The United States now has 2.3 million people behind bars of some form or another. These are not 2.3 million isolated individuals—their imprisonment sends reverberations into their families and communities. On any given day, 2.7 million children have a parent in prison. Incarcerating that parent removes a source of financial and emotional support for both children and adult family members. For families who are already in economically precarious situations, removing a parent can plunge them into poverty, reduce their safety, and make them more vulnerable to arrest and incarceration.
This is not to say that we don’t need interventions when harm and violence happen. But prisons have proven again and again to be an ineffective intervention. First, we must remember that incarceration is a form of punishment and incapacitation that happens after harm has occurred, not before. We must also remember that incarceration addresses only certain types of harm. People who sell drugs on the street risk arrest and imprisonment. But the same rarely applies to wealthy people like the Sackler family, who earned billions from OxyContin, the addictive painkiller launched in 1996 that spawned today’s opioid crisis. Likewise, board members and corporate executives responsible for oil spills and other environmental disasters or for precipitating economic crises rarely face handcuffs and jail time.
So when confronted with the statement that prisons provide safety, we should ask, “Safety for whom? And from what?”
If we focus solely on interpersonal crime and harm, we might believe that the threat of imprisonment deters crime and wrongdoing. But with 2.3 million people behind bars, we can see that deterrence actually isn’t happening.
Americans have been sold the story—lock ’em up and you’re safe.
Danielle Sered is the founder and director of Common Justice, a program that promotes alternatives to incarceration and provides services to victims. Based in New York City, the program works with young adults facing violent felony charges, including assault and robbery, and their victims.
Sered recalled posing a question to the program’s youths, all of whom had been incarcerated. As you were committing the crime, she asked them, what penalty did you think you would receive if caught? Their answers debunk the theory that the threat of incarceration deters people from committing crime: one-third did not think of a penalty at all. Another third thought the penalty would be substantially less. The final third thought they might face a far greater penalty if caught but, at the time they committed the acts, were indifferent to the potential consequences. In other words, the threat of prison was no deterrent to their decision.
But what about incapacitating people who commit harm? Imprisonment does incapacitate a person, but it also rips people away from their families and communities, placing them in environments rife with chaos, abuse, and violence.
“Americans have been sold the story—lock ’em up and you’re safe,” reflected Kamadia, a former nurse, who has been imprisoned in Texas since 2007. “But you create a more damaged person. The first lesson I learned in prison [was] don’t trust anyone. Don’t show emotions. I scare myself with how desensitized I have become to suicide and rape. I often ask, ‘Where’s the empathetic nurse?’ Gone.”
She’s referring to the often torturous conditions inside jails and prisons. These conditions include physical assaults, verbal taunts, and sexual abuse—from prison staff and other incarcerated people. They also include inaccessible and often inadequate medical and mental health care, which often exacerbates a person’s pre-existing conditions. They include practices like solitary confinement, or locking a person in a cell with no human contact for at least 23 hours each day. In some states, people have been locked in solitary for months, years, and sometimes decades, creating and exacerbating post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions. For those lucky enough to receive visits from family and loved ones, conditions include submitting to a strip search before and after each visit. In 2020, these conditions became potentially deadly as crowded jails and prisons became petri dishes for the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended preventive measures of social distancing of at least 6 feet and frequent hand-washing, both of which are nearly impossible behind bars. In many jails and prisons, people sleep less than 2 feet apart from one another and are moved in groups around the facility. During non-pandemic times, soap is strictly rationed and, even with threats of rampant coronavirus spread, many jails and prisons failed to provide adequate soap or hand-washing facilities.
If imprisonment acted as a deterrent or a form of incapacitation, then that record high should have made Americans safe.
Meanwhile, rehabilitative programs, including counseling, effective drug treatment, and educational and vocational programs, are often scarce, leaving many with little to do. (During the coronavirus crisis, even these scarce programs were canceled.)
Even without a life-threatening pandemic, research has shown that incarceration is associated with an increase in recidivism, or committing a new crime, especially when compared to non-prison consequences, such as probation. The Department of Justice found that 83% (or five out of six) people leaving state prison were arrested within nine years of their release. The report did not list the most common reasons for arrest, though it did note that people initially imprisoned for a property conviction were more likely to be arrested again than those incarcerated for a violent crime.
