The Imprisonment Binge in America

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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...
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