Before continuing a practice that affects such a large number of our citizens (not just those in prison, but their families and communities as well), we need to ask the question: Is this working? Is it ethical to continue a practice that may be doing more harm than good?
Studies on whether mass incarceration has decreased crime rates have been conflicting over the years. Snyder & Stinchcomb found a study that examined data from 1972-2000 and concluded that “the effect of prison growth on crime diminishes as the scale of imprisonment increases” (2006). Tough on crime policies that lead to higher incarceration rates might have an initial impact on decreasing crime rates, but there is a point where these numbers level off. Furthermore, in more recent years incarceration rates have not had as much impact on violent or property crime rates and has led to certain dynamics that may even cause crime to increase (2006). Based on this research, it would be unethical to continue a trend of mass incarceration when we know that not only is it not working to the extent that it should, but it is also harming communities. This is the main reason that over-incarceration cannot be morally justified.
Secondly, mass incarceration is unsustainable. On average, it costs $31,286 annually, or $85.72 per day, to incarcerate someone in state prison, though costs vary state to state depending on certain factors such as overcrowding, overflow of state prisoners to local jails, and incarceration rates for low-level offenders (Henrichson & Delaney, 2012). This is significantly more than the cost of having someone on probation supervision, which costs an average of $3.50 per day, according to a Pew Center research study (Banks, 2013). As US government debt grows, spending issues become a debate of economics: what are we creating for future generations? Are we operating in a sustainable way? What will be the consequences of unchecked spending? Addressing mass incarceration would be a significant step in addressing such concerns.
For the same reasons that over-incarceration is unsustainable, it is inhumane. When the system is overloaded and prisons have pressure to operate on set budgets, logic would have it that they would cut costs among the prisoners first – from health care to food quality. Standards in prison have to be just good enough to keep prisoners from revolting against guards and administrators; therefore, prisons will budget just beyond that threshold. In California, the US Supreme Court ruled that overcrowded prisons violated the constitution’s amendment against cruel and unusual punishment (Banks, 2013). Prisoners crowding into cells, suffering from inadequate health care, and receiving inadequate nutrition are the effects of over-incarceration. There is furthermore a question of how overcrowding affects mental health, and whether this affect might contribute to high recidivism rates. By providing inhumane conditions in prison, are we simply perpetuating a cycle of violent crime by turning out prisoners with mental health problems?
Finally, mass incarceration is immoral simply because it is the product of unethical policy making. The public has a large influence on criminal justice policy, but it is often driven by hysteria rather than empirical evidence. Moral panics are an “irrational response to that panic that was out of proportion to the actual threat offered” (Banks, 2013, p. 188), and they are driven by media images that are not wholly representative of the truth. Cullen, Fisher, and Applegate argue that “policy making based on what citizens want is unfortunately constrained by the ignorance of the public on many aspects of crime and crime control” (Banks, 2013, p. 193). This shows that mass incarceration has not furthered any objectively good ends, but rather has been the product of irrational behavior.
Moral panic is fueled by media images. News outlets and TV shows choose which stories are worthy of relaying to the public, which is inherently a subjective process; since media rely on viewership ratings, they may be more apt to air stories that are either highly emotional or out-of-the-ordinary for the average viewer. Reiner, Livingston, and Allen point out that crime stories tend to focus on “special” and “discrete” cases (Banks, 2013). This does not enhance people’s understanding of their safety but distorts their image of true criminality, which in effect will cause an irrational approach to policymaking. When people view highly volatile yet “special” crimes on television or the internet from the safety of their living rooms, they begin to perceive the risk as higher than it actually is. As Surette posits in the “law of opposites,” the “nature of crime, criminals, and victims portrayed in the media is generally the complete opposite of the pattern shown through official crime statistics or victim surveys” (Banks, 2013, p.249).
Instead of morality policymaking, we need to look at the solutions empirically proven to work best. For instance, instead of incarcerating people with substance use disorders, drug courts and rehabilitation services could be a more humane, effective (and cost-effective) strategy.
The harm of mass incarceration is tantamount. Aside from the reasons listed above, there is a breakdown of the individual: prisoners learn to function in a system that aims to have total social control, which breaks down their ability to function outside of that system. They are separated from their families and limited in their communication to the outside world. Prisoners in maximum security facilities are restricted from socializing, such as in Pelican Bay, where all meals are eaten in the cells and outdoor time happens in tiny yards confined by 20-foot-high walls (Banks, 2013). These practices all have the effect on the socialization of prisoners who will have a more difficult time returning to society. In a word, they are dehumanized. In such confinement and limitation, they are not gaining soft skills, job training, or interpersonal skills that will help them thrive “on the outside”; instead, they may actually be losing those skills as they adapt to the environment they are in. This in turn exacerbates the problems that may have landed them in prison in the first place, such as lack of socio-economic opportunity, lack of education, anger management problems, absence of respect for human life, and so on. (That said, there are low-security prisons and jails that offer programming of this nature that I will analyze at another time). If we plan on sending millions of individuals back into society after exacerbating root problems that may have led to the initial crime, how can anyone pose the argument that prison protects the public?
In conclusion, mass incarceration is unethical because: it is too ineffective to justify the cost; it is too costly to provide humane conditions; it is perpetuating societal ills rather than solving them; it is the product of unethical policymaking; and it is unsustainable for future generations.
Banks, C. (2013). Criminal justice ethics: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Henrichson, Christian & Ruth Delaney. (2012). “What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers.” Vera Institute of Justice. http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/price-of-prisons-updated-version-021914.pdf
Wagner, Peter & Bernadette Rabuy. (2015). “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015.” Prison Policy Initiative. http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2015.html