The Root Cause of Mass Incarceration
In 1970, we Americans held about 300,000 of our fellow Americans in prisons and jails. Today, it’s closer to 2,000,000. Can you think of any reason why we cage five times as many Americans in our prisons today as we did fifty years ago? This didn’t happen in other countries. Did five times as many Americans suddenly decide to become criminals? What went wrong here, anyhow?
Extraordinary books like The New Jim Crow are chockablock full of the mind-boggling dynamics uniquely at play here in America. But I’m not out to rehearse this constellation of intertwined factors. My own passion is for rummaging around in such mountains of data until I can sense what’s putrefying down there at the bottom of that heap. I’m looking for a clear, sensible explanation. What’s driving all this? What matters most? What is a first cause?
As regards the disgrace of America’s mass incarceration, I’ve reached a simple conclusion:
The root cause is fearmongering.
(Cambridge Dictionary definition: intentionally trying to make people afraid of something when this is not necessary or reasonable)
Thanks to relentless fearmongering by alarmist mass media and reprehensible politicians, we Americans have been falsely persuaded that we are constantly in grave peril. Now scared of our own shadows, we support laws and policies that pretend to make us safer—but don’t. Like, permitting personal ownership of machine guns, criminalizing victimless behavior, and mandating insanely irrational prison sentences.
Let me begin with how the mass media set us up for political manipulation. In the early days of network television, every gory local story suddenly became gory national news. A kidnapping in Buffalo was covered breathlessly coast to coast 24/7 for a week, until a more dramatic shootout in Amarillo took precedence on TV just as legislators in states far removed from Buffalo were getting busy hatching tougher penalties they imagined would somehow deter child abductions.
Observing our newfound nonstop immersion this stuff, a gifted sociologist (probably Herbert Gans) began analyzing how TV news was affecting Americans’ minds. In one particularly stunning study (that I am recreating from distant memory, so cut me some slack on exact details here), he asked a sample of citizens to estimate the odds that they would become the victim of a crime (mugging, assault, etc.) if they were to walk around their own neighborhood for half an hour at 10PM that night. In their responses, the research subjects’ estimates ranged from, let’s say, one chance in ten to one chance in a hundred.
Now, the researchers had these subjects’ addresses, and they also had the actual crime statistics for their neighborhoods. And so they could precisely calculate how realistic the subjects’ estimates were.
What did they find? For starters, everyone—everyone—overestimated their danger to an enormous degree. Really enormous. By ten times. Or a hundred. Vastly more than the statistics would support. They were scared all out of proportion to how safe they really were.
But there was a much more significant finding: the researchers had also gathered information about how much TV each subject watched. Some watched only an hour or so a day, or maybe even less. Others watched many, many hours a day—pretty much nonstop from dinner time until bedtime.
Those few who watched very little TV still overestimated the peril of a walk around their neighborhood by, let’s say, a factor of ten. But the majority—who of course watched a lot of TV news—overestimated it by a zillion. Really, honest to God. Okay, maybe not a zillion, but, how about a million, or thousands anyhow. Their overestimate of peril was astronomical compared with those whose sense of reality was not shaped by TV.
Why am I telling you this in a piece about mass incarceration? Because it seems clear that mass incarceration has not been fueled by any actual increase in the crimes for which people went to jail in 1970. It is fueled by the illusion of an increase in danger, a manufactured fear that is whipped up every single day by mass media with its capacity to make one story in one community a nationwide, nonstop, menacing obsession for an entire nation.
Anything scary anywhere is now leaping out of the screen right in every home from coast to coast. It’s in our faces, and it makes us feel like the world—including the world right outside the door—has gone to hell. Thanks to America’s unique capacity to commit mass murders with personal machine guns on a weekly basis, there’s plenty of “breaking news” and bloody crime scenes to seemingly justify our exaggerated worry.
Those of my generation who walked a mile or two to elementary school and back home again every day can’t help noticing this fear played out each morning about 8:00AM. At that hour in 1942, six-year-old Eliot was walking one and a half miles to school—alone. What I saw and did along the way—catching frogs in the creek, chatting with random adults, flinging rocks at streetlights—was a memorable part of my education. And so I feel really sad watching protective parents clutching the hands of their children all the way to the school-bus stop and waiting with them there in a huddled posse of other parents until all the children are deposited safely aboard. This, despite the reality—actual fact—that crimes against children have plummeted dramatically over the years and have never been lower.
