February 28th, 2008

Prison, American Style

1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars, New Study Says

For the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars, according to a new report.

Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of American adults is about 230 million, meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars.

Incarceration rates are even higher for some groups. One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.

Sure, this is a country of excess. But having the highest incarceration rate in the world, and so contoured around race, is nothing to be proud of. This represents far more than an image problem, it’s a real self-image problem, an identity crisis, a sign of deep social and political illness. Symptoms abound.


American style indeed (photo by Hiroko Masuike for the NYT)

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. quieto  |  February 29th, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    that 1 in 100 americans are in jail also means that something more than 2.3 per cent of american men are in jail right now. that’s something like, 10 times the average european rate or something.

    identity crisis indeed. i’ve mentioned this stat in the sociology course i’m teaching, and one of my spanish students just asked “why are americans so racist?” this was asked in a country in which monkey chants are repeatedly directed at black soccer players by 100,000 people during games. in which immigrants are increasingly subject to xenophobic (eugenics-infused) rants on ‘cultural compatibility,’ which is a point i don’t think folks’ve gotten to in the states yet. institutions in europe are deeply racist and exclusive, the ‘debate’ of race-related issues far less developed (americans in spain are infamous for their ‘neurosis’ in dealing with race-related issues), yet you don’t get this quite this level of race-specific targeting.

    wtf _is_ going on?

  • 2. Jonathan  |  February 29th, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    Though I’ve never seen evidence to support it, there’s a popular sentiment that minority members in general and blacks in particular receive stricter sentences than whites for comparable and identical crimes – it is even suggested that a jury is more likely to mistakenly convict a black than a white. Far be it from me to claim the suspicion false; I have no vested interest in it being so, nor do I have information to the contrary. I’m willing to entertain the popular opinion as being correct – darker-complexioned folk as compared to lighter-complexioned folk may indeed have a tougher time finding appropriate leniency or vindication in the criminal justice system.

    My own opinion is that this imbalance would not account for the racial disparity shown in this new study – one in fifteen black adults as opposed to one in a hundred American adults more generally? That’s pretty lopsided, even for biased courtrooms.

    I think the issue is less about race than it is about class – Hispanics and blacks comprise a large percentage of poverty-stricken city-dwellers as opposed to whites, and there are certain disadvantages (besides lack of funds) that come with being poor in an urban setting. In addition to crime functioning as a survival tactic for the economically disadvantaged (selling dope small-time isn’t a greedy man’s dirty enterprise, it’s a hungry man’s rent check), more cops in poor urban areas equals lots of easy arrests of people who can’t afford better representation than a public defender – these folks are at a judicial disadvantage long before a jury gets a look at their skin.

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Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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