Prison Nation

How America's incarceration system is like a distinct nation


A Country Called Prison: Mass Incarceration and the Making of a New Nation, by Mary D. Looman and John D. Carl, Oxford University Press, 264 pages, $29.95

Mary Looman and John Carl's thesis is straightforward: The human population embroiled within America's criminal justice system is so large, the geographic space it occupies so vast, and the social processes it undergoes so distinctive, that it has produced a cultural heritage all its own. As such, the masses entering, occupying, and cycling out of America's prison system ought to be understood as if they were members of a distinct nation. Hence their book's title: A Country Called Prison.

Since the 1970s, America's total prison population—state and federal combined—has leaped from about 300,000 to more than 1.5 million. Yet physical walls and razor wire fences do not bound the country called prison. As Looman and Carl explain, "if all individuals who are currently under some form of government supervision—via parole, probation, prison and local jails—are included, that number explodes to more than 6.9 million," a population just below Bulgaria's. And the nation is even larger than that, since inmates' broader families and social networks are deeply shaped by incarceration's cultural effects.

Rather than deterring crime or administering justice, Looman and Carl argue, imprisonment exaggerates the social problems associated with poverty and crime. Thus the country called prison is a self-perpetuating entity.

To bolster these claims, the authors relate a large survey of theories drawing across the research fields of psychology (Looman's specialty), sociology (Carl's field), and criminal justice. Looman and Carl also share stories from their personal experiences with prison staff and inmates, making for an engaging and empathetic read.

Citizenship in prison nation, they suggest, most often begins in poor neighborhoods with underperforming schools, abusive households, and easy access to drugs and alcohol. Children in close proximity to the realities of incarceration are more likely to experience it firsthand, the authors continue, since they are often raised in conditions hostile to the learning processes necessary to peacefully and productively engage in society. The prison system as it currently operates does not improve upon or reverse this maladaptive socialization. Instead, Looman and Carl write, the toxic social patterns within prison walls undermine the behavioral learning people need to progress from dependent children into independent adults. Rather than learning how to peacefully associate with different types of people and get ahead in life, inmate social orders often reward the very same behaviors that lead to incarceration in the first place: aggression, deception, drug abuse, and theft.

Looman and Carl conclude by suggesting a variety of cultural and political strategies for reform. Their suggestions are sometimes dramatic, such as implementing a pervasive system of social work in lieu of contemporary punishments; but they argue if we are to stop the growth of a prison nation within a supposedly free country, we must radically reformulate how we as a society think about crime, punishment, and incarceration.

What should we think of this argument?

Looman and Carl's general suggestion, to consider the large swath of individuals affected by incarceration as a nation within our nation, is reasonable and compelling. As they repeatedly mention, this is a nearly-century-old insight first developed by the sociologists Donald Clemmer and Gresham Sykes (among others) in the early 20th century. Given the unique desires of prison populations and the extreme conditions of scarcity and uncertainty within penal spaces, inmates deploy unique strategies for survival and cooperation, and thus prison communities evolve distinctive social norms.

While Looman and Carl's references and summaries are welcome and accurate, they are also sophomoric compared to such recent texts as David Skarbek's The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System. Where Looman and Carl merely reference the social conditioning that takes place behind bars as a foray to recommend a social work model more oriented towards rehabilitating inmates, Skarbek offers a thorough explanation for the intricate networks of incentives and norms governing prison gangs. Inmates converged upon the organizational model of gang hierarchies, Skarbek argues, because they needed forms of governance that wardens and correctional officers were failing to provide amidst radical prison growth. It is hard to imagine that such large-scale, profitable, and violently enforced networks can easily be displaced or reshaped by the types of proposals suggested by Looman and Carl.

I agree with the authors' belief that prisons socialize inmates in ways that undermine their reintegration into free society. But the complexity of this problem renders the authors' strategies difficult to design effectively and unlikely to succeed. Their suggestions range from the apparently reasonable but unspecified to the pedantic and condescending.

I will address the latter first. Mass incarceration and its associated costs are not effectively reformed by designed cultural changes such as language policing. The authors' suggestion to use words like "resident" as opposed to "inmate" does nothing to resolve the real social problems of imprisonment. To suggest otherwise obfuscates the more meaningful challenges facing reformers. Listing such banal suggestions alongside more reasonable alternatives weakens their entire framework. The people suffering from the consequences of America's prison system deserve better.

