Does Mass Incarceration Define America?

If so, what does that mean exactly? If not, why not?

A few days ago I came across Chris Hedges’ article in Smithsonian Magazine titled Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us As a Society. We’ve covered the need for prison reform from a variety of angles here at The Good Men Project. We’ve tried to unravel the problems through the lens of society, technology, media, race, gender, science, politics, history and religion. Yet the title of this article stood out to me and, as an American living abroad and viewing his country from the outside, something resonated. Of course, America has been and continues to be defined in myriad ways. For some we are the world’s economic powerhouse despite our debts. For others we remain the pinnacle of freedom. The melting pot. Tech innovators. Fashion and art pioneers. Science gurus. But what of the absurdities within our criminal justice system? Has the system’s ugliness been left alone to grow for so long that it can be added to the list of who we are?

In the article Bryan Stevenson, recipient of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in social justice, hearkens back to the days of slavery and Jim Crow for comparison. Here’s an excerpt:

Mass incarceration defines us as a society, Stevenson argues, the way slavery once did. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but imprisons a quarter of the world’s inmates. Most of those 2.3 million inmates are people of color. One out of every three black men in their 20s is in jail or prison, on probation or parole, or bound in some other way to the criminal justice system. Once again families are broken apart. Once again huge numbers of black men are disenfranchised, because of their criminal records. Once again people are locked out of the political and economic system. Once again we harbor within our midst black outcasts, pariahs. As the poet Yusef Komunyakaa said: “The cell block has replaced the auction block.”

I’ve visited prisons and taught in juvenile detention centers and even have a forthcoming book about the topic – I’m fairly rooted in my views. But I wanted to hear from other voices who come from different sectors and backgrounds. Here are a few insights I found:

Cali Estes, an addiction coach and therapist, said:

The majority of our prisons are comprised of drug addicts, not serious and habitual hard criminals. As a society we tend to arrest and prosecute for everything instead of looking for a solution to the problem. Prisons do not rehabilitate, educate or ‘fix’ the broken individual, they leave them more broken and send them back into society.

In America we have no uniform laws across states, so if you get caught with marijuana in one state, and depending on your prior offenses, you can go to prison for life but in another state you can smoke openly in the street. With our government we have a tendency to ‘throw everyone in jail’ and it is mostly for drug offenses. Once in jail these individuals learn how to do harder drugs and commit even more crazy crimes including and involving violence. The system does not understand addiction and should not be arresting drug addicts and taxing the American people to hold them in jail. If we truly wanted to help our citizens we would overhaul the healthcare system and not simply dump people in prison. I believe that other countries laugh at us because we have such a shoddy system. We change our minds depending on our current leader (strict or lax) and go from a retribution model of prison to a rehabilitation model and then provide some laws that are not uniform for all our people. It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t address the actual issues.

Susan Sexton, a former judge, prosecutor and public defender, had this to say:

I have been in the criminal justice system a long time. When I rotated back to criminal court this time, I was amazed at how lengthy the sentences for drug offenses had become: 60-year-sentences for a delivery-of-cocaine charge to young men with virtually no prior record.

Fergus Hodgson is a native of New Zealand now based in North Carolina. He hosts The Stateless Man and is a policy advisor with The Future of Freedom Foundation. Here’s what he had to say:

Mass incarceration, while not necessarily a widely held image of the United States, is an extremely damning symptom of a nation with deep problems. In particular, it reflects a sophisticated and cruel police state, one that ruins the lives of many innocent people. That it has continued for so long and even expanded in recent times suggests a lack of compassion among voters who fail to recognize the viciousness of laws that criminalize peaceful behavior. The many-decades-long “war on drugs” is a prime example that has achieved nothing but destruction, both within the United States and in the many countries plagued by drug cartel violence. It also highlights the enormous hypocrisy of the politicians and enforcers, since many of these people openly admit that they used drugs yet face no such punishment. Further, many states even have taxes on illegal substances, to profit from their sale.

Dr. Carole Lieberman, a media psychiatrist and author who frequently offers her insights on CNN, Fox News, and the BBC, said:

Yes, mass incarceration is indeed a sad commentary on America. The swelling prisons – with ever younger prisoners – signifies their disillusionment with society and their loss of faith in the American dream. It is also tragic that so many of the prisoners are illegal immigrants, who should be sent back to their native country, but languish on our taxpayer dollars instead.

