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26.9.07

The Problems With Prison

This article doesn't go into a lot of detail about the specific mechanics of how prison does its dirty work. It focuses mostly on the effects of removing so many people from society and the failure to reintegrate them, overlooking the psychological, social, and physical trauma inflicted by the experience of living in prison. Perhaps it's a deliberate attempt to present the aspect of the anti-modern-prisons argument that's most appealing to people who sympathize with the "tough on crime" view. I also wonder about the effect of prison on prison guards -- both those who are directly employed by prison companies (it would be interesting to do (or to read if it's already been done) a sociological study of a town like Florence or Eloy, Arizona whose economy is largely dependent on prisons), and on all of us who are effectively the authors of laws that see prison as an appropriate way of dealing with crime. And then there's the effect of prison on the immigration system, as so many immigrants (many of whom are being threatened with deportation not because they're here illegally but because they served a prison sentence for some crime) are being held "non-punitively" in prison in conditions the same as those for convicted criminals (or worse, since immigration detainees are barred from many of the programs like GED classes that citizen convicts can participate in).

Nevertheless, it's encouraging to see that there's scholarly support for, and increasing political attention to, the view that the modern prison system, rather than restoring people and communities damaged by crime, actually functions to destroy people and communities and thereby breed more suffering and crime.

... In this view, the system takes men with limited education and job skills and stigmatizes them in a way that makes it hard for them to find jobs, slashes their wages when they do find them, and brands them as bad future spouses. The effects of imprisonment ripple out from prisoners, breaking up families and further impoverishing neighborhoods, creating the conditions for more crime down the road. Prisons have grown into potent "engines of inequality," in the words of sociologist Bruce Western; the penal system, he and other scholars suggest, actively widens the gap between the poor - especially poor black men - and everyone else.

... The issue has arrived on the public agenda in part because of the work done by a handful of leading sociologists. Western's 2006 book "Punishment and Inequality in America" is a key work in this new scholarly movement. Devah Pager, a Princeton sociologist, has been making headlines since her dissertation, completed in 2002 at the University of Wisconsin, demonstrated how a criminal record - even for nonviolent drug offenses - made it nearly impossible for black ex-convicts in Milwaukee to land a job. This month, a book based on that work, "Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration," appears in bookstores. And the sociologist Lawrence Bobo, who left Harvard for Stanford two years ago but is returning in January, has been investigating how the growing black prison population is eroding African-Americans' confidence in the rule of law.

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