But if a crime story bleeds, it leads—everywhere, and generates fear everywhere. Here is where unscrupulous politicians come leaping into the story. They can’t wait to fan the flames and then promote wave after wave of hysterical solutions to the non-problem. They exploit irrational fears with irrational laws and policies and promises to lock up those imaginary hordes of criminals lurking in our neighborhoods just itching to harm us and our children. And what’s the best way to do that? Let’s find more ways to define more activities as crimes, and thereby define more citizens as criminals—especially citizens who don’t look like us—so we can put them behind bars, and throw away the key.
This campaign began in earnest in June, 1971, when President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs”, loudly proclaiming that drugs were Public Enemy #1. But the drugs he went after were not the marijuana and the LSD San Francisco’s “Flower Children” were playing with at the corner of Haight and Ashbury at the time. No, he put a bullseye on the heroin favored by inner-city drug users in the ‘70s. He created new federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and departments within other federal branches to interdict drug-smuggling into the U.S. and increase both pursuit of hard-drug traffickers and the prison sentences they received.
But the War on Drugs didn’t really ramp up incarceration numbers until Ronald Reagan became President in 1981. By that time so-called “crack” cocaine had become an easily cooked, inexpensive, and exceptionally addictive drug made and sold by cottage-industry entrepreneurs in America’s inner cities. The territorial rivalries among these block-by-block dealers toting easily available guns resulted in skyrocketing violence among them. Street shootings dominated the TV news, kept the populace fearful, and set the stage for Reagan to turbo-charge the War on Drugs.
Most notably, Reagan promoted draconian laws that imposed mandatory prison sentences that fell disproportionately on people of color. Possession of five grams of crack—the inner-city drug—got you a mandatory five years in prison. But if you favored snorting powdered cocaine—as did Wall Streeters and movie stars—you needed to get caught with five HUNDRED grams to merit a mandatory five-years in the pokey. Hmmm. A war on drugs, or a war on Black people? And what has been the result of such disparities?
Since approximately 80% of crack users were African-American, soon enough huge proportions of young Black men were in prison. Exploiting the ever-present racist paranoia in America, throwing the book at them became a national game, featuring cynical brand names like “Three Strikes and You’re Out”. And of course, once they served their excessive time in prison and were released with the label “ex-con” stamped on their foreheads, their chances to get a well-paying job were next to zero.
This immoral predicament was summarized on PBS’ “Frontline” in a special entitled “A Social History of America’s Most Popular Drugs” that reported this:
In 1994 the United States Sentencing Commission began studying the effects of these differing penalties, and found that the harsher sentences for crack cocaine were imposed primarily on black citizens. A study revealed that while almost 2/3 of crack users in the US were white or Hispanic, 84.5% of those convicted for crack possession were black, while 10.3% were white and 5.2% were Hispanic. Similarly, of those convicted for crack trafficking in 1994, 88.3% were black, while 4.1% were white and 7.1% were Hispanic. The statistics for those convicted of powder cocaine offenses were much more racially mixed. The Sentencing Commission concluded that the dramatic difference in penalties, combined with the racial disparity in enforcement, resulted in black men and women serving longer prison sentences than those of other ethnicities. In 1995 the US Sentencing Commission recommended eliminating this disparity in a report to Congress; however both Congress and the Clinton administration rejected the recommendation.
That was 1994. For nearly thirty years now we American citizens—and our elected leaders—have countenanced this disgraceful injustice. Of the 226 nations and geopolitical entities on planet earth, we are worse than 220 of them. Only five others incarcerate a higher percentage of their citizens.
That is the bad news. The good news, sort of, is that we did it to ourselves. This means that, since we did it, we can un-do it. It may be difficult, because a lot of people now profit financially and politically from mass incarceration. But difficult doesn’t mean impossible; it’s certainly within our capabilities—if we have the will to do it. In the next/final chapter of this trio of blogs, I’ll address how we can reverse the moral crime we are committing against these fellow citizens.
In the meantime, let me recommend two important works for you to read that offer authoritative, detailed information about this matter. The first is a gratifyingly comprehensible report by The Prison Policy Initiative that in just a few concise pages and some amazing graphics conveys a remarkable spectrum of information and debunking of myths that clarify what’s happening. Here’s the link: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2022.html#bigpicture
The second is the now-classic 2010 book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Her in-depth data and extraordinary analysis have become the single most influential force in highlighting “mass incarceration” as a uniquely American phenomenon and grievous mistake. Alexander’s extensive Preface to the Tenth Anniversary Edition (2020) provides a hopeful updating of progress in the decade since her book first alerted us to this monstrosity we have tolerated in our midst.
In my final post on this subject, I’ll offer some suggestions about how we can help accelerate that progress now underway.
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