It is interesting in this election year, while the Democrats are out to get out the vote to pull off success in 2008, and Senators Clinton and Edwards trying to out-Black Obama, the issue of massive imprisonment has only come up once (that I know of) in this whole course of courting the Black vote.
The issue is still dangerous territory for the Democrats. First, they have anxieties of appearing soft-on-terrorism, which has, at least momentarily, supplanted a conversation about being soft-on-crime. But that doesn’t mean the implication isn’t there. After all, a President willing to “use military force” against some unknown others over “there,” can be assumed to be willing to do as much against criminals “over here.” In short, the war on terror has allowed the national politicians to skirt talking about criminals here. But the spook, if you will, is never far in the distance (Note to academics: Because this is a blog doesn’t mean you get to not cite my ideas. Thanks.).
But whether prisons and prisoners are a part of the national dialogue, they are still very much a part of the nation. And two recent articles are seeming to try to bring them, and the issue into view.
Professor Glenn C. Loury, Economics Professor and Chair of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University, tries to explain both the political and social forces for the growth of the prison population in the United States. He writes for the Boston Review:
One cannot reckon the world-historic American prison build-up over the past 35 years without calculating the enormous costs imposed upon the persons imprisoned, their families, and their communities. (Of course, this has not stopped many social scientists from pronouncing on the net benefits of incarceration without doing so.) Deciding on the weight to give to a “thug’s” well-being—or to that of his wife or daughter or son—is a question of social morality, not social science. Nor can social science tell us how much additional cost borne by the offending class is justified in order to obtain a given increment of security or property or peace of mind for the rest of us. These are questions about the nature of the American state and its relationship to its people that transcend the categories of benefits and costs.
Also, Daniel Lazare writes for The Nation on the same subject (and also a longer piece on Alternet), although he is reviewing several recent books about prisons (noticeably absent are new books written/edited by Drs. Joy James and Ruthie Wilson Gilmore). Lazare writes for Alternet:
Where will it end? As Martinson’s story shows, American mass incarceration is not what social scientists call “evidence based.” It is not a policy designed to achieve certain practical, utilitarian ends that can then be weighed and evaluated from time to time to determine if it is performing as intended. Rather, it is a moral policy whose purpose is to satisfy certain passions that have grown more and more brutal over the years. The important thing about moralism of this sort is that it is its own justification. For true believers, it is something that everyone should endorse regardless of the consequences. As right-wing political scientist James Q. Wilson once remarked, “Drug use is wrong because it is immoral,” a comment that not only sums up the tautological nature of US drug policies but also shows how they are structured to render irrelevant questions about wasted dollars and blighted lives.