More than 2 million people are imprisoned in the United States, the largest number of any country, including China, which has more than four times our population. We also have the highest rate of incarceration in the world proportional to our population, with Russia second. US imprisonment has skyrocketed over the last 25 years — as crime significantly declined. What’s the Big Picture here?
And what’s the small picture? Why are the Maine Department of Corrections and the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee lobbying to build another prison?
According to Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a University of Southern California scholar who spoke March 22 at Bates College in Lewiston, the fundamental answer to these questions lies deeper than the usual explanations, all of which have validity: the stiffer mandatory sentences; the public and private prison-industrial complex that lobbies to put more people in cages; and the War on Drugs, which produces between a quarter and a third of America’s prisoners and which was launched even as illegal drug use began to decline.
To understand the deep explanation, she said, we have to realize that in a corporate-globalizing economy “a certain kind of labor market collapsed” — specifically, the American manufacturing economy. Many “modestly educated” blacks and whites, she said, went to prison instead of to work in factories. As she argues in her recently published book Golden Gulag, many of this kind of person had to steal and deal in drugs to make a living.
In an interview, she said it “was easy to prove” that “people like” the kind of people who lost jobs went to prison, though it is harder to prove that they are those people.
But the economic source of the prisoners is only one leg of her theory. She also believes that a large, unemployed, alienated, and disproportionately African-American and Hispanic segment of the working class became a political and economic threat to the wealthy and powerful. Their response? An aggressive, tough-on-crime — “iron-fisted,” she called it — ideology dependent on “saturation policing” as well as saturation imprisonment. It was adopted by both Republicans and Democrats.
The future? “In California, they’re planning prisons for people whose parents haven’t been born yet,” Gilmore said.
But there are alternatives. Connecticut, she said, has figured out how to have less recidivism — fewer people returning to prison — by providing more work, education, and other support to released inmates. Portugal has ended life sentences, decriminalized drug abuse, and as a result reduced incarceration.
More broadly, Gilmore suggested that an alternative to mass imprisonment (one in three black males can expect to do time) will be adopted only when Americans reject the philosophy that “the key to safety is aggression.” She added: “where life is precious, life is precious.” This is her formula to express the need for the government to model less harsh behavior — such as by being less warlike.
Given that Maine in recent years has suffered the biggest proportional collapse in manufacturing jobs of any state, if Gilmore is onto something we can expect to face increasing pressure on our prison system — as reflected, it would appear, in our current prison overcrowding and demands for another lockup.