681: Incarcerated

A Thousand Things to Talk About
681: Incarcerated

Incarceration, as a practice, tends to be one that is intended to separate individuals entirely from the social and personal bonds that create communities. The experience of that separation has a very big impact on the communities that individuals are separated from as well a the individuals themselves.

If you know someone who has been incarcerated likely depends on a few factors.

First, what country you are living in. Generally, incarceration statistics are reported in number of people per 100,000. Taking a look at the numbers from, France reports 98 per 100,000. Mexico has 165, Russia has 413, Cuba has 510, and the USA leading the world at 698 people per 100,000 in prison.

A country-by-country breakdown only tells part of the story, however. As Don Larson wrote in The Atlantic in 2013, quote:

Prison size is not determined by crime rates but by what states decide to treat as crimes, how much punishment the public demands, and, in the U.S. today, how successful the prison industry is in fomenting this demand. And all of these factors are determined by whom voters imagine this punishment landing upon. This peculiarly American institutionalization has created a nation where few middle-class white Americans can name anyone they know personally who has been sentenced to prison, and even fewer black Americans of any class cannot.

In 1993, Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie (a major influence on Scandinavian penal policy) had already unpacked this phenomenon. In Crime Control as Industry, Christie concluded that the more unlike oneself the imagined perpetrator of crime, the harsher the conditions one will agree to impose upon convicted criminals, and the greater the range of acts one will agree should be designated as crimes. More homogeneous nations institutionalize mercy, which is to say they attend more closely to the circumstances surrounding individual criminal acts. The opposite tendency, expressed in mandatory sentencing and indiscriminate “three strikes” laws, not only results from, but widens social distance.

Does this social distance actually help make a safer society, though? Statistics tells us, probably not. Quoting from a 2017 report from the Vera Institute for Justice, quote:

Research shows that any crime reduction benefits from increased incarceration apply only to property crimes. Higher incarceration rates are not associated with lower violent crime rates, because expanding incarceration primarily means that more people convicted of nonviolent, “marginal” offenses (like drug offenses and low-level property offenses) and “infrequent” offenses are imprisoned.

So with all of this in mind, do you personally know of anyone who has been locked up and separated from society in an effort to punish them for a transgression?