The prison system has symbolic, cultural effects that extend beyond the physical boundaries of the complex organization of procedures, processes, and material institutions that comprise the criminal justice system. Incarceration containerizes, legitimizes, and grounds perceptions associating race with criminality. Because of its connection to other systems of stratification--such as labor markets--the stigmatizing, exclusionary, and stratifying effects of mass incarceration are reproduced throughout society to create structured racial disadvantage. Mass incarceration thus acts as a contemporary mechanism of racialization by providing a structure for overlapping systems, processes, and agents of racial stratification that compound racial disadvantage.
Recent calls for reforming the current carceral system have focused on alternatives to incarceration as a means of alleviating the tremendous financial burdens involved in constructing and maintaining prison and jail facilities at the state and federal levels. Reducing the imprisonment of non-violent offenders by one-half, for example, could lower correction expenditures by as much as $16.9 billion per year. State and local levels would be the biggest beneficiaries of this economic relief, thereby freeing more funds for education, employment support, drug treatment, and other efforts to improve disadvantaged communities that produce high numbers of offenders. Reform efforts have also focused on the human rights consequences of prison overcrowding. In a recent case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the United States Supreme Court ruled that California must reduce its prison population by 137.5% in order to adequately meet the physical and mental health needs of inmates.
Still, prison reforms should also consider the cultural implications of mass incarceration for civil rights. We must take seriously the fact that nearly one of every three African American men experience residential segregation and social control through incarceration, which serves only to magnify existing economic and social disparities. Further, we ought to consider what such facts mean for justice and democracy in a post-civil rights context of contemporary America. We must take actions to create systems of deterrence that promote structures of racial justice and opportunity, rather than increased racial disparity.
. Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, Adelphi University, Garden City, New York.