized but highly realistic account of a year in a multiracial Paris secondary school, convincingly illustrates how the experience of shame can set off violent behavior and ruin a young person’s life. In what might be seen as the movie’s turning point, fifteen-year-old Sulieman, the son of poor West African immigrants and an amiable troublemaker, learns, along with the rest of the class, that the teacher thinks he is of “limited” intelligence. As classroom banter continues in the background, all expression drains from Sulieman’s face. Sometime later he storms out of the class, accidentally hitting a classmate in the face and nearly slugging the teacher as well, an act for which he will be expelled. A grim future for the boy, now considered by adults to be “violent” as well as “limited,” seems inevitable.

Emotions have their own logic, Gilligan reminds us, of which their possessors are often unaware, and therapeutic techniques like Manalive may work by helping violent men untangle their feelings of pain and anger, and develop more positive aspects of their character. Fortunately for policymakers such as Senator Webb, restorative justice techniques like RSVP are one issue on which liberals and conservatives increasingly agree. In April 2008, President Bush signed the Second Chance Act, which authorizes federal funding mainly for “faith-based” initiatives such as Charles Colson’s Prison Ministries that emphasize Christian concepts of confession and redemption and also help inmates find jobs. Although these programs have not been evaluated as rigorously as RSVP, preliminary results suggest that only 18 percent of those who have been through them ended up back in jail a year after release, half the national average. President Obama has asked Congress for more than $100 million to fund the Second Chance Act and other similar initiatives.

RSVP is not faith-based and receives no money through the federal Second Chance initiative. When Schwartz launched the program, she took a firm position on the separation of church and state and told such volunteer groups as Jehovah’s Witnesses to leave the San Bruno jail. But Schwartz’s approach is consistent with conservative notions of personal responsibility, while the more conservative faith-based programs accept the liberal notion that lack of education and job opportunities must also be addressed if inmates are to make a successful transition to freedom.

Perhaps surprisingly, the greatest resistance to programs like RSVP comes from some well-intentioned but doctrinaire leftists who maintain that it is absurd to expect people to change their behavior when they continue to be subject to racism, unemployment, bad schools, and the long legacy of inequality in America. The circumstances in which many African-Americans grow up are indeed traumatic. But the idea that violent crime, drug abuse, AIDS, and other health problems that disproportionately affect blacks can’t be addressed until these schematic leftists are satisfied that we are all living in an age of equality is itself a form of racism, based upon the patronizing assumption that people are powerless to bring about personal and collective change in their own communities. Programs like RSVP show that when people have the courage to face up to their own violent behavior, they can overcome the most harrowing conditions, and inspire others to do so. Indeed, helping violent men find more constructive ways to express their masculinity could well be the fastest route to a better future for themselves and their families.

Obviously, programs like RSVP are only part of a longer-term solution to violence in America. Senator Webb’s commission, if authorized, should also bear in mind that shame and the toxic culture it gives rise to are being cultivated in America’s overcrowded, badly performing schools; in the economy, which, when it grows at all, grows largely for the rich; in the casual slights and insults that occur daily when a black person walks into a shop or hangs out with friends on the street. They are also cultivated in families in which parents, overwhelmed by difficulties and disappointments, use violence to discipline their children. The monster factory isn’t just in the prisons; it is also in the starkly inequitable world outside.


Corrections July 2, 2009

  1. 6

    Susan Clampet-Lundquist, Kathryn Edin, Jeffrey R. Kling, and Greg J. Duncan, “Moving At-Risk Teenagers Out of High-Risk Neighborhoods: Why Girls Fare Better Than Boys,” Working Paper #509, Industrial Relations Section, Princeton University, March 2006.

  2. 7

    National Research Council, Understanding and Preventing Violence, Volume 2: Biobehavioral Influences, edited by Albert J. Reiss Jr., Klaus A. Miczek, and Jeffrey A. Roth (National Academy Press, 1994). See also Fox Butterfield, “Study Cites Role of Biological and Genetic Factors in Violence,” The New York Times, November 13, 1992.

  3. 8

    Richard Rhodes, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist (Knopf, 1999), p. 216; See also Franklin E. Zimring, Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America (Oxford University Press, 1997).