As noted above, Looman and Carl would also like to see American criminal justice shift from a punishment model toward a comprehensive system of social work. Visitors to foreign lands often need support networks of guides, hosts, and translators to help navigate their new and unfamiliar territories. Crime-prone communities, they suggest, need better resources to help individuals avoid entering the country called prison; and emigrants from prison country need help renavigating life once released.

Yet Looman and Carl do not offer any estimates of the costs of such a pervasive system of social work and its necessary bureaucratic infrastructures. They repeatedly report that the American approach to prison is unnecessarily expensive, but they never seriously discuss how affordable the reforms they recommend would be.

For Looman and Carl, America's prison system is the way it is as a sheer matter of will: American opinion simply shifted from rehabilitative to retributive goals amidst higher crime rates and the war on drugs. They reiterate what many commentators have noticed, that incarceration has been leveraged as a means of social control in lieu of mental health resources ever since. But they pay almost no attention to the harsh history of rehabilitation. Before the prison boom, psychiatric institutions were arguably just as horrid and sometimes worse than today's prisons. Furthermore, many nations other than the U.S. similarly shifted from rehabilitation to more retributive models but without comparably sized incarceration rates, costs, or sociological effects.

What we need is a theory to explain why governmentally managed systems of institutionalization and punishment in the U.S. so frequently fail at their stated intentions. Why do public opinions and policy efforts continue to finance and staff these ineffectual programs? And why are these cycles of failure so pronounced in the American experience relative to other countries? Looman and Carl do not offer much detailed insight to these more specified inquiries.

Such leads to the foundational flaw of the theory within the text. Looman and Carl repeatedly declare that if "social systems are designed by people, they can be changed by people," as if saying it again and again will somehow make it more true. But many social systems—languages, cultures, economies, even public policy outcomes—are more often shaped by spontaneous processes of human action, not deliberate human design. In fact, the more complex a social process is, the more likely human designs are to err and impose unintended and undesirable consequences.

In short, Looman and Carl treat public policies as infinitely malleable without any significant constraints, and their strategies for change require a sort of blank slate from which their ideal vision may be constructed and re-constructed upon. In reality, public opinion and policy makers are more difficult to sway and manipulate, as individuals tend to act in accordance to their own interests confined by patterns of incentives set by organizational structures.

Herein lays a more interesting question than anything addressed in the book. Given the reasonable nature of Looman and Carl's initial observations, and given the intuitive moral appeal of rehabilitative intentions over the status quo, why have penal policies become what they are today? Why did the rehabilitative ideal give way to the status quo? I contend that our forms of governance are not poised to take the types of medicine Looman and Carl prescribe. Both theory and evidence suggest that incarceration is significantly shaped by the organizational features of political and legal institutions that are not necessarily on the table for reform amid traditional partisan elections. If some significant part of mass incarceration cannot be understood with reference to the conscious cultural intentions of our society, but instead stems from the organizational patterns of American democracy, it will never be noticed by the likes of Looman and Carl.

NEXT: Should Vester Lee Flanagan Have Been Allowed to Own a Gun?

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  1. There are way too many people caught up in the criminal justice system. I think we all agree that laws against drugs, gambling and prostitution need to be repealed as a first step.
    However, this whole “social work” and/or rehabilitation nonsense never worked before. And those people who truly do initiate the use of force or fraud against others should be punished.

    1. It’s one thing to not attempt rehabilitation for prisoners who will never get out of prison, but using takes approach on those will some day be free is more than counterproductive.

    2. Generally, I think the argument for rehabilitation is for non-violent offenders. I don’t here too many people (sane ones anyway) advocate rehab for murderers, etc.

      1. better idea: nonviolent “offenders” should not qualify for prison in the first place

        1. Exactly. Especially not on a first time offense.

    3. We need to see more public officials sent to prison on corruption charges. Then you would see how fast they get ride of mandatory minimum sentencing and though sentencing guidelines. Our government crooks never practice what they preach.

    4. Instead of the elected crooks passing new laws, they should be repealing many of the existing laws.

  2. Prisons in some form will exist as long as any society makes rules & regulations.

  3. Just have a “Bring Anything You Can Smuggle Up Your Ass Day” once a month. Between the overdoses, stabbings, and peritonitis the prison population could be shaved by about 20% in six months.

    1. Awesome handle! That Jorge Ben album is one of the all time bests.

      1. To be honest, I’ve never actually heard of Jorge Ben until you mentioned him. I chose the name because I’m an asshole with a pedantic streak.

