Mass Incarceration

“None of us can be sure of avoiding prison. Less so than ever, today. Police control over our day-to-day lives is becoming tighter: in the streets and on the roads; over foreigners and  young people; it is once more an offense to express an opinion; anti-drug measures are leading to increasingly arbitrary arrests. We are living under the sign of la garde à vue [holding people without charge, usually on pretext of checking identity].They tell us that the courts are swamped. We can see that. But what if it were the police who had swamped them? They tell us that the prisons are overpopulated. But what if it is the population that is being overimprisoned.”

Michel Foucault, 
Prison Information Group, Press Conference
Paris, 1971

 Foucault’s 1971 words pointed toward a future that is not unlike today in the United States. Over 1 in 100 U.S. residents were behind bars in 2008, according to a Pew Center study.

U.S. mass incarceration has grown seven-fold since the 1970s, being what the National Criminal Justice Commission termed over a decade ago, “the most frenetic correctional build-up in the history of world cultures.” See this “Incarceration Nation” Infographic.

Over 2.2 million are incarcerated today, with over 7 million living and working under formalized correctional control (probation and parole, state-mandated surveillance).

This “prison industrial complex” of both public and private prisons, catches up not only citizens but also immigrants in a network of detention centers. Moreover, these are now buttressed also by a “security-informational complex” that is a threat to all.

Communities of color, however, suffer the consequences of mass incarceration disproportionately.  The National Criminal Justice Commission warned long ago that the prisons were a “social catastrophe” especially for the entire black community.

No other nation incarcerates a higher percentage of its “minoritized communities.” Law professor, Michelle Alexander, notes in her widely-read book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, that there are currently more African-Americans incarcerated in the U.S. than were slaves in 1850, according to the census of that year. Approximately 70% of the incarcerated are people of color, with Blacks and Latinos each fluctuating around the 50% mark of the total confined. With immigrant detention supplementing incarceration today, and the rapid influx of Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander residents, these groups too become caught up in the penal state. A Binghamton University (p.15) study found the incarceration rate for Asian and Pacific Islander in the U.S. to have quadrupled, just in the last ten years.

The “mass” in mass incarceration does not refer simply to high numbers, but also to a “massifying” and “concentrating” effect that weighs-down particular, usually racialized, communities of the poor. In nineteenth century U.S., imprisonment populations were far lower, but still they disproportionately concentrated and amassed suffering in these targeted populations.

Academics in higher education, today, have not been able to ignore so phenomenal a prison growth. New publications on mass incarceration and imprisonment have poured forth from many publishing houses. For some, the topic has become “the new sexy” for a professional academic class seeking the next marketable, academic hot topic.

By comparison, there is a relative lack of book-length treatments of U.S. political prisoners from established academic publishing houses. All too many of the academic treatments of “the growing incarceration problem” lack a political analysis and critique of U.S. structural violence. Writings on political prisoners by Joy James and Dylan Rodriguez, from Rowman & Littlefield and the University of Minnesota Press, respectively, are welcome exceptions among a few others.

Effective educators today must expose U.S. hyper-incarceration as embodying the long-standing politics of class and race in this country. U.S. mass incarceration is an essential structure within a political project by which the U.S. state dispossesses the poor. See Politics of Prisons.

Mass incarceration is not just “doing time.” It is time taking a bite out of you, as noted by political prisoner, Leonard Peltier. Imprisonment separates loved ones, often destroys families and neighborhoods, and especially targets the communal resources needed for growing future teachers, leaders and activists. Imprisonment exposes all of the confined to sexual violence, especially psychologizing and terrorizing trans/gender-non-conforming and queer prisoners.

U.S. hyperincarceration of the present day does not rehabilitate. It is not necessary for controlling crime. Indeed, society may need agreed-upon forms of discipline to protect the common good, but U.S. mass incarceration is not one of them.

U.S. mass incarceration is more a factory of crime. It destroys instead of protects. Ultimately, it is a mode of “organized crime” sustained by political elites bent on control of communities they demonize racially and fear as ungovernable.

It is time to stop mass incarceration. Mumia Abu-Jamal, within “Prison Nation,” has long been writing to expose the politics of imprisonment, as the “Bright, Shining Hell” that U.S. prisons and death rows have become.

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