Many people are under the impression that the United States prison system is meant to punish those who have committed acts against the law. Although this is true, it has been proven that as a whole, the country has become exponentially more punitive, sentencing individuals at a far greater rate than in decades before. Nicola Lacey explains in American Imprisonment in Comparative Perspective that America is on an imprisonment “binge”. Until 1980, 110 people per 100,000 individuals were behind bars whereas today the numbers are increased to 740 people per 100,000.
We live in a society of mass incarceration in which 1 out of every 100 adults are currently incarcerated. For a comparative perspective, America accounts for 5% of the world’s population while also accounting for 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. It is clear by the numbers that something has happened within the last thirty years to drastically increase the use of punishment. There are different explanations for the imprisonment binge in America, however the effects of incarceration on individuals, and consequences of penal practices have become a growing social problem.
The extremely racialized incarceral system not only diminishes family life and distorts democracy, but also outcasts ex-convicts by discriminating them educationally and black-listing them from many everyday activities in society. Now more than ever, social circumstances effect one’s likelihood to be involved with crime and the criminal justice system as a whole. Class, Race and Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America by Loic Wacquant argues that mass incarceration does not exist in the United States, rather hyperincarceration, or finely targeting incarceration by class, race and place.
This method of categorization associates imprisonment with poor, African American males. This triple selectivity of class, race and place is the reason Wacquant believes we have an absurd criminal justice system in the United States. It is unfair that predetermined factors dictate the involvement of blacks and other minorities with crime and incarceration. Not only has an increased punitive system in the United States contributed to discriminating against blacks, but it forms society’s view of blacks overall.
Another piece of Saperstein and Penner’s paper investigates the hypothesis that “incarceration affects how respondents indentify themselves and how they are perceived by others: respondents who are or have been incarcerated will be more likely to be classified as black, and less likely to be classified as white” (Saperstein 93). The researchers use data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) to examine the relationship between different dependent variables such as racial self-identification and racial classification. The independent variables in the experiment are incarceration and interviewer characteristics.
The authors suggest that this racial affiliation based on incarceration creates a vicious cycle where inequality is reproduced. Saperstein and Penner’s hypothesis leads me to draw a direct connection between race and crime. The connection is not that blacks are more likely to commit crimes, rather society’s lens is more likely to affiliate crime with blacks. Because of the phenomena of mass incarceration, when a person thinks of a criminal, they tend to think of a black person. In turn, police officers, judges and prosecutors tend to assume the same, making blacks the targets of racial profiling and harsher sentencing.
Not only are members of the courtroom workgroup likely to be more harsh on a black person, but this causes other people to look at members of every person in the black community as criminals. This scenario has a far greater effect on society than thought of at first glance. The prison system has a far greater effect on society beyond the prison walls themselves, especially in terms of family life. Although the prisoner is the person who directly feels the temporal sentence itself, families bear the cost of incarceration as well.
As many people know, the majority of prisoners in the United States prison system are male. This is exemplified by the numbers at San Quentin Prison, being that 95% of all visitors are women. Wives, sisters, daughters and mothers travel for hours to spend a few short minutes with their loved ones behind bars. Megan Comfort explains the struggle to maintain family bonds “In the Tube at San Quentin: The Secondary Prisonization of Women Visiting Inmates”. The visitation system in many prisons are degrading in that cueing and waiting degrades the visitors time and depreciates the visit.
Visitation restrictions stretch to the regulation of clothes and belongings in that 1/3rd of female visitors are asked to change some aspect of their attire for one reason or another. Female visitors experience many pains of imprisonment. In assimilating to the regulations and degradation of prison, female visitors undergo what Comfort calls a form of secondary prisonization. Not only are women penalized based on visitation regulations, but the prison system disorganizes families, causing them to bear many costs of incarceration.
Marriage and divorce becomes an issue with many couples going through the prison system. The hardships of imprisonment on family life has a destabilizing effect, causing problems for wives and children equally. Bruce Western and Len Lopoo state in Punishment and Inequality In America, that although 60% of prisoners have at least monthly contact with family members in some way, visitations are relatively rare in that prisoners are places more than 100 miles away from home. An even greater effect that the carceral facility plays on the family is the stigma and shame many family members endure.
Family life is one of the overlooked consequences of imprisonment that has a large effect on many individuals affiliated with the criminal justice system. It is evident that the incarceration system as a whole accounts for a civil death in the distortion of democracy. Essentially, prisoner votes count in the districts in which they are incarcerated. This means that more funding is given to districts which have a greater population due to the existence of a prison, however those behind the prison walls are not accounted for in their voting rights.
This form of prison-based gerrymandering influxes the number of votes in an area in which prisons are located, giving a political advantage to those running for office. Christopher Ugger and Jeff Manza write about the elimination of voices of formally incarcerated people in their piece Lost Voices: The Civic and Political Views of Disenfranchised Felons. Since the prison system is on based around raced, the criminal disenfranchisement in the United States has taken the right to vote from 17% of African American men.
It is clear that a major collateral consequence is the elimination of eliminating the voices of such a specific racial and social category. On major challenge of prisoner re-entry is the denial of access to education, not to mention the social ostracization the prison system imposes on individuals. Issac, a formally incarcerated individual and a member of the Center for Community Alternatives explains that after he was let out for criminal possession of a controlled substance, it was extremely difficult for him to get into college. The Dean at SUNY Oswego did not want him in the school because he was an ex-convict.
Access to education is an issue for both formally incarcerated individuals, and individuals behind bars. President Bill Clinton passed the Crime Control Law Enforcement Act under his presidency which denied Pell Grants to criminals despite unanimous professional opinion that post secondary education reduces recidivism, bolsters carceral order, and increases public safety. Josh Page explains this in Eliminating the Enemy: The Import of Denying Prisoners Access to Higher Education. Page argues that lawmakers enacted this legislative penal drama oriented in the pursuit of political capital.
The denial of prisoners access to education is not an economic decision being that prisoners receive less than 1% of Pell Grant dollars, rather a symbolic, communicative act. How can anyone argue this when it has been proven that it costs more not to educate prisoners? Aside from the implications of not allowing prisoners to gain secondary education, the hardships of ex-convicts to gain education effects their life and society greatly. If people cannot gain education after prison, they are less likely to get jobs, and in turn, more likely to reoffend.
Making it more difficult for people to become re-acclimated with society creates a vicious cycle of recidivism. Aside from hindering access to education, the penal system as a whole creates a stigma for individuals life after prison. After being in prison, it is hard to rebuild connections with one’s family since they have been apart for so long. Ex-convicts are separated from society physically and institutionally. After being in prison, it is very difficult for an individual to regain their life and adjust to the new social circumstances they are subjected to, and have been shielded from for so long.
An example of this occurs in Miami Day County. In Florida, Jessica’s Law banishes sex offenders to the streets by requiring that ex sex offenders live 2,500 feet or more away from parks, schools and daycares. Since parole requires that ex-convicts live in the county they committed a crime, Jessica’s law left hundreds of individuals living homeless under a bridge. This is one example of many ways in which prisoner re-entry becomes very difficult for individuals. Overall, the penal system is a cultural performance which challenges individuals across society and creates a system of inequality for all those affiliated with it.