We Need to Talk About Who We're Throwing in Jail
During the 1990s, the official good news about American prosperity came with an added layer of goodness: Not only were more people better off, but so were minority groups that had, in past economic booms, been left behind, particularly African Americans.
But in the most striking chapter of his 2006 book Punishment and Inequality in America, Harvard professor Bruce Western notices that the numbers that measured the economic health of the whole population hadn't counted the millions of jobless people in prison. Adding those numbers revealed that historical inequalities between the races had gotten worse—plus this time they'd been rendered invisible (both people and inequalities). Headlines said that black folks were making their way up, but the jobless rate among young black men had actually skyrocketed. "Mass imprisonment," Western writes, "concealed and deepened economic inequality."
"Mass imprisonment": Today's US prison population is the largest in the world and has quadrupled since 1975. Even for the young among us, this happened during our lifetimes, under our noses.
Dressed in a cover the orange color of a prison jumpsuit, Punishment and Inequality in America is not a soft read. It's a hard text, full of charts and graphs, not anecdotes. Western will talk about it at Town Hall, with a panel of local reformers including attorneys, PhDs, authors, and activists. The talk is the biggest event yet in the six-year history of the Post-Prison Education Program, a Seattle organization that helps inmates transition out.
In the "era of mass imprisonment," the crime rate has not lowered proportionally. The prison population is overwhelmingly poor and nonwhite. And it's founded on a class of nonviolent drug offenders whose newly harsh sentences are the result of what Western describes as the "law and order" tactics of politicians since Barry Goldwater's 1964 speech about the "menace" to American society of violent criminals (despite crime rates that had yet to make their brief rise), and followed by a multitude of echoing voices, including Republicans and Democrats. Astounding but unsurprising: While John Ashcroft was governor of Missouri, from 1985 to 1993, the state's imprisonment rate increased by 80 percent. Astounding and surprising: Imprisonment rates in Texas rose more quickly under Ann Richards than W.
Western's dive into details is satisfying (he points to the wildly varying rates of imprisonment between states—what, Louisianans are more evil than Mainers? Washington, incidentally, is below the national average). Less so are his tidy historical explanations: "a combustible mixture of elevated crime rates, a political upheaval in race relations, and a chronic shortage of jobs in poor inner-city communities." But this isn't just a book, it's a call to arms: This may be the most important conversation we're not really having yet.