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Articles - Prison & probation
Written by Loic Wacquant   
Wednesday, 22 July 1998 00:00

Imprisoning the American Poor
By Loic Wacquant, Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley
Le Monde diplomatique
July 1998
(Translated by Julie Stoker )

Prisons in the "free world" are full to bursting point, and fullest of all are US jails. Over the past twenty years, exacerbated by ever increasing
inequalities, preoccupation with the virtues of law and order has led to a toughening of penalties. Worst hit have been those excluded from the
"American dream". The US is constantly tightening its social welfare budget, but its generosity knows no bounds when it comes to controlling and
incarcerating those whom it has deigned neither to educate and care for, nor provide with housing and an adequate diet. "Realism" and "combating
insecurity" are the reasons cited by those who now call for "an eye for an eye" in an attempt to justify criminalising the poor. This US model is now
taking hold internationally, and in some countries in Europe it even seems to be attracting a number of leaders on the left - despite the fact that
prison is not the only method of punishment.

Just as in those heady post-war days, Europe’s political elites, bosses and opinion-formers are looking to the United States with fascination and envy, largely because of the performance of the US economy. Allegedly, the key to US prosperity and the supposed solution to mass unemployment is simple: less intervention by the state. It is true that the United States - and in its wake, the United Kingdom and New Zealand - has slashed social welfare spending and pared down the rules on hiring and - above all - firing so as to establish "flexible" working as the norm in relation to employment and indeed citizenship. It is easy for advocates of neoliberal policies that involve stifling the welfare state to claim that introducing "flexibility" has stimulated an increase in wealth and job creation, but they are more  reticent about discussing the consequences of wage dumping: in this instance widespread social and physical insecurity and a spiralling in inequality  leading to segregation, crime and the decay of public institutions.

But it is not enough to measure the direct social and human costs of the system of social insecurity that the US is proffering as a model to the rest
of the world (1). There is also its sociological counterpart: a boom in the institutions that compensate for the failures of social protection (the  safety net) by casting over the lower strata of society a police and criminal dragnet that gets harder and harder to escape. As the social state is deliberately allowed to wither, the police state flourishes: the direct and inevitable effect of impoverishing and weakening social protection.
The increase in the prison population, control of increasing numbers of people on the margins of the prison system, the spectacular boom in the
penal sector at both federal and state level and the continuing rise in the number of black prisoners are the four significant factors defining penal
trends in the United States since the complete change in social and racial attitudes that began in the 1970s. That change was triggered by the
democratic progress secured as a result of Black protest and the popular protest movements that surged in its wake (students, women, opponents of the Vietnam war and environmentalists) (2).

Prisoner numbers have risen dramatically at all three tiers of the prison system: in the town and county jails, in the central penitentiaries of the
fifty states and in the federal penitentiaries. During the 1960s the US prison population was shrinking, so much so that by 1975 it had fallen to
380,000, having declined slowly but consistently (by about 1% a year over a ten year period). The talk at the time was of emptying the prisons, of
alternatives to imprisonment and of reserving jail sentences for criminals who posed a serious threat (between 10% and 15% of the prison population); there were even those who ventured to predict that there would soon be no prisons at all (3). But that trend was rapidly and dramatically to be reversed: ten years later the prison population had soared to 740,000 and, by 1995, it was in excess of 1.6 million. During the 1990s, prisoner numbers have been increasing by 8% annually.

A tripling of the prison population in fifteen years is unprecedented in a democratic society. It leaves the United States far outstripping the other
developed countries since its rate of imprisonment - 645 detainees per 100,000 of the population in 1997, that is five times the 1973 level - is
between six to ten times higher than that of the countries of the European Union (see table 1) (4). Not even South Africa in the days of the apartheid
regime was throwing as many of its citizens into jail as does the US currently.

Justice "by race"
Number of prisoners per 100,000 adults (table 1)

1985 1990 1995
Blacks 3544 5365 6926
Whites 528 718 919
Disparity 3016 4647 6007
Ratio 6.7 to 1 7.4 to 1 7.5 to 1

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Correctional Populations in the United
States, 1995, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1997.

5.4 million US citizens somewhere in the prison system

In California, not so long ago the national champion of education and public health but now a believer in prison across-the-board, the number of
prisoners held in its state jails alone rose from 17,300 in 1975 to 48,300 in 1985 and, by 1995, had passed the 130,000 mark. If we add to that the
number of prisoners held in the county jails (Los Angeles alone holds 20,000 prisoners), the total is a staggering 200,000, equivalent to the population of a large French provincial town.

