Reviving Prison Studies

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The Background

Some 2.3-million people are incarcerated in the United States. From the 1920s to 1975, the imprisonment rate hovered around 110 per 100,000 U.S. residents; it has since rocketed to 760—proportionally five to 12 times as high as any other industrialized nations.

The annual bill: $64-billion.

Reacting to that scale and to increasingly harsh methods of imprisonment, scholars across the social sciences and humanities are energetically studying incarceration, reviving a research interest of the 1960s and 1970s that was inspired by prison-reform efforts.

The revival was long due. To hear specialists tell it, during the 1980s and 1990s, most criminologists ignored prisons to study the causes and prevention of crime. Meanwhile, when political liberals demanded improved prison safety and conservatives called for greater security, prison officials created locked-down lockups where academics were unwelcome.

What's Happening Now

In the past few decades, Michel Foucault figured large in studies of imprisonment, but recently his influence has begun to wane. Many scholars were enamored of the French theorist's argument that the disciplinary mechanisms of prisons were analogous to, and even would be superceded by, everyday practices of surveillance and correction designed to create"docile bodies" fitted to service in modern economies.

The chief failing of Foucault's argument, says Stephen D. Cox, a professor of literature at the University of California at San Diego, was its assumption that it was possible to construct institutions that conquered inmates' resistance. For Cox, author of a new study of imprisonment, The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison, Foucault's thesis"therefore has no leverage on the facts of prison life. … Gresham M. Sykes, the great sociologist of prisons, knew this in the 1950s, and it's obvious to anyone who works in a prison."

Several scholars have proposed explanations for American incarceration that are clearly indebted to Foucault but seek to take account of prison conditions.

David Garland, a professor of sociology and law at New York University, suggests that a"penal-welfare" system that sought to rehabilitate prisoners held sway for a century until the 1970s, when militant prison reform provoked conservatives like Ronald Reagan to impose radical law-and-order regimes. Even as crime rates eased, fearful voters came to view criminals, particularly African-American ones, as undeserving of the rights of citizenship.

Jonathan Simon, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley's Center for Criminal Justice, sees the roots of the phenomenon in the collapse of the New Deal in the 1960s and the rise of a new kind of social control: Fear-mongering by governments and other powerful agents led to a societal embrace of the lockdown in various forms—incarceration, the detention of immigrants, zero-tolerance policies in schools, and gated communities. The Berkeley social theorist Loïc Wacquant, too, contends that neoliberalism has eroded democratic citizenship by imposing harsh penal policies as a means of containing social unrest.

Sixty percent of African-American men who do not graduate from high school spend time in prison, and almost 30 percent of all black men do. But scholarly attention to the severe racial imbalance in American imprisonment has been surprisingly slow in coming given how stark the statistics are, says Robert R. Perkinson, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa...

... What's Next

The key emerging issue in prison research is whether state and federal budgets can bear the cost of the boom. Arizona, facing a $2-billion budget shortfall, is seeking to place nine of its 10 prisons in the hands of private companies. Some states are considering releasing large numbers of prisoners to parole, including cash-strapped California where critics blame corrections for diverting money from schools, social programs, and infrastructure.

Scholars have argued that prison privatization has proceeded on the basis of little serious research, and that drug-rehabilitation programs and prison-diversion programs offer big cost savings. To date, they've been largely ignored.

Researchers expect a better hearing, better financing, and potentially major reforms from a national review of all aspects of incarceration that U.S. Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, has initiated.

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