In a recent article in n+1 called "Raise the Crime Rate," Christopher Glazek poses an uncommon question: Where have all the violent criminals gone? Homicides in New York have fallen from 2,245 in 1990 to 536 in 2010. The number of sexual assaults across the US has fallen by 85% from 1980 to 2005. Has the US suddenly become a kinder, gentler nation? Or have "stop and frisk" policing strategies succeeded in preventing violent crime by separating the "sharks" from the "dolphins," as Adam Gopnik recently argued in "The Caging of America"?
Yes and no -- or rather, no and yes. Glazek argues that violent crime has not, in fact, fallen across the country; rather, the burden of violence has shifted from the street to the prison, where it has become largely invisible to the public. In the same time period that street violence declined, the US prison population quadrupled, reaching 2.3 million prisoners in 2008. The US now has the largest prison population in the world, second only to Stalin's USSR in the history of the world. The streets may be safer then they were 20 years ago, but in the meantime, we have become a prison state. We tolerate the arrest, incarceration and solitary confinement of a full 2% of our fellow citizens, and so we tolerate the conditions under which hundreds of thousands of prisoners are raped every year -- to the point where the United States may now be "the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women."
Gopnik and Glazek agree that the mass incarceration of Americans has reached epidemic proportions. But while Gopnik's liberal solution only compounds the problem, as I have argued elsewhere, Glazek challenges us to find a radical solution to a radical problem:
The US prison system doesn’t need reform—it needs to be abolished. Like slavery in the 19th century, and civil rights in the 20th century, prison abolition in the 21st century can only be accomplished by a popular movement as radical and uncompromising as the movement that set up the prison regime in the first place.
On this last point, I strongly disagree with Glazek; the American death penalty is caught up in the same dynamics of racist and class oppression that haunts the prison system. But I take his point that, if we want to dismantle the prison state that all Americans currently inhabit, whether or not they are behind bars, then we must be willing to take radical action.
Advocating on behalf of criminals is much easier when they haven’t committed any violent crime. And yet this misses the point of the prison crisis: you cannot relieve the suffering of the prison population without increasing safety risks for the rest of us. And increasing those risks, from a moral standpoint, is the right thing to do.
Who, on the left or on the right, will take up the ethical and political challenge of prison abolition? Who will bite that bullet? It seems more likely that states will disinvest in the prison industrial complex in times of economic strain, as California and other states have already begun to do - and then reinvest in them when the promise of lucrative profits return. But these "reforms" leave the moral problem of mass incarceration unaddressed. For every prisoner released under cost-saving measures, there are hundreds of prisoners whose daily caloric intake has been forcibly reduced, or who are forced to pay for their "room and board" in prison.
Prisoners are a convenient target for state violence; they did the crime, so it seems only reasonable that they should do the time. The logic of retribution, and even of rehabilitation, is essentially economic; prisoners owe a "debt to society" for violating the terms of the social contract. What would a "moral" response to the prison state look like? Glazek seems to be saying something like: We owe a debt to those who are "paying their debt to society." Our streets are safer because they are behind bars. We must be willing to tolerate a little more risk - and probably a lot more public investment in better schools, better social welfare programs, better job creation programs (by which I don't mean tax cuts for "job creators") - in order to make good on our end of the bargain. Is this ultimately a confirmation of the economic logic that currently drives the prison industrial complex and the US prison state? Maybe. But at least someone has had the guts to provoke, rather than placate. Everyone who cares about freedom and democracy (whatever those words mean) should read this article.