But the extraordinary expansion of the US penal empire extends beyond the great "lock-up" as the century draws to a close. There are also those
individuals placed on probation or parole. It has not been possible to expand prison capacity fast enough to absorb the growing stream of convicts,
with the result that the numbers kept on the margins of the prison system have increased even more quickly than the number held inside. In 1995, 3.1 million people were on parole and 700,000 on probation, a total of nearly 4 million, representing more or less a fourfold increase over 16 years.
Consequently, in 1995, there were 5.4 million Americans in prison or within the prison system, accounting for 5% of men aged 18 and over and one in five black males (and the reason for that will become clear below).

What is more, in addition to intermediate penalties available to it, such as house arrest or confinement in a boot camp (disciplinary detention centre), intensive probation and telephonic or electronic surveillance (using bracelets or other technical gadgetry), the penal system has been able to spread its tentacles considerably further as a result of the increase in the number of data banks that have provided many new ways and centres of distance monitoring. During the 1970s and the 1980s, the Law Enforcement Administration Agency (the federal body responsible for crime prevention) encouraged the police, courts and prison authorities to set up centralised and computerised data banks, and they have since proliferated.

The new synergy between the penal system’s "capture" and "observation" functions (5) means that there are now more than 250 million "rap sheets" (as against 35 million ten years ago) covering some 30 million individuals: close on one third of all adult males! The data banks can be accessed not only by the FBI and the INS (responsible for policing foreigners) and the social services, but also by individuals and private bodies. Employers commonly use data banks to sift out ex-prisoners trying to find work. And so what if the data is frequently incorrect, out-of-date, trivial or indeed illegal? The fact that it is available leaves not only criminals and crime suspects, but also their families, friends, neighbours and neighbourhoods, targets of the police and prison system (6).

The lust for prisons is both dependent on and triggers a spectacular expansion in the penal sector at federal and local level. All the more
remarkable because it comes at a time when the public sector is having to tighten its belt. Between 1979 and 1990, the states increased their spending on prisons by 325% on operational costs and 612% on buildings - that is to say three times more rapidly than national military spending, even though the latter enjoyed a privileged position under the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Since 1992, four states have allocated more than a billion dollars to prison spending: California ($3.2 billion), New York State ($2.1 billion), Texas
($1.3 billion) and Florida ($1.1 billion). All in all, in 1993, the United States spent 50% more on its prisons than on the judiciary ($32 billion as
compared with $21 billion), whereas ten years earlier, budget levels were the same for both (in the region of $7 billion).

The policy of prison expansion is not, however, a Republican prerogative. Over the past five years, President Bill Clinton has been declaring just how proud he is to have put an end to "big government" and the commission for reform of the federal state, chaired by his would-be successor,
Vice-President Al Gore, has been busy pruning public sector programmes and jobs. Meanwhile, 213 new prisons have been built - a figure that does not include the private institutions that have proliferated as a lucrative market in the sector has been opened up (see "A boom in private
penitentiaries"). At the same time, the number of employees in federal and state penitentiaries alone has risen from 264,000 to 347,000. Consequently, according to the office of census, the training and hiring of prison officials is the area of government activity that has seen the most rapid growth over the past decade.

The money has to come from somewhere, and when there is a fiscal squeeze, the only way of increasing spending on prisons and prison staff is to cut the resources allocated to social welfare, health and education. De facto, the United States has opted to construct detention centres and prisons for its poor, rather than clinics, day nurseries and schools (7). Since 1994, for instance, the annual budget of the California Department of Correction (responsible for state detention centres in which prisoners serving more than a year are held) has been higher than that allocated to the University of California. The budget that Governor Pete Wilson proposed in 1995 was actually designed to get rid of a thousand jobs in higher education in order to fund jobs for 3,000 prison warders. That is a decision that weighs heavily on the public purse because in California a "screw" earns 30% more than a lecturer because of the political influence wielded by the prisoner officers’ trade union.

Along with this boom in the prison sector has come "lateral" expansion of the penal system and thus a huge increase in its capacity to hold and
neutralise. But the main "beneficiaries" of this additional capacity are poor families and districts, and particularly black enclaves in the cities.
That much is clear from the fourth major trend in the US prison system: a continuing rise in the numbers of Black prisoners, so much so that since
1989 and for the first time in history, Black Americans make up the bulk of prisoners, even though they account for barely 12% of the total US

Discriminatory police practices

In 1995, of 22 million black adults, 767,000 were held in prison, 990,000 were on probation and 325,000 others on parole - a total of 9.4% caught
somewhere in the grip of the prison system. As far as Whites are concerned, an estimate that is on the high side puts the figure at 1.9% for a
population of 163 million adults (8). In terms of prisoner numbers alone, the disparity between the two population groups is 1:7.5, and it has been
steadily worsening over the past ten years: 528 compared with 3,544 for every 100,000 adults in 1985, and 919 compared with 6,926 ten years later (see table 2). Over a lifetime, a Black male has a one-in-three chance of spending at least a year in prison and an Hispanic a one-in-six chance, whereas a White has just a one-in-twenty-three chance.

