American prison system debate reaches new level

Hagan_Who_F12Orange Is the New Black, a comedy-drama series based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, recently hit the screens of Netflix users, receiving widespread critical acclaim. The show, revolving around Kernan’s sentence in a women’s federal prison, sheds light on social structure, rules, culture, and overall the experiences of the inmates in U.S. prisons.

Kernan, now a board member of the Women’s Prison Association, recently discussed her experience and suggestions for changing the American prison system on NPR’s Fresh Air. That same week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the U.S. has an “unnecessarily large prison population,” calling the system “both ineffective and unsustainable.”

While the consensus that change is necessary is spread across party lines, the debate among lawmakers over what to do and how to do it is heavy. One certainty is, however, that the conversation has reached a national level, and an understanding of the U.S. prison system is becoming increasingly necessary.

In Who Are the Criminals?, John Hagan argues that the recent history of American criminal justice can be divided into two eras—the age of Roosevelt (roughly 1933 to 1973) and the age of Reagan (1974 to 2008). A focus on rehabilitation, corporate regulation, and the social roots of crime in the earlier period was dramatically reversed in the later era. In the age of Reagan, the focus shifted to the harsh treatment of street crimes, especially drug offenses, which disproportionately affected minorities and the poor and resulted in wholesale imprisonment. At the same time, a massive deregulation of business provided new opportunities, incentives, and even rationalizations for white-collar crime—and helped cause the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. The time for moving beyond Reagan-era crime policies is long overdue, Hagan argues. The understanding of crime must be reshaped and we must reconsider the relative harms and punishments of street and corporate crimes. In a new afterword, Hagan assesses Obama’s policies regarding the punishment of white-collar and street crimes and debates whether there is any evidence of a significant change in the way our country punishes them.

Sykes_SocietyThe Society of Captives, first published in 1958, is a classic of modern criminology and one of the most important books ever written about prison. Gresham Sykes wrote the book at the height of the Cold War, motivated by the world’s experience of fascism and communism to study the closest thing to a totalitarian system in American life: a maximum security prison. His analysis calls into question the extent to which prisons can succeed in their attempts to control every facet of life—or whether the strong bonds between prisoners make it impossible to run a prison without finding ways of “accommodating” the prisoners. Re-released fifty years later, The Society of Captives will continue to serve as an indispensable text for coming to terms with the nature of modern power.

For further reading:

When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment by Mark A. R. Kleiman
Games Prisoners Play: The Tragicomic Worlds of Polish Prison
by Marek M. Kaminski
Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan