Deadly Incarceration Trends

Chris Uggen has nice graph and preliminary discussion on the latest figures on prison, jail, probation and parole released from the Department of Justice. From 2005-2006, the prison population is up 3.5% and the jail population is up 2.5%, shifts that Uggen characterizes as “non-trivial.” Solomon Moore, writing for The New York Times, addresses race in these stats:

“The data reflect deep racial disparities in the nation’s correctional institutions, with a record 905,600 African-American inmates in prisons and state and local jails. In several states, incarceration rates for blacks were more than 10 times the rate of whites. In Iowa, for example, blacks were imprisoned at 13.6 times the rate of whites, according to an analysis of the data by the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.”

These latest stats on the current system of mass incarceration reflects a broader policy of “zero tolerance” in a number of arenas, such as schools and community policing, that specifically target youth of color.

While many agree on the grim litany of statistics that reveal racial disparities in incarceration, there is not wide agreement about the causes. One explanation offered by Michael Tonry is that the over-representation of blacks behind bars stems from the discriminatory targeting of policies such as the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Jerome Miller makes a persuasive argument that it is there is racial bias built into the entire system of criminal justice, and as long as politicians keep advocating for an increase in the size and number of police officers, jails, prisons and correctional officers to staff them, that the number of people (predominantly Black people) in the system will increase. Miller also warns that the pernicious resurgence of interest in genetics and crime alongside the massive crime control industry holds tremendous danger for racial minorities in their encounters with the justice system.

A slightly different explanation to these, though not inconsistent with them, is the notion there is a “deadly symbiosis” between urban inner-city neighborhood (e.g., “ghetto”) and the prison. In this conceptualization, put forward by Loic Wacquant, he argues that three institutions have historically “produced” race in the U.S., starting with slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the ghetto. Following the Civil Rights era, the socio-political landscape has shifted so that:

“Now, a fourth ‘peculiar institution’—joining the hyperghetto with the carceral system—is remolding the social meaning and significance of ‘race’ in accordance with the dictates of neoliberalism. To be sure, the penal apparatus has long served as accessory to ethno-racial domination. But the role of the carceral institution today is different. For the first time in U.S. history, it is the primary apparatus for the social production of “race.”

What Wacquant is arguing here is that rather than the carceral system acting a multiplier of racial disparities that already exist a priori, the system is “for the first time” acting as “the primary apparatus” for creating race as a category and identity, “in accordance with” a powerful force he refers to as “the dictates of neoliberalism.” I find Wacquant’s argument rather compelling at first glance. There is something new, and something inherently racial, in the current state of mass incarceration. And, to be sure, neoliberalism is implicated here. However, the argument seems less persuasive upon closer inspection. Even as race is being “produced” by the carceral system for those it touches, this is by no means a grand theory of racial production, and it falls into the trap of locating “race” only within those who are non-white. How is race produced for the majority of people who are not directly under the carceral gaze? And, how is this production “dictated” by neoliberalism? There is too much structure in Wacquant’s “symbiosis” and not nearly enough agency.