Friday, April 06, 2007

Incarceration Nation

Via Doc Berman, Jason Deparle explores "The American Prison Nightmare" in the April 12 New York Review of Books, focusing on the theme of "how many lives can be linked to one prison cell." Reviewing three books on incarceration-related topics, DeParle writes:
Bruce Western makes a crucial point at the start of his important book, Punishment and Inequality in America: "If prisons affected no one except the criminals on the inside, they would matter less." But with more than two million Americans behind bars, the impact of mass incarceration is impossible to contain. Their fate affects the taxpayers who support them, the guards who guard them, the families they leave behind, and the communities to which they return.
If Congress wanted to begin to do something about that nightmare, I wish they'd start by passing the Second Chance Act, which Berman discussed here. (Here's more information on the Second Chance Act from FAMM.) More needs to be done, but bolstering re-entry services would be a great start. Nearly one in 20 adults in Texas are either in prison, on probation or on parole, and about one in 11 have been convicted of a felony in their lifetime.

The lives damaged by mass incarceration, as DeParle makes clear, extend far beyond the prison cell. But despite this academic realization, he finds little near-term solace that such concerns will be addressed. Citing a report from the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's prisons, he writes:
America's prisons are dangerously overcrowded, unnecessarily violent, excessivelyreliant on physical segregation, breeding grounds of infectious disease, lacking in meaningful programs for inmates, and staffed by underpaid and undertrained guards in a culture that promotes abuse. What is more, prisoners' ability to legally challenge their living conditions has been curtailed by a congressional roadblock called the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, which has cut in half the number of inmates filing civil rights complaints.
A third book review focuses on the effects of mass incarceration on voter disenfranchisement. Good stuff all around from DeParle, who even cites our friend Marc Levin in his footnotes. His was a good overview on the subject and a thoughtful review of three very interesting-looking books that probably can't make it onto my reading list right now, so I'm glad to see the synopses.

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