Tuesday, September 25, 2007
From boston.com: What if America launched a new New Deal and no one noticed? And what if, instead of lifting the unemployed out of poverty, this multibillion-dollar project steadily drove poor communities further and further out of the American mainstream?
That's how America should think about its growing prison system, some leading social scientists are saying, in research that suggests prisons have a far deeper impact on the nation than simply punishing criminals.
Fueled by the war on drugs, "three-strike" laws, and mandatory minimum sentences, America's prisons and jails now house some 2.2 million inmates - roughly seven times the figure of the early 1970s. And Americans are investing vast resources to keep the system running: The cost to maintain American correctional institutions is some $60 billion a year.
For years sociologists saw prisons - with their disproportionately poor, black, and uneducated populations - partly as mirrors of the social and economic disparities that cleave American life. Now, however, a new crop of books and articles are looking at the penal system not just as a reflection of society, but a force that shapes it.
In this view, the system takes men with limited education and job skills and stigmatizes them in a way that makes it hard for them to find jobs, slashes their wages when they do find them, and brands them as bad future spouses. The effects of imprisonment ripple out from prisoners, breaking up families and further impoverishing neighborhoods, creating the conditions for more crime down the road. Prisons have grown into potent "engines of inequality," in the words of sociologist Bruce Western; the penal system, he and other scholars suggest, actively widens the gap between the poor - especially poor black men - and everyone else. Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]