        1. One of the best Brazilian musicians of all time.

          1. Thanks for broadening my horizons!

  4. Slightly off topic:

    Heartily recommend seeing “Dinosaur 13”. I either saw a review here or some commenter recommend it. Great film that has some real libertarian messages in its telling of the story of the largest and most complete T Rex ever discovered. It was discovered by a very small private fossil company that drew the wrath of the credentialed academics and the federal gub.

  5. The problems evidenced in the urban crime culture have always been there, but the policies from the RAW DEAL(Roosevelt) and the WORSE DEAL (LBJ) made them much worse.

    It is difficult to change the path of child’s life starting at age 10 compared to age 2. The disfunctional nature of the urban culture is well imprinted before age 10, and rehabilitation in prison is (unfortunately) just an attractive dream in most cases.

    We have used drug laws, sexual behavior laws, and subsidy for destructive behaviors via social programs (using stolen money) to create yet another problem the solution to which is more government power. What a coincidence.

    Now, we have a chicken and the egg dilemma where the level of force required to contain the social effects assures that the core problem is sustained.

    A key question that we need to consider, assuming we were able to change these policies tomorrow, how would we prevent the rise of the progressives again in a few years? There is a long historical pattern of “throwing the yokes off” followed by taking on new yokes.

  6. This article reads like the type of conversation I might have with a particularly committed member of the people I meet at the anarchist book fair in Golden Gate Park. So, I guess that’s cool. Although I would say that the central mission of someone who so prominently features Hayek and the Austrian School of Austerity Economics that has worked wonders in Greece should be more concerned with getting the government off the backs of entrepreneurs– you know– like in this case.…..-news&_r=0

    1. You are such a complete jerkoff, it’s funny. I love that now it’s “Austerity” economics that got Greece into trouble. What fucking liar. This was their third bailout, asshole. Third. Not first.

      Greece’s problem is that its government can’t stop spending more of other people’s money and the Europeans have been happy to underwrite Greek socialism for some time now. Guess what? They’re now locked in a death spiral together, but of course, somehow, this is “Austrian austerity” economics?? Right. Of course.

      Stupidity or unrepentant liar – which is it? (I know it could be (c), all of the above, too.)

      1. massive centralized banking funding a corrupt welfare state wgose byzantine regulations make it impossible to legally start a business is the *definition* of free market economics. right? Which Hayek book did he argue for those things?

    2. “Although I would say that the central mission of someone who so prominently features Hayek and the Austrian School of Austerity Economics that has worked wonders in Greece ”

      Shitbag, I think you actually bleeve that.

  7. Read the book, Three Felonies a Day. The reason the USA has such a high incarceration rate is the thousands and thousands of rules, regulations, and laws at the local, state, and federal governments. We all break some law each day. There are so many laws on the books the USA is one vast prison, with the prisoners holding the keys to their cells. All of these laws give the government employees power to enforce. These laws create millions of careers and promotions for the enforcement bureaucracy; cops, judges, DAs, defense attorneys, prison guards, court staffs, etc. We need to decriminalize all of the non victim crimes. Humans are social animals. They try to tell others in the group how to behave. For centuries they gathered in groups, without a written government, but they enforced behavior on the members of the groups through; worshiping gods, a tribal chief, king, priests, or verbal customs. If you did not comply you were ostracized, or burned at the stake. Today we have millions of social animals trying to tell millions of others how to live. Instead of worshiping a god, or having a tribal chief to enforce our beliefs, the enforcer is the government, which everyone believes in.

    1. Yep, but commie hell-holes like Cuba and the PRC have laws that can put you in the slammer for holding your mouth wrong, and yet we have higher incarceration rates.
      So that doesn’t explain it.

      1. I think a big part of the problem is the way ex-cons are treated after they get out. A felony record greatly reduces the job options. Nowadays, all employers do background checks and drug tests–this eliminates a lot of jobs for a large portion of Americans. If someone can’t support themselves with a legitimate job, they’re likely to return to crime.

        1. I agree, it is a form of discrimination that bars people from entering the workforce after convictions for minor indiscretions, in many cases.

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  10. “To bolster these claims, the authors relate a large survey of theories drawing across the research fields of psychology (Looman’s specialty), sociology (Carl’s field), and criminal justice.”

    Slightly OT, but am I the only one whose skepticism about the entirety of the field of psychology has been greatly increased (from a somewhat substantial amount to begin with) by recent difficulties trying to reproduce studies?

    1. My skepticism had little room for increase. The whole thing is a fucking psuedo-science.

      1. Do either psychology or sociology really qualify as science? Neither field seems to produce much in the way of specific, measurable results. And often what results they generate aren’t reproducible.

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