Monday, August 06, 2007

Jail Time

One of the many surprises I've had since moving to Canada happened when the country had to go back to the polls after the no confidence vote brought down the Liberals. The television news was showing various vignettes of Canadians standing in line waiting to vote and the last one was a short story about the prisoners who were voting. Huh? Prisoners voting? No, really. There was a voting booth inside the prison and they were standing in line waiting to vote. In the U.S., nobody votes in prison and there are crimes that make it impossible to vote even when you get out of prison.

Of course, Canada is more traditional when it comes to prisons; they still see them as a place where criminals repay their debt to society and are rehabilitated back into the community. America, in contrast, has come to see prisons as a place to put really bad people in order to keep them off the street. Oddly enough, the more "Christian" nation has much less faith in atonement.

I find it impossible to discuss this with my American relatives. They take it as an article of faith that there are really, really bad people in the world (which, of course, there are) and that any questions about how America incarcerates is akin to arguing that really, really bad people should not be held accountable for their actions (which, of course, it isn't). They all watch COPS. Many of them are cops. My cop relatives have no faith in "rehabilitation".

But Glenn C. Loury wants to know how America came to rely so heavily on prisons in order to function. His provocative article from the Boston Review throws out some incredible statistics:

"According to a 2005 report of the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, the United States—with five percent of the world’s population—houses 25 percent of the world’s inmates. Our incarceration rate (714 per 100,000 residents) is almost 40 percent greater than those of our nearest competitors (the Bahamas, Belarus, and Russia). Other industrial democracies, even those with significant crime problems of their own, are much less punitive: our incarceration rate is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of France, and 12.3 times that of Japan. We have a corrections sector that employs more Americans than the combined work forces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart, the three largest corporate employers in the country, and we are spending some $200 billion annually on law enforcement and corrections at all levels of government, a fourfold increase (in constant dollars) over the past quarter century."

So why are there so many Americans in jail? Could it really be the most crime-ridden country on earth? How do we use prisons? What should they be accomplishing?


Holly said...

American prisons are

a) Caught in a vicious cycle. I'd going to take a shot in the dark and say, this started with a backlash against 60's drug culture. Privatization of corrections undoubtedly influences the situation, as soon as someone is profiting from incarceration, you're gonna see more incarceration. Period.

b) A Somebody Else's Problem field for the unpretty things. Americans have serious denial issues about a lot of things, and walled compounds are totally in vogue right now. Prisons are pretty low on the radar for most people. Who cares about criminals when they're having trouble paying their own bills?

c) Difficult to unwind from economy at this point. It'd come down to freedom for large numbers of people, at the expense of the livelihoods of others. Since those "others" are groups of people who are already not popular in the country generally, this question is not likely to come up. Not just the jobs of prison employees, but all law enforcement in many branches, and employees of the judicial system. There are a LOT of paycheck hours wound up in this issue. Not only that, but if you let all those people out of jail, they need jobs too! What a disaster.

d) Americans hold the inexplicable opinion that getting caught committing a serious crime is somewhat like leprosy--it's terrible, and distasteful, and while it's somewhat treatable, you don't want to socialize with those people. You don't want them living in your neighborhood. You don't want them working in your office. You don't want them at your PTA meetings. Except cheating on your taxes; that's OK, as long as you don't get caught. This has somehow given rise to the notion that misdemeanors aren't really crimes. Especially if no one was watching.

The number of times I've heard educated, apparently intelligent adults express the view that one or another ethnic group is comprised mostly of criminals leads me to believe that, despite the rhetoric of equality and tolerance, Americans are having trouble viewing people as individuals. Rather, they are groups, and groups are not considered by the best case, but at best, by the median, and more often by the worst case.

Rufus said...

Actually, the cops in my family are fairly certain that certain ethnic groups are composed mostly of ciminals. No points for guessing which ones.

Holly said...

Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. circulate statistics indicating which ethnic groups commit which types of crimes, and why. I have seen these statistics, so it's not a matter of guessing what your cop relatives believe to be true.

Statistics are regarded as facts, no matter how much a person knows about how easy it is to manipulate statistics.

Rufus said...

Statistics should definitely be taken with a grain of salt. My relatives will talk about how there are neighborhoods in DC where you can find such and such percentage of the kids on drugs on any Saturday night. I always thought: "That sounds like the same percentage of kids in my dorm using drugs when I was in university." The difference was that the police didn't stake out our campus.

But the big difference is that there are neighborhoods in DC where my cop relatives assume that everyone's guilty of something, and neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, where they assume they aren't. Aside from violent crime, I'd be skeptical that the actual crime rates are much different.

Rufus said...

By which I mean rate of crimes actually committed as opposed to arrest rates.

Holly said...

Sure, it comes back to that not getting caught thing. "White" rich kids aren't well represented in jails because it's assumed that they are adequately "policed" by their own communities, where it's assumed that "black" and "brown" communities are not self-policing, or in fact are nurturing badness. I've no idea about how police regard other communities, because it never comes up. I'm sure if it was decided by whoever decides these things that it's absolutely necessary to keep a closer eye on ANY given group, suddenly the criminal statistics for that group would shoot up.

Except probably the Amish. I'm willing to believe they're not doing anything, even when someone isn't watching.

(I've put the colors in quotes because it's not actually a matter of phenotype, but of group identification. Rapper Eminem is "black" in this sense--he's a member of a community that gets a lot of jail time, anyway.)

Rufus said...

In general, I think there's not a great amount of parental authority in any group. I find myself teaching working class white kids whose relationship with their parents seems to be fairly slight. I don't think they exhibit the same pathologies, but I definitely notice a great amount of fuzziness on ethical questions.