1. What the term means

  • The phrase “mass imprisonment” was coined by sociologist David Garland in 2000 to describe the massive expansion of imprisonment in the US between 1975 and the late 1990s. This new regime of punishment differed in two remarkable ways: 1) the sheer scale and magnitude of the increased use of imprisonment in a departure from historic norms and 2) the systematic imprisonment of whole groups of the population without social scientific evidence that punishment has a strong relationship with crime control.

 2. Scale: There are more than 2.4 million people behind bars in America

  • Approximately one out of every four prisoners on the entire planet are in U.S. prisons, but the United States only accounts for about five percent of the total global population. Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons has quadrupled. Incredibly, 41 percent of all young people in America have been arrested by the time they turn 23. 12 million people cycle through prison in a single year. 7 to 8 million people are under some form of criminal justice supervision (including probation and parole).
  • Tennessee incarceration rates have gone from just over 100 people incarcerated per 100,000 people in the 1970s to over 400 in 2010.

 3. Systematic Imprisonment of groups: Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color

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Prison Re-Form: The Continuation of the Carceral State

Guest post by Judah Schept

There has been recent and welcome attention to the carceral state in major media outlets like the New York Times and from unlikelier sources, like conservative political commentators. Indeed, the Times’ May 24th editorial focused on the bipartisan support for prison reform as evidence for its call to “end mass incarceration now:”

The insanity of the situation is plain to people across the political spectrum, from Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who agree on the urgent need for change. The research is in, and it is uncontestable. The American experiment in mass incarceration has been a moral, legal, social, and economic disaster. It cannot end soon enough.”

While the Times’ critique is direct and pointed, some of the most outspoken public critics of mass incarceration in recent years have been politicians on the right, from Grover Norquist to Rand Paul to even Rick Perry and, of course, Newt Gingrich. It would be politically shrewd to remain skeptical of these individuals and their analyses given their various roles in creating the modern day carceral state, dismantling the welfare state, justifying and carrying out executions, and openness to undoing federal civil rights legislation. But there is no mistaking that there has been a marked shift in rhetoric and some accompanying legislative changes.

Some commentators have seen these developments as indicative of a definite shift toward reform and perhaps even as the harbinger of the end of the era of mass incarceration. I hope they are correct. But following historians like David Rothman and social theorists like Michel Foucault, we should remember that, historically, American prison reform efforts “may well have done less to upgrade dismal conditions than they did to create nightmares of their own” (Rothman 2002, p. 9). Indeed, while we often use the word “reform” to suggest progressive, if incremental, change, the word also can mean “restructuring” or, more obviously, “re-formation.” I want to turn toward a brief discussion of two related phenomena that may caution against celebrating any imminent demise of the carceral state; rather, they suggest its persistence.

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