How Did the U.S. Become a Prison State? And How Do We Get Out?

You already know the statistics: The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country. But do you know why?

Marie Gottschalk: The United States is the world’s leading warden. It has more people incarcerated in prison and jail in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population than any other country in the world. So it incarcerates about 700 per 100,000 people in prison or jail. This is about five to 12 times the rate of other Western countries and Japan. We’ve got about 160,000 people who are serving life sentences in the United States now and a number of them who are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole in some cases equals the entire prison populations of other large countries.

In my state alone of Pennsylvania, we’re spending as much to send somebody, keep someone in a state prison as to send them to college in some of the leading colleges or universities in the state for the year. There’s a political issue about the legitimacy of the political system that locks up so many people and disproportionately locks up so many people of color and so many people who are poor.

Up until the early 1970s, the U.S. incarceration rate was fairly stable and it didn’t gyrate too much up, too much down and was in keeping with other Western countries in Europe — maybe a little bit on the high side. The reasons why we got here — the immediate reasons are that the United States began passing much more punitive legislation and police and prosecutors began using their discretion in a much more punitive direction. The underlying causes of this are the political response to a spike in crime between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s when homicide rates doubled. And then the politics became kind of like a broken thermostat where crime didn’t keep escalating and escalating, but there was a perception that crime kept escalating and it was very useful for political purposes to exploit crime data and what we call law and order politics.

And this was a period when the Republican Party saw potential for inroads in the South as the Democratic Party cracked up or divided over the civil rights movement and civil rights legislation. Talk about law and order became a coded way to talk about racial issues because with the civil rights movement — you couldn’t talk in such a racially charged terms as you once were able to do. And so there was this punitiveness or this emphasis on law and order as a way to drum up votes both on the part of the Republican Party and then, to some extent, the Democrats following along also.

We’ve had mass incarceration for a number of years now. These extraordinary levels of incarceration. We’re now beginning to talk about the carceral state and how it’s penetrating or metastasizing into the wider society. So we need to visibly see the problem. We then also need to humanize the people who have served time or who are currently serving time. And one of the things that we’ve lost in this country, which we actually once had in our history, is a distinction between someone who committed a violent offense, but is no longer a violent offender. And we seem unable to forgive people who have committed serious crimes even though often these are crimes of passion; these are crimes under the influence of drugs, under the influence of alcohol, under the influence of mental illness. And we have many people who are being locked up literally for their lives even though they don’t pose a threat to public safety. It influences all of our lives because it influences how public benefits are allocated. It influences definitions of citizenship.

So we have many people — not only do they serve their time but once they leave it’s still as if they have an F — "felon" as sort of the scarlet letter for the rest of their lives because they’ve served their time, but they’re not allowed to vote; they’re not allowed to get welfare benefits; they can’t get food stamps. They may not be able to get student loans. They may not be allowed to live in certain places. And they may not be permitted to get licenses for certain jobs, even jobs like hairstylist, which many people learn in prison. They learn how to be barbers and then they come out, they can’t get licensed because they have a criminal conviction and they face extreme discrimination when they come out.

You already know the statistics: The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country, both in sheer numbers and as a percentage of the population. But do you know why?

University of Pennsylvania professor Marie Gottschalk is an expert on the politics of incarceration and author of the book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics. In this video interview, professor Gottschalk details the sequence of events that led to the American prison state. From overstated crime statistics to race-based political dealings to the political benefit of looking tough, the saga of the U.S. as warden continues to reap heavy consequences for nearly all parts of society.


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