Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mass Incarceration on Trial

Jonathan Simon
Mass Incarceration on Trial

The New Press, 2014

America worries about its citizens. America wants to reduce crime, separating those who have comitted crime from those who are victims or can become victims. The method of the separation the US have chosen is imprisonment everyone who poses even a slightest threat to society.

Mass incarceration has become panacea for all crime related illnesses in America. Prisons lose their rehabilitation status, turning into human warehouses storing people as objects that have lost all their value for the government.

Jonathan Simon in his study of mass incarceration writes that the society and then government views on crime and crime prevention toward incapacitation changed their views on prisons significantly only recently. On an example of California, Simon shows how a state with moderately small amount of prisons during only two decades had made a big step forward to a prison state, where “more than twenty new prisons [were built] during 1980s and 1990s”. The state abandoned all rehabilitation programs for prisoners, adapted new harsh sentensing laws, made parole impossible, with the only solution in mind – incarceration. The newly builded prisons couldn’t catch up with the number of newly convicted, who received long sentences even for smaller crimes. It had led to overcrowding in prisons, that itself had become the source of another issue for prison inmates. The conditions of their imprisonment worsened. While the official theory was that prisons are safe for those who are unsafe to society, in real life prisoners suffered from absence of elemental medical treatment. The prisons became places of torture tucked away from our eyes.

Examining new trial cases, regarding mass incarceration and prisons conditions unfeat for any human, especially those who suffer from mental and chronic illnesses, Simon find the reasons as to why California and the rest of America found this brutal and most unhuman way to treat persons who were found guilty of comitting a crime. I avoided in the previous sentence the notion that state found a new way to prevent crime by building new prisons. In this book Simon (and he’s not the first) argues that it’s been established already that there is no direct relevance between crime rate and incarceration rate.

Thus we should regard the reasons that caused and started mass incarceration across USA. In one of the strongest arguments Simon explains how society viewed an ordinary criminal, the two most common types being black violent revolutioner and white serial killer hunting in suburbs. It seemed there were no other way to be saved from crime, other than to place every person who committed any crime possible in prison for the longest term possible. Simon convincingly argues that it is the government itself who sold the society this idea about incorrigable criminals, and then after society in fear changed its views toward the need of a harsher punishment, the government simply used society’s approval of mass incarceration.

Building prisons is the simplest way out, also being not the cheapest one. Mass incarceration requires minimum brain work, as prisoners are treated as things that are needed to be placed inside cells, and then forget about them, for life if possible. Rehabilitation, working with people, treating human beings with dignity they’re entitled to, this is a hard work. Government “treat(s) members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded”. For a few decades government was focused on the materialistic side of the problem, being interested in contruction, safety inside of prisons for prison officials, supermax blocks and whole prisons.

Simon slightly touches one, as it seems for me, important point: the new prisons were considered as safe places for work of prison officials in the first place, and only in the second as a safe place for prisoners. Prison officials viewed prisoners as dangerous species, animals who deserved to be treated as such. Therefore all in prisons was made so that prison officials could feel and work safely inside prison walls.

While completely forgotten and deprived of decent medical treatment and opportunities for education, communication and rehabilitation, prisoners struggled all these years. The prison population grew, the average age of prisoners raised, the suicide rate among prisoners high as ever, and only recent litigation cases drew attention of media and social scientists to the issue of total incapacitation.

Simon delves into three most important cases, where whole population of several Califotnia prisons demanded the right to medical treatment and human conditions in prisons. During these cases, it was found that mass incarceration leads to a violation of Eighth Amendment. The Brown vs. Plaza court’s recommendations on reducing prison population is only a start. The three cases examined in this book initiated the end of mass incarceration. The government still fights this decision, yet there were some progress already made.

Mass Incarceration on Trial is a superb study of American penal system, its issues and the possible ways to solve them. It a book for prison freaks and for those who studies law.


  1. As Robert Hughes commented in The Fatal Shore, the Australian penal colony began with the notion that there was a 'criminal class', and if you could send them all somewhere far away, you'd be rid of crime. End result, generations later--Australia was a more law-abiding nation than the UK. The problem, of course, was overpopulation and urban crowding in the mother country and her satellites, which penal transportation only marginally improved.

