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A Country Called Prison #2

The Unknown's picture

          A Country Called Prison’s preface, along with chapter 1, provides an introduction on mass incarceration, which as claimed by the authors has led to the development within the prison system of a separate culture from the rest of the country. In this sense, the authors view prison as a hypothetical country in its own. The book’s first chapter reviews the history of punishment in the United States and in the Western world. The authors examine how different theories have historically guided the kinds of punishment governments have used for years. Statistical data on the US Prison-Industrial Complex and its racial disparities are compared to data from other industrialized countries: the US incarceration rate is notably higher. Looman and Carl discuss how harsh sentences, mandatory minimums, and policy decisions are the primary causes of mass incarceration, and in the authors’ opinion, mass incarceration has fostered a unique carceral culture.

            Prison does not deter crime. The British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1784-1832) suggested that deterrence tends to succeed when three clear criteria are met. First, the measures taken against the actor must be swift. Second, there must be certainty. Third, Bentham suggests that deterrence will work if the punishment is severe enough that someone would not want to chance getting caught (5-6).

            The name penitentiaries comes from the idea that the “criminal” should learn to be penitent (10).

            In the case of Daniel O’Connell (1870), the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that young people could not be detained against their will unless they have committed a serious crime (11). The verdict questioned the way in which reform schools were being used and whether or not they were reforming people. When the Court released O’Connel, it stated that establishing prison-like spaces for teenagers didn’t work well in preventing criminality and that the process of sending young people to reform schools violated due-process standards (11).

            Conservative estimates suggest that 56.2% of people in prison have a mental illness, 5 times greater than the adult population (11).

            After the end of World War II, crime rates increased along with the use of illegal substances. Robert Martinson and his supporters argued that rehabilitation had been unsuccessful and therefore there was no point in spending money on prisons. He proposed that warehousing people and isolating them from society should be the new model. With a desire to reduce spending, Martinson’s proposal took root in the United States and continues to be the main model for incarceration today. The rationale behind the warehousing model in essence follows the logic that there is no need to spend money rehabilitating criminals.

            From 1980-1998, of those in prison, less than 20% were jailed for serious or very serious crimes, with 53% for petty crimes and 30% for moderate crimes (12-13). By 2008, more than 2.3 million Americans were in prison or jail, 1 out of every 48 working-age adults, but there was little evidence that mass incarceration decreased the crime rate (13). Imprisonment of almost three-quarters of a million parents disrupts family life, which is the critical base of any society.

            Since many people being released from prison have not worked steadily over their lifetimes, their social security retirement income will be low, if it exists at all.

            In 2006, almost 300 juvenile detention and correctional facilities housed about 93,000 teenagers, many of whom will ultimately find their way into adult prisons (14). In 2000, 14,500 minors were in adult prisons and jails, and in 2013, 3,000 were serving life sentences (14).

            Donald Clemmer (1940) studied various prison communities and identified something called the “convict code,” which existed alongside, and sometimes in opposition to, prison policy and procedures. He outlined a process by which prisoners were socialized into the prison community that he called “prisonization” (15).

            In 2007, President George W. Bush signed into law the $330 million Second Chance Act, which gives government and community service agencies money to initiate best-practice reentry strategies for people who are released from prison (16).





Anne Dalke's picture

The Unknown--
I'm appreciating this ongoing book report, am now thinking that A Country Called Prison might be a great text for us to use in our new course on Unsettling Literacy, esp. since we want to begin by offering texts that begin to make our students "literate" about the Prison Industrial Complex.

The first thing that strikes me in your report is the claim that prison is "a separate culture." This seems to go against much of waht I've read-and-know--let's just start with Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander--which locates prison squarely within this country's long-standing racialized patterns. How then separate?

The second thing that strikes me is Bentham's commitment to punishment that is "swift, certain, and severe." SO much to unpack there!

Third: the estimate that "56.2% of people in prison have a mental illness, 5 times greater than the adult population." When Jody, Abby and I met with administrators @ RCF on Oct. 28th, to plan for our spring course, they said that 83% of the women there had mental health issues, 45-50% of them severe. I'm still reeling from this report--and its implications for our pedagogy.

Fourth: a shudder @ (all the implications underlying) the distinction of warehousing vs.rehabilitating.

Fifth: your description of the “convict code,” the socialization into the prison community that is called “prisonization.” I would like to know more about this, especially its relationship to (opposition to ? cooptation into?) prison policy and procedures. Also deep pedagogical implications here....

Fifth, and of course always: how little evidence there is, that incarceration decreases crime.

Eager, as always, to learn more, and so grateful for your instruction,