Livin the American Dream

In proposing an alternative to indeterminate sentencing and parole, scholar James Q. Wilson stated: “Instead we could view the correctional system as having a very different function- to isolate and to punish…(This is) merely a recognition that society must be able to protect itself from dangerous offenders…It is also a frank admission that society really does not know how to do much else”.[1] This seemingly harsh statement sums up the critique of the American penal system that this week’s authors offer. In his book, Punishment and Inequality in America, Bruce Western argues that the current trend of mass incarceration does more to increase inequalities in our society than to deter crime. Over the past thirty years, the object of the penal system has moved away from rehabilitation and towards “incapacitation, deterrence, and punishment”.[2] In her study of prisoners on parole, Joan Petersilia makes a similar point: that parole is more about surveillance than reintroducing an ex-prisoner to society. Both authors’ arguments revolve around the theme of the system of mass incarceration as a mechanism for social control in a manner that further disadvantages the most vulnerable members of our society.

Western begins his study with a look at the history of the penal system in its most current state. By the 1970s, policies changed in the penal system. The focus moved away from reforming inmates in order to prevent crime. Because crime flourishes amid poverty and racial division, the rising economic inequality in America at this time and the failure of urban labor markets to provide good jobs for young unskilled men added to the equation of mass incarceration among minorities. Trends of mandatory prison terms, abolition of parole, and long sentences for felons on their second and third convictions indicated the beginning of the “tough on crime” era. Politicians were also beginning to wage the “war on drugs”. From a sociopolitical standpoint, Western believes that the agenda of the prison boom was not only in response to rising crime, but also race relations in the 1960s and the shrinking of the unskilled labor market in urban areas in the 1970s. Western claims that the prison boom of the 1990s only contributed a little to the decline in crime at the time. However, this gain in public safety was purchased at the cost of the economic well-being and family life of poor minority communities. Because of the prison boom of the 1990s, the prison system has become a uniquely large American system if social stratification.

Today, extreme social and economic disparities exist among the incarcerated population. The penal system has also created the marginality of this population; mainly composed of young minority males. Western explores how the social stigmatization that comes with deviancy and a prison sentence makes it hard to break the cycle of criminality. Serving time behind bars reduces a man’s wages, annual employment, and total annual earnings. Thus, incarceration leads to increased poverty. Imprisonment also has negative effects on marriage, friendships, and other familial relationships. In sum, based on the evidence Western provides, the inequalities already present in our society not only lead to the inevitable incarceration of minority populations, but mass incarceration in turn exacerbates these same inequalities.

Joan Petersilia takes a look at the failure of the current parole system in her article, “Parole and Prisoner Reentry into the United States”. The system is obviously not working as it was intended, as the majority of parolees will not complete their parole term successfully. Within 3 years of release from prison, 63 percent of ex-offenders will re-arrested for felony or serious misdemeanor offenses. The conservative trend calling for the elimination of this fatally flawed system further indicates that the penal system is more focused on controlling and incapacitating a deviant and threatening population rather than reforming individuals. Prisoners as well as those on parole experience a kind of “civil death” in which they lose many of the “inalienable” rights promised to all Americans in the Constitution, such as the right to vote and to hold public office. In order for the parole and prison systems to work, we must be more focused on treating the problems that create criminals, such as poverty, drug use, mental illness, and job scarcity rather than dismissing former prisoners as viable members of our society.

[1] Joan Petersilia, “Parole and Prisoner Reentry in the United States” (The University of Chicago Press: , Chicago) 1999, 494.

[2] Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America (Russell Stage Foundation: New York) 2006, 2.


One Response to “The American Penal System: Mechanism of Social Control?”

  1. Michael on December 27th, 2011 8:27 pm

    Jail-prisons are places of deception for the deceived and deceivers alike…end of story!