Imprisonment not only disrupts the individual person’s life but also pulls them out of their roles in their family and community. Children lose a parent; families lose a member who had helped with the bills, caregiving, and general support of the household. Those relationships tend to fray over time, particularly with lengthy incarcerations, making it less likely that the person will be able to pick up the pieces of their life upon release. In addition, a prison record can impede people from finding a job, securing housing, or being accepted to college.
In contrast, reducing prison populations seems to be correlated with a reduction in crime. While the nation’s prison population ballooned again and again throughout the 1990s until 2015, some states started reducing their prison populations during that period. Contrary to fear-based myths, these states have not seen an increase in crime. In fact, they’ve seen the opposite. In New York, the combined jail and prison incarceration rate was cut by 55 percent between 1994 and 2014; during those 20 years, the rate of serious crime in New York City fell 58%. New Jersey reduced its prison population by 25 percent, and reports of violent crime dropped by 31%. California reduced its prison population by 25% while reports of violent crime dropped 21%. In Chicago, the number of people sentenced to prison or jail deceased 19% between 2017 and 2018; violent crime dropped 8% during that same period.
Cincinnati illustrates how decreased incarceration does not decrease safety. In 2008, the city shuttered its 822-bed Queensgate Correctional Facility, eliminating one-third of Cincinnati’s jail beds. When the closure was announced, critics feared a spike in crime. In fact, the reverse happened. With jail beds reduced from 2,300 to 1,500, police were forced to undergo a paradigm shift: They began viewing arrests as a limited commodity rather than the standard response. Between 2008 to 2014, felony arrests decreased 41.3%; misdemeanor arrests dropped 32.7%.
The decrease in arrests wasn’t because police were ignoring violence and harm. Instead, the decrease reflected a dropping crime rate. During that same period, the city’s violent crime fell 38.5% while property crime decreased 18.9%. The decrease in arrests also reflected a shift in priorities, forcing police officers to focus on actions that actually threatened public safety rather than minor legal infractions.
New York City shows a different story. Despite the dramatic decrease in homicides and violent crime between 1994 and 2014, the city continues to add more officers to the police force, and those police officers continue arresting people for minor violations. In 2018, police made 808 arrests for rape. In contrast, they made over 5,000 arrests for fare evasion. These arrests don’t contribute to public safety; instead, they punish people who cannot afford to pay $2.75 for a subway or bus ride, subjecting them to arrest, a fine that is 30 times greater than the fare they could not afford, and the threat of jail. When COVID-19 hit the United States, New York City became the epicenter of the epidemic, and its jail system became its flashpoint. By May 2020, the jails’ rate of infection was 9.53%, more than double its 4.1% infection rate on April 1. In contrast, the infection rate of New York City’s general population was 2.15% in early May and 0.5% on April 1.
If incarceration actually doesn’t keep us safe by deterring or incapacitating people who cause harm, why then do we continue to think that prisons keep us safe?
The media plays a significant role in reinforcing and perpetuating this myth.
Since 1991, violent crime in the United States has fallen more than 51%. Between 1990 and 1998, the nation’s homicide rates dropped by half. But the average American wouldn’t have known that. During those eight years, homicide stories on three major news networks rose nearly four times, fueling fears of murderous crime waves.
At the same time, the number of people behind bars increased dramatically. In 1990, 771,243 people were in state or federal prisons. It was a figure that the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the federal agency that tracks imprisonment numbers, called “a record high.” Throw in the 405,320 people in local jails and the nation had nearly 1.2 million people behind bars that year.
If imprisonment acted as a deterrent or a form of incapacitation, then that record high should have made Americans safe. Instead, it was eclipsed again and again in subsequent years. Over 1.5 million people were in jails and prisons by 1995. By 2000, nearly 2 million were in prisons or jails. By 2007, that number had soared to nearly 2.3 million.
One might assume that the decrease in homicide and other violence is due to rising incarceration. But this actually is not a cause-and-effect relationship. Again, it’s important to remember that incarceration is a form of punishment and incapacitation that typically happens after harm has occurred, not before.
Edited excerpt from “Prisons Make Us Safer” and 20 Other Myths about Mass Incarceration by Victoria Law (Beacon Press, 2021) appears with permission of Beacon Press.
Victoria Law has been researching and writing about incarceration, gender, and resistance since 2000. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars and the co-author of Prison By Any Other Name. She is a co-founder of Books Through Bars–NYC and the longtime editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings by Women in Prison.