    But in spite of being treated with almost unimaginable brutality when they first arrived on the aforementioned fatal shore, the Australian, Tasmanian and New Zealand convicts were eventually allowed to settle in their new country as free people, and they turned out, in the main, to be good citizens, if perhaps a tad rowdy and independent-minded, which was all to the good.

    We don't have an Australia to send our 'criminal class' to, so we've never really gotten past the point of just trying to make them disappear. Some of the excesses are being addressed now--I think we'll see fewer and fewer people going to penitentiaries for possession of illegal drugs--marijuana will probably be legal across the entire U.S. in another decade or so.

    I agree that imprisonment isn't the reason the national crime rate is so far down, but the fact that it is will, over time, reduce the number of imprisoned. The problem here is that the system is self-perpetuating--it's a big part of many local economies. Upstate New York is dependent on downstate New York for all the prisoners who get sent upstate, where upstate residents watch over them, at good salaries--there being relatively limited career opportunities up there. What happens when those prisons start to shut down?

    There's so much money involved, it's going to take massive nationwide reforms, and I'm not sure where the political will to institute them will come.

    Michael Dukakis wasn't elected President, many believe, because one convicted murderer serving a life sentence was let out of prison early while Dukakis was governor of that state (it wasn't Dukakis, specifically, who let him out), and he committed some horrible crimes.

    Race is a big part of it, obviously. The Australian convicts may have been cockneys, Irish, Scots, etc--but they were white. And thousands of miles away across a vast ocean. So there was no political capital risked by letting them go free.

    This problem will be solved, but it will take much too long. It is a disgrace to all Americans.

    Then again, nobody's serving time in a U.S. penitentiary for being in a girl band that makes fun of our shirtless leader. ;)

    1. I have seen somewhere a recent book on current political prisoners in US. I think they exist, but not in the numbers we have. As much as I hate members of that girl band, I won't argue with you that their punishment was harsh, in fact, there shouldn't have been any punishment at all.

      Until recently I held an opinion that our criminal justice system was very lenient toward criminals. I was all for making it harder on those who committed crimes. It's rare when someone gets a life sentence even for murder (I know of a few characters who did two stretches in prison for two different murders, one after another), terrorists receive short sentences.
      Now I'm not so sure. The life in our prisons is horrible even without overcrowding. Life after prison is hell of another sort. And when US law makers are finally relieve the pressure on drug related crimes, our law makers are doing the opposite, sending to prison young naive boys.

      As I understand for US penal system there are a few ways to solve the overcrowding issue and improve conditions for prisoners with chronic and mental illnesses. They can build more prisons, only it will cost money, and there should be a moratorium on building new penitentiaries. They already allow parole for felons who are hardly a threat to society. And they can release felons with chronic illnesses.
      As you said, it will take time. But it is worth the effort.

    2. Prison reform is a vital issue for us. But a touchy one, because so many of us are obsessed with crime. Repulsed and fascinated by it. So many TV shows about criminal white people--like we're trying to prove we could be just as mean as the blacks and Latinos if we wanted.

      I thought of something after I responded--yes, we want the 'criminal class' to disappear--take them off the streets, lock them up, throw away the key--but there's a lot of television about prison life. Fictional shows, like Oz and Orange is the New Black--sympathetic to prisoners.

      But also many reality shows about actual 'Supermax' prisoners. And even a show about paroled felons rehabilitating themselves and cute dogs--"Pit Bulls and Parolees." Some shows make the felons scary--others make them cuddly. We're very torn about this.

      Prisoners and ex-prisoners are a huge part of our society--that can't vote for the most part (the rules about when you get your voting rights back vary from state to state) and basically enjoy a sort of attenuated citizenship. We have to deal with them, just as much as we have to deal with all the veterans of our recent and ongoing wars. They're veterans of the war on crime, you might say.

      And of course, there are some people who should be in prison, and should never ever get out. Even Richard Pryor admitted that--

    3. That should be the start - to change public view of criminals and felons. California was a state more sympathetic than most other states toward prisoners in 1960s. But a few prison riots and a wave of serial killers crimes changed that attitude, and the government used that change to its own advantage. Americans once again need to reevaluate their views on prisoners.