Bob Sherman, Director of the Chicago Chapter of the Parents Television Council and former president of Glenview Art League, had this to say:

Mass incarceration defines us as a society whose social fabric is torn. It’s not hard to understand why. In pursuit of money, the barons of the entertainment industry have created a tragically toxic media environment. Over a thousand clinical and statistical studies have confirmed the results. Broken homes and single parenting are becoming the norm. Children are robbed of a secure nurturing home. Gangs flourish and prisons overflow.

In addition to the human cost of mass incarceration, the economic cost is staggering. But the harm does not stop on the domestic front. Our international image is damaged. We strive to promote human rights, but our own incarceration rate robs our message of much of its moral force.

What can we do about it?  There is no magic answer, but the Parents Television Council seems to be on the right track. The organization was founded by a right wing conservative with the help of a left wing liberal. They put politics aside and worked together to help keep innocent babies from becoming vicious criminals.

Similar sentiments from an astonishing variety of people flooded my inbox when I asked the question. The answer, conclusively, was “yes.” Americans are the top dog in many aspects, and because of this our cliffs are steeper. Now that the fiscal cliff has been averted, it’s time we pour our collective energy not so much into what the problems are within our criminal justice system (we know them) but into how we can fix them.


–Photo: AP/Eric Risberg, File: In this May 20, 2009 file photo, several hundred inmates crowd the gymnasium at San Quentin State Prison.

Article originally published here at The Good Men Project.


  1. I’ve been studying this problem for awhile. Some practical solutions are found in American history, our history of the times when incarceration did not exist on anywhere near its current scale. We can cut the American prison population in half by imposing judicial corporal punishment the old-fashioned way, the way all the presidents carved into Mt. Rushmore advocated. Judicial corporal punishment was never found to violate the Cruel & Unusual Punishments Clause of the 8th Amendment, and it is not abolished for ineffectiveness. It’s worked nearly everywhere they used it; and it goes without saying that today defendants would be afforded all of their due process and equal protection rights. While this sounds barbaric to many, it is far better than continuing with the disaster of mass incarceration. I have a 22,000-word article coming out in The Criminal Law Bulletin and hope to change some minds. Behavioral science, comparative law, history, the Bible, economics and even former slaves all back up my arguments.

    • John,

      Your idea is sure to draw sharp criticism and I’d love to see a conversation about it unfold. Please feel free to repost your response on the originally article at Good Men Project. I’ll look forward to reading your forthcoming piece. If you are interested in us running an excerpt of it please let me know. And do keep us in mind for your future writings.


      • Publishing U.S. Department of Justice data is somehow ieimgitllate? Just because an organization has a stated agenda isn’t a problem. All organizations have an agenda. I have an agenda. It’s the next step that is important: being honest and open to opposing facts.The Justice Policy Institute doesn’t lie or make up stats. I think they’re very legitimate. They publicize facts that support their cause, in this case from the U.S. Department of Justice (what’s their agenda?). What’s wrong with that? But let me talk about the crime decline issue because it’s important and a lot of people instinctively give credit to prisons for the drop in crime. Some, like Levitt, say that incarceration has been responsible for 25% of the crime decline. I think that’s on the high end, but it’s possible. Who knows for sure? The real issue is that prison population has been increasing since 1970 and crime (let’s say homicide) dropped only in the 1990s. In 1970, the murder rate was 7.9. In 1990, the murder rate was 9.4. The prison population went up from 338,000 to 1,148,702. So does increased incarceration cause the murder rate to go up? Probably not. But the point is the crime rate has gone up and down and stayed steady without any correlation to the prison population, which has only gone up. You see what I’m saying?It’s not fair to only look at the 1990s and say crime dropped because of increased incarceration and ignore the other decades when increased incarceration correlated with crime increases.Between 1990 and 2000, the prison population when up 800,000 from 1.15 million to 1.95 million. Since then, it’s gone up another 400,000. To say that locking people up is responsible for the crime drop means there must be something special about the 800,000 more that were locked up in the 1990s that doesn’t hold true to other 1.5 million locked up before and since.

    • I am so happy to hear this, at some point I hope it will be all juveniles. At least give them the optnutroipy to rehabilitate. For some people its hard to understand, and I understand that. But have someone you personally know go to prison and receive a life sentence with no chance of parole for defending himself in the only way he new, the only way he was raised to believe. I’m talking about a 16 year old boy, not man, not a stable adult, but a boy that murdered because it was him or the other. He has now been in prison for 15 years, and has done everything to try and make him a better person, because once they give you life, they make it hard for these teens to even get their G.E.D. Why does he not have the right to redeem him self, in front of the parole board at least. Anyhow I am so happy to hear that there are people out there fighting. I wish there was more I can do, and if someone knows of a way I can help, please share with me, feel free to email any information. Thank you all for letting me share.

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