This phenomenon - that criminologists tactfully refer to as "racial disproportionality" - is even more marked among young people, prime targets
of the criminalisation of poverty. More than a third of Blacks aged between 20 and 29 years are either in prison, under the authority of a judge
responsible for the execution of sentences, or awaiting trial. In the big cities, the figure is substantially higher than 50%, and in some places, in
the heart of the ghetto, in excess of 80%. So much so that, to take an expression borrowed from the tragic memory of the Vietnam War, the operation of the US justice system could be described as a "search and destroy" mission targeted on young Blacks (9).

Europe "lagging behind"

Rates of imprisonment in the United States and Europe in 1993 (table 2)
(number of prisoners per 100,000 of population)

United States (entire) 546
Georgia 730
Texas 700
California 607
Florida 636
Michigan 550
New York 519
Italy 89
United Kingdom 86
France 84
Germany 80
Holland 51

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Correctional Populations in the United States, Washington 1996, and Council of Europe, Penological Information Bulletin No 19-20, December 1995.

A predisposition to crime only partly explains the huge disparity between Whites and Blacks in the prison population. Mainly, it reflects the
fundamentally discriminatory nature of police, court and prison practice. The proof is that Blacks account for 13% of drug users (more or less
equivalent to the proportion of Blacks in the population) but a third of those arrested and three-quarters of those imprisoned for drug offences. The
policy of a "war on drugs", along with abandonment of the goal of rehabilitation and an increase in ultra-repressive penalties (the widespread
application of a system of irreducible fixed penalties, automatic life imprisonment for a third offence and more severe penalties for public order
offences), is one of the main causes of the rise in the prison population (10).

In 1995 six out of ten of those newly convicted were put in jail for possessing or dealing in drugs. Imprisonment is one area in which Blacks
benefit from "positive discrimination", in itself an irony at a time when the United States is turning its back on the affirmative action programmes
that were designed to reduce the most glaring racial inequalities in access to education and jobs.

But what matters more than all the statistics is the rationale underlying the shift from social welfare to a toughening in penal policy. Far from
being inconsistent with the neoliberal programme of deregulation and decline of the public sector, the rise in prominence of the US penal system reveals the true picture, reflecting a policy of criminalising poverty which inevitably goes hand-in-hand with the imposition of insecure and underpaid
jobs, as well as the restructuring of social welfare programmes to make them more restrictive and punitive. When imprisonment was institutionalised in America in the mid-19th century, it was primarily conceived as a method of controlling deviant and dependent population groups, and the majority of those imprisoned were the poor and immigrant workers newly arrived in the New World (11).

Nowadays, the US prison system performs a similar role in regard to those groups who have been rendered superfluous or who no longer fit in as a
result of the restructuring of both employment relations and public welfare: the shrinking working class and the Blacks. As a result, it has become a
vital instrument of government by poverty, used to underpin the principle of flexible working at the point where the market in unskilled labour, the
urban ghetto and the "reformed" social services meet.

Unemployment under wraps

To begin with, the prison system makes a direct contribution to regulating the lower segments of the labour market - and does so in infinitely more
coercive fashion than any social charge or administrative rule. Its effect here is artificially to compress unemployment levels both by forcibly
abstracting millions of males from the job-seeking population, and also by boosting employment in the prison goods and service sector. It is, for
example, estimated that during the 1990s US prisons brought down US unemployment figures by two percentage points. According to Bruce Western and Katherine Beckett, taking into account the differences in levels of imprisonment in the two continents, and contrary to the idea commonly accepted and actively disseminated by the advocates of neoliberalism, for 18 of the past 20 years US unemployment rates have been higher than those of the European Union (12).

However, Western and Beckett show that the jump in the prison population is a two-edged weapon: while in the short term it makes the employment picture look rosier by cutting labour supply, in the longer term it will inevitably worsen the employment situation by making millions of people more or less unemployable. Although imprisonment has cut US unemployment levels, the prison system will have constantly to be abandoned to keep those levels down.

