By Alan Bean
Adam Gopnik is an art critic, not an expert on mass incarceration. But he has read widely on the subject and this major piece in the New Yorker offers an extended commentary on ideas recently shared by Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow), Robert Perkinson (Texas Tough), William Stunz (The Collapse of American Criminal Justice), and Franklin Zimring’s book on New York City (The City That Became Safe). No book can say everything that needs to be said about the American Gulag, so a carefully-crafted piece that combines the best insights of leading authorities is extremely helpful.
Following Stuntz and Zimring, “The Caging of America” notes that major improvements can be enacted without revolutionary reforms. The crime rate of New York City has fallen by 80% (twice the national average) without significant poverty programs. People are no better off, by and large, they are just less likely to transgress.
If Gopnik had added the ground-breaking insights of David Kennedy (Don’t Shoot) to his mix, he would be less inclined to believe that crime, especially violent crime, falls of its own accord. But Kennedy, like Stuntz and Zimring, isn’t waiting for the New Jerusalem to descend from heaven anytime soon. These authors believe that utopian dreaming can be just an inimical to real reform as the tough-on-crime politics that created the problem in the first place.
Gopnik’s piece concludes like this:
“Oh, I have taken too little care of this!” King Lear cries out on the heath in his moment of vision. “Take physic, pomp; expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.” “This” changes; in Shakespeare’s time, it was flat-out peasant poverty that starved some and drove others as mad as poor Tom. In Dickens’s and Hugo’s time, it was the industrial revolution that drove kids to mines. But every society has a poor storm that wretches suffer in, and the attitude is always the same: either that the wretches, already dehumanized by their suffering, deserve no pity or that the oppressed, overwhelmed by injustice, will have to wait for a better world. At every moment, the injustice seems inseparable from the community’s life, and in every case the arguments for keeping the system in place were that you would have to revolutionize the entire social order to change it—which then became the argument for revolutionizing the entire social order. In every case, humanity and common sense made the insoluble problem just get up and go away. Prisons are our this. We need take more care. (emphasis added)
Has common sense made our problems “just get up and go away?”
If the problem is violent crime, a case could be made. Even so, as Kennedy demonstrates in Don’t Shoot, violent crime rages on in cities like New Orleans and Baltimore with no solution in sight. Common sense isn’t all that common.
If the problem is mass incarceration, no big-time fix is in sight. Prison populations have leveled out, and in some places incarceration rates have actually dropped; but America still locks up over 2 million people, and it will take more than common sense to change that fact. As Michelle Alexander argues, when careers and corporate fortunes are dependent on the status quo, change requires something akin to a revolution.
Gopnik believes that a massive drop in the American crime rate means mass incarceration was a mistake. Not everyone agrees. In fact, it is frequently argued that crime rates have fallen because we have locked up so many criminals. So long as the American mainstream believes this (and it does) mass incarceration, with all its attendant woes, will flourish.
Why do we lock up so many people?
Prison is a trap for catching time. Good reporting appears often about the inner life of the American prison, but the catch is that American prison life is mostly undramatic—the reported stories fail to grab us, because, for the most part, nothing happens. One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is all you need to know about Ivan Denisovich, because the idea that anyone could live for a minute in such circumstances seems impossible; one day in the life of an American prison means much less, because the force of it is that one day typically stretches out for decades. It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates. The inmates on death row in Texas are called men in “timeless time,” because they alone aren’t serving time: they aren’t waiting out five years or a decade or a lifetime. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock. (more…)