The Caging of America

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Adam Gopnik addresses the caging of America:

Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America — more than six million — than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.

It should be obvious why there weren’t too many prisoners in the gulags at any one time — they tended to die. Keeping prisoners fed and housed is expensive; only advanced economies can afford it — advanced economies like ours:

The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.

Comparing the rate of increase of spending on prisons versus universities is rather pointless.

Anyway, how did we get here?

How is it that our civilization, which rejects hanging and flogging and disembowelling, came to believe that caging vast numbers of people for decades is an acceptably humane sanction?

If you reject hanging and flogging and disembowelling, what choice do you have? You either let crime go unpunished — the 1960s “solution” — or you resort to less overtly cruel punishments.

Gopnik asserts that “prison plays at best a small role in stopping even violent crime,” and this leads him to suggest a bit of “radical common sense”: very few people, rich or poor, should be in prison for a nonviolent crime:

Neither the streets nor the society is made safer by having marijuana users or peddlers locked up, let alone with the horrific sentences now dispensed so easily. For that matter, no social good is served by having the embezzler or the Ponzi schemer locked in a cage for the rest of his life, rather than having him bankrupt and doing community service in the South Bronx for the next decade or two. Would we actually have more fraud and looting of shareholder value if the perpetrators knew that they would lose their bank accounts and their reputation, and have to do community service seven days a week for five years.

I wouldn’t equate all nonviolent crime with marijuana possession, which many Americans consider a non-crime, or white-collar fraud. And while I’m in favor of forcing white-collar criminals to pay restitution, I have no trouble imagining the media reaction to rich white criminals “paying their way out of prison.”


  1. Faze says:

    Gopnik’s a brilliant writer, and I’m sympathetic to the plight of prisoners, but this New Yorker article is rhetorical mish-mosh that conflates unrelated facts and trends to leave the emotional impression that pot smokers are being sentenced to solitary confinement and African Americans are being jailed for their race. The fact is that people in solitary range from bad to very bad people who have committed enormous crimes. If Gopnik wants to make the argument that solitary confinement is wrong, he should have the courage to say that its wrong even for — perhaps even especially for (since no one is strongly tempted to put decent people into solitary) — the baddest of the bad. It’s like the argument for free speech, which is meaningless unless we support freedom of speech we don’t agree with.

  2. Juepucta says:

    You forgot, among your “solutions”, what other civilized first world countries do: try to rehabilitate. Not punish, get revenge and decide convictions with a mind clouded by rage. Rehabilitate. Hell, Gopnik mentions community service for financial crimes in the article.

  3. Ivvenalis says:

    So Gopnik prefers slavery to incarceration, at least for white-collar crime.

  4. Isegoria says:

    The modern prison system was founded on the notion of rehabilitation rather than corporal or capital punishment. That’s why prisons are called penitentiaries. No form of rehabilitation yet tried has worked — anywhere.

    I’m not sure how community service would qualify as rehabilitation, by the way. It’s a light form of involuntary servitude with a dose of public shaming — which only works on middle-class “criminals” who feel ashamed.

  5. WillieMaize24 says:

    “You forgot, among your ‘solutions’, what other civilized first world countries do: try to rehabilitate”

    He didn’t forget. It’s not a solution.

    I’m not sure what countries you mean, but if they are the ones I’m thinking of they might have been civilized at one time, but whether they currently are is a matter for debate.
    States and the feds have tried rehabilitation, and it doesn’t work.

    Prisons already offer psych treatment, drug treatment and vocational education. What other kind of rehabilitation might you have had in mind?

    How successful are these so called civilized countries at rehabilitating someone who likes the thrill of violence, or is too greedy for his own good, or is sexually attracted to 12 year olds? From what I’ve read those people can’t be “cured”, although some might grow out of it when they hit their 60′s and 70′s.

  6. Sconzey says:

    Actually the argument Heinlein makes for corporal punishment in Starship Troopers is that corporal punishment is a kind of rehabilitation. You use a human’s hard-wired lizard brain’s dislike for pain to permanently alter their behavior, à la Pavalov, to ensure they can function in civilized society.

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