Nearly two million people are in
jails or prisons in the US today, a rate of 690 per 100,000, the highest
reported rate in the world. While this American emphasis on incarceration
effects the entire society, its impact is especially severe on poor Black
communities. One out of every seven Black males aged 25-29 were in prisons
or jails in 2001, compared to one in twenty-four Hispanic males and one
in fifty five white males of the same ages. This disproportionate impact
on Black communities both follows historic trends and differs from them.
The prison has always been a place for the “other,” those
excluded for violating laws and norms of urban communities. It has served
in varying degrees as an incapacitator of the violent, deterrent to the
dangerous, and rehabilitator for the salvageable. Often, prison populations
have expanded during economic downturns and contracted in times of labor
EARLY PRISONS IN THE UNITED STATES
Colonial era prisons sought to reform “idlers”
the non-conforming, and law-violaters through prayer and isolation. The
Quakers, who organized many of the first prisons, required inmate “sinners”
to undergo extended periods of solitude and absolute silence as “rehabilitation.”
These experiments proved costly and had deleterious effects on many inmates
and were soon discontinued.
In the Jacksonian era of the early 1800s, the use of the prison and other
institutions to warehouse criminals, the insane, the ill, and the poor
was greatly expanded. The exploration of the US frontier meant a sharp
rise in the movement of people looking for opportunity and their concentration
in cities. These transient populations were mainly European immigrants
and disproportionately filled the Houses of Correction and prisons of
that era. When unemployment rose, the poorhouse and prison opened their
doors for the immigrant unemployed. In the south, the slave system found
little use for the prison and relied more on the whip and noose to maintain
After the turn of the century, progressive era reformers called for less
harsh treatment of prisoners and advocated their rehabilitation back into
a community that needed unskilled labor. Jane Addams and others pushed
for juvenile courts to keep children out of adult prisons and the creation
of systems of probation and parole as alternatives to time behind bars.
The “soft machine” of parole and probation, however, became
an “add-on,” not a replacement, as the correctional system
continued its growth despite humanistic rhetoric. Southern prisons filled
with African Americans and when many migrated north they often joined
the Irish, Italians, and other immigrants in northern prisons and jails.
PRISONS FROM THE 1960s ON
Scholarship on the prison prior
to the 1960s concentrated on the separateness of a “prisonized”
inmate culture. The main task of correctional administrators was to re-socialize
inmates back to mainstream culture. But the mass movements of the 1960s
affected the prisons as well as the Black and Hispanic communities from
which new inmates increasingly came. Gangs, which had previously been
viewed as juvenile delinquents, came to dominate the prison inmate subculture
and rebelled against racial discrimination and poor treatment. Jacob’s
study of the famous Illinois Stateville prison documented the close links
between gangs in prison and their communities. The participation of gangs
and Muslims in movements for civil and religious rights shocked the prison
bureaucracy who met their demands with both concessions and repression.
The killing of 43 inmates and guards at New York’s Attica prison
by National Guardsmen stands as a turning point in the relationship between
prisons and communities.
In the aftermath of the 1960s, many significant civil liberties were won
by inmates, including rights to religious freedom and improved access
to legal resources. But the number of federal and state prisoners increased
six-fold from less than 200,000 in 1970 to more than 1.3 million today.
The female prison population reached nearly 100,000 by 2000. Wars on crime,
gangs, and drugs targeted the Black and Hispanic poor many of whom looked
to illegal markets as a means of survival as deindustrialization gutted
central city labor markets.
Along with the increase in prisoners came an absolute increase in the
length of sentences, which are two to three times longer than comparable
European sentences. Prisons became over-crowded and in the eighties and
nineties new prisons were built at a record pace. By 2000, states also
constructed 153 private prisons with a capacity of 119,000. At the same
time, prison officials embraced a “new penology” which increased
control over the prison by more sophisticated classification schemas and
isolation of leaders and those seen as more “dangerous.”
Returning ex-offenders, many studies showed, had major difficulties locating
steady work and transitioning to a high-tech economy. If they returned
to their old neighborhoods, they were likely to turn to the underground
economy and risked re-incarceration. In addition, more than 1.4 million,
or 13% of all African American men are also disenfranchised as a result
of a felony conviction. Many programs have been set up to provide “reintegration,”
though the sheer numbers of the incarcerated overwhelmed such programs.
Some scholars began to see the ghetto and the prison as two points on
a continuum of repression. While in the past the expansion of the prison
coincided with economic downturns, the end of the 20th century brought
both a booming economy and escalating numbers of inmates. Gangs maintained
ties between the prison and streets and provided an illicit opportunity
structure for young men in both sites. Prison gangs also spread to the
streets in South Africa, Brazil, and Puerto Rico, suggesting a global
Some see the fall in the US crime rate as a direct result of locking up
so many potential offenders, but wide variation between cities in crime
rates despite similarities in practices of incarceration, raise questions
about such claims. In some states, prisoners are being released in order
to deal with budget shortfalls, but violent crime rates in US cities remain
from five to twenty-five times higher than in European cities, despite
“What is served by the failure of the prison?” asked Michel
Foucault (1979, 272) two decades ago. His disturbing question remains
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