The Prison, Race, and the Community

John Hagedorn
The Enclyclopedia of Community
Sage Publications
Karen Christianson and David Levinson,
General Editors
pp 1099-1101

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 shortages.


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 order.

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.


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 trend.

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 recent declines.

“What is served by the failure of the prison?” asked Michel Foucault (1979, 272) two decades ago. His disturbing question remains salient today.

Further Reading

Addams, J. (1920/1960). Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York, Signet.

American Friends Service Committee (1971). Struggle for Justice: a Report on Crime and Punishment in America. New York, Hill & Wang.

Bratton, W. J., N. Dennis, et al. (1998). Zero tolerance : policing a free society. London, IEA Health and Welfare Unit.

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York, Vintage.

Fulbright, K., Ed. (1996). The Unintended Consequences of Incarceration. New York, Vera Institute of Justice.

Mauer, M. and M. Chesney-Lind (2002). Invisible punishment : the collateral consequences of mass imprisonment. New York, New Press.

Morris, N. and D. J. Rothman, Eds. (1998). The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society. New York, Oxford University Press.

Platt, A. M. (1969). The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency. Chicago and London, University of Chicago.

Rothman, D. J. (1971). The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. Boston, Little Brown and Company.
— (1980). Conscience and Convenience: The Asylum and its Alternatives in Progressive America. Boston, Little Brown and Company.

Rusche, G. and O. Kirchheimer (1939). Punishment and Social Structure. New York, Columbia University Press.
Wacquant, L. (2000). "The new 'peculiar institution,' On the prison as surrogate ghetto." Theoretical Criminology 4(3): 377-389.

Wicker, T. (1975). A time to die. New York, Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co.