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.


Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
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