The Prison Boom Comes Home to Roost
Source Charles Brown
Date 10/11/09/14:21

The Prison Boom Comes Home to Roost
By James Carroll
The Boston Globe

WILL THE fiscal collapse that has laid bare gross
inequalities in the US economic system lead to
meaningful reforms toward a more just society? One
answer is suggested by the bursting of what might be
called the "other housing bubble," for these two years
have also brought to crisis the three-decade-long
frenzy of mass imprisonment. If there was a bailout for
bankers, can there be one for inmates?

It is commonly observed now that, beginning about 1981,
during the Reagan administration, the wealth of a tiny
percentage of top-tier earners sky-rocketed, while the
wages of the vast majority of Americans went flat. A
rapid escalation in the illusory value of homeownership
soon followed. But an unseen boom began then, too -- in
American rates of incarceration, the housing bubble in
prisons. A recent issue of Daedalus, the journal of the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences, lays it out. In
1975, there were fewer than 400,000 people locked up in
the United States. By 2000, that had grown to 2
million, and by this year to nearly 2.5 million. As the
social scientist Glenn C. Loury points out, with 5
percent of the world's population, the United States
imprisons 25 percent of all humans behind bars. This
effectively created a vibrant shadow economy: American
spending on the criminal justice system went from $33
billion in 1980 to $216 billion in 2010 -- an increase
of 660 percent. Criminal justice is the third largest
employer in the country.

But while prisons boomed, something else was happening
-- a trade-off. As sociologist Loic Wacquant says, the
government was simultaneously slashing funds for public
housing. In the 1990s, as federal corrections budgets
increased by $19 billion, money for housing was cut by
$17 billion, "effectively making the construction of
prisons the nation's main housing program for the
poor." State budgets took their cues from Washington
in a new but unspoken national consensus: poverty
itself was criminalized. Although "law and order" was
taken to be a Republican mantra, this phenomenon was
fully bipartisan, as Wacquant shows, with the most
ferocious growth in the incarceration of poor people
occurring in the Clinton years. "Welfare as we know
it" was replaced by punishment. States went

But the current fiscal crisis has blown a hole through
all that razor-wire. State budgets suddenly cannot
afford prison systems, which universally choke off
funds for education, transportation, and
infrastructure. Some states, like California, consider
simply releasing prisoners because jail time in
mega-prisons costs too much. And, equally suddenly, the
whole system has become morally dubious as well. While
a famously over-exuberant economy was built on the lies
of bankers tied to an artificially inflated housing
sector, the prison boom depended on racist and
class-biased "criminology" that was, in fact, steadily
debunked by penal experts. Just as irrational
assumptions of "risk assessment" prompted mortgage
brokers to understate the risks of home ownership, they
led prosecutors, in a parallel noted by Berkeley law
professor Jonathan Simon, to grossly overstate the
risks to society of huge numbers of defendants. The
housing bubble, Simon shows, devastated neighborhoods
by littering them with abandoned properties. The prison
bubble devastated neighborhoods by depriving them of
fathers and husbands.

The American double-binge has come to an end. In
Simon's image, the era of the "big house" is over,
whether the McMansion in the suburbs or the mega-prison
in a field. Here's the question now: Can the war on the
poor be returned to the war on poverty? This is not
simply opening gates and letting criminals go free,
although the harsh fact must be faced that many
convicted of non-violent, mainly drug offenses, never
belonged behind bars in the first place. But
transferring government over-investment in
incarceration to re-investment in education and public
housing is the only real correction to the massive
"corrections" mistake we made. Re-inflating "America's
punishment bubble" makes no more sense than trying to
re-inflate the housing bubble.

We must all regret the illusions we embraced, and that
have been so painfully shattered, but, as Simon argues,
"We must also recognize the opportunities that the
present disasters have created for reinvigorating our
economy and democracy."

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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