The fact that Blacks are massively and increasingly over-represented at all levels of the prison system highlights its second function in this new form of government by poverty: it is to replace the ghetto as a means of containing population groups considered deviant and dangerous, not to
mention superfluous from both an economic and a political point of view - Mexican and Asian immigrants are far more docile. Poor Blacks hardly ever bother to vote and the country’s electoral centre of gravity has in any event shifted towards the White suburbs. To that extent, prison is merely
the ultimate manifestation of a policy of exclusion of which the ghetto has been a means and an end since it first appeared in history.

The penal institutions are now directly tuned into the bodies and programmes responsible for "assisting" marginal groups. While the ethos of punishment inherent in the penal system tends to contaminate and then redefine the aims and machinery of social welfare, prisons have, like it or not, to deal urgently - and with the resources available to them - with the social and medical ills that their "clientele" has been unable to remedy elsewhere.

Finally, the effect of budgetary constraints and the political philosophy of decreasing state intervention has been to open up both social assistance and prisons to the market. Many states, like Texas and Tennessee, are already keeping substantial numbers of prisoners in private jails and subcontracting to specialist companies responsibility for administrative follow-up of recipients of welfare benefits. One way of earning a buck from the poor and criminals, both ideologically and economically.

What then we are witnessing is the establishment of a commercial socio-penal complex designed to monitor and penalise those population groups that refuse to submit to the new economic order (13) with a gender-based division of labour: the penal element covers males in the main, while the welfare component supervises the women and children. And the same people shuffle around within this more or less closed circle.

The American experience shows that today, just as at the end of the last century, rigidly separating social policy and penal policy - or, to take it
one further, the labour market, social welfare (if you can still call it that) and prison - means that we are left understanding neither (14).

Wherever it becomes a reality, the neoliberal utopia brings with it, for the poorest in society and also for all who find themselves excluded from what
remains of protected employment, not more, but less freedom, or indeed no freedom at all. It does this by taking us back to the repressive paternalism of another age when capitalism was rampant, now bolstered by an omniscient and omnipotent punitive state.


(1) See articles on "Eternel retour du ‘miracle’ américaine", Le Monde Diplomatique, January 1997, and Loïc Wacquant, "La généralisation de
l’insécurité sociale en Amérique", Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, December 1996.

(2) David Chalmers, And the Crooked Places Made Straight: The Struggle for Social Change in the 1960s, Temple University Press, Philadephia, 1991, and James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States 1945-1974, Oxford University Press, 1996.

(3) On those debates, see Norval Morris, The Future of Imprisonment, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1974.

(4) Unless stated otherwise, all of these statistics are drawn from various publications of the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the Federal Department
of Justice (in particular its periodic reports on Correctional Populations in the United States, Washington, Government Printing Office).

(5) Diana Gordon gives an excellent description of that synergy in The Justice Juggernaut: Fighting Street Crime, Rutgers University Press, New
Brunswick, 1991.

(6) The State of Illinois has put on the Internet the description and a summary of the criminal record of all of its prisoners, so that anyone can
find out about a prisoner’s previous offences just by clicking the mouse.

(7) See the data compiled by Steve Gold, Trends in State Spending, Center or the Study of the States, Rockefeller Institute of Government, Albany
(New York), 1991.

(8) That estimate actually makes no distinction between Whites of Anglosaxon origin and people of Hispanic origin, thereby automatically pushing up the level of Whites of European origin. The effect is being compounded as time goes by with rates of imprisonment rising most rapidly among Hispanics in recent times.

(9) Title of Jerome Miller’s authoritative work, Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System, Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge, 1997.

(10) For a discussion of these various points, see Loïc Wacquant, "Crime et châtiment en Amérique de Nixon à Clinton", Archives de politique criminelle, Paris, No 20, Spring 1998.

(11) David Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic, Little, Brown, Boston, 1971, pp 239-240.

(12) Bruce Western and Katherine Beckett, "How Unregulated is the US Labor Market? The Penal System as a Labor Market Institution", presentation to the annual congress of the American Sociological Association, 39 pages, 1997, p. 31.

(13) Loïc Wacquant, "Les pauvres en pâture: la nouvelle politique de la misère en Amérique", Hérodote, Paris, No 85, Spring 1997.

(14) As shown by David Garland in Punishment and Welfare: A History of Penal Strategies, Gower, Aldershot, 1985, in regard to the paradigm case of Victorian England.

The American Example Project #44

one thousand and more reasons to de-americanize drug policy


Our valuable member Loic Wacquant has been with us since Monday, 20 December 2010.