  4. 9

    Patterns of Murder and Suicide,” African Homicide and Suicide, edited by Paul Bohannan (Princeton University Press, 1960), pp. 230–266.

  5. 10

    In 2006, a variant of the MAOA gene was found to increase violent behavior in a population of New Zealanders, but only among those who had been abused as children—a well-known population risk factor for violence in later life. There is no indication that the violence-inducing MAOA gene is more common in any particular racial group. See Essi Viding and Uta Frith, “Genes for Susceptibility to Violence Lurk in the Brain,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, No. 103 (2006), pp. 6085–6086.

  6. 11

    Domestic Use on Rise as Economy Sinks: Hotline Calls Up from Last Year as Are Cases of Shaken Baby Syndrome,” Associated Press, April 10, 2009.

  7. 12

    See Steven D. Levitt, “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors That Explain the Decline and Six That Do Not,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Winter 2004); Alfred Blumstein, Frederick P. Rivara, and Richard Rosenfeld, “The Rise and Decline of Homicide—and Why,” Annual Review of Public Health, Vol. 21 (May 2000); Bijou Yang and David Lester, “Suicide, Homicide and Unemployment,” Applied Economics Letters, Vol. 2, No. 8 (August 1995); Eric D. Gould, Bruce A. Weinberg, and David B. Mustard, “Crime Rates and Local Labor Market Opportunities in the United States: 1979–1997,” The Review of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 84, No. 1 (February 2002); Fiona Carmichael and Robert Ward, “Male Unemployment and Crime in England and Wales,” Economics Letters, Vol. 73, No. 1 (October 2001); Cezary A. Kapuscinski, John Braithwaite, and Bruce Chapman, “Unemployment and Crime: Toward Resolving the Paradox,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Vol. 14, No. 3 (September 1998).

  8. 13

    There is some evidence that sharply increased rates of illegal immigration into the US since 1980 contributed disproportionately to unemployment among blacks, and this in turn correlated with increased black incarceration. However, the effect of immigration appears to be small, accounting for only about 10 percent of the increase in the incarceration of black high school dropouts. See George Borjas et al., “Immigration and African-American Employment Opportunities: The Response of Wages, Employment and Incarceration to Labor Supply Shocks,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 12518, September 2006.

  9. 14

    Jens Ludwig and Jeffrey Kling, “Is Crime Contagious?” The Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 50 (August 2007), pp. 491–518.

  10. 15

    Paul J. Goldstein, “Crack and Homicide in New York City, 1988: A Conceptually Based Event Analysis,” Contemporary Drug Problems, Winter 1989, pp. 651–687.

  11. 16

    See Jeffrey Miron, Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition (Independent Institute, 2004).

  12. 17

    See Randal C. Archibold, “Mexican Drug Cartel Violence Spills Over, Alarming US,” The New York Times, March 22, 2009.

  13. 18

    Lance Lochner and Enrico Moretti “The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports,” The American Economic Review, Vol. 94, No. 1 (March 2004).

  14. 19

    Lochner and Moretti, “The Effect of Education on Crime.”

  15. 20

    Mark Edward Votruba and Jeffrey R. Kling, “Effects of Neighborhood Characteristics on the Mortality of Black Male Youth: Evidence from Gautreaux, Chicago,” Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 68, No. 5 (March 2009).

  16. 21

    Education from the Inside, Out: The Multiple Benefits of College Programs in Prison,” a report by the Correctional Association of New York, January 2009.

  17. 22

    See Philippe Bourgois, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (Cambridge University Press, second edition, 2002).

  18. 23

    For a fascinating review of the psychology of shame, see Robert Karen, “Shame,” Atlantic Monthly, February 1992.

  19. 24

    See James Gilligan, “Shame, Guilt, and Violence,” Social Research (Winter 2003); James Gilligan, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (Putnam, 1996); James Gilligan, Preventing Violence (London: Thames and Hudson, 2001).

  20. 25

    See Thomas J. Scheff and Suzanne M. Retzinger, Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts (Lexington, 1991); John Braithwaite, Crime, Shame, and Reintegration (Cambridge University Press, 1989); Helen Block Lewis, Shame and Guilt in Neurosis (International Universities Press, 1971).

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