24 January 2018

A Primer on Mass Incarceration

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It occurred to me that the term “mass incarceration” is received in one of two ways. Either you’ve 1) heard it so much that it’s become meaningless jargon; or 2) never heard it before and are wondering what it means.

The United States, the Land of the Free, is the world’s biggest incarcerator. Jail and prison populations swelled from less than 200,000 in 1972 to 2.2 million today. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. The way we pull off this superlative job of taking people’s freedom is a series of policies, practices and attitudes that we call “mass incarceration.”

My views on mass incarceration are in most posts. For an objective lesson on what mass incarceration is, there are many terrific (meaning short) and safe-for-work videos that demonstrate it much better than I can. The three here, taken together, are a very good, less-than-ten-minute primer on “mass incarceration” and they’ll introduce you to some thought leaders in the criminal justice field.

At the end of this list is a 20 minute TED talk from Bryan Stevenson, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned.

What is “mass incarceration” and how did we put ourselves in the midst of it? By Columbia University Professor and Board Member of JustLeadership USA Bruce Western.

Overview of the system using data from the Prison Policy Initiative.

This video from the Howard Scripps Foundation is correct in that there are 1.5 million prisoners – meaning people in prison, as opposed to jail, which has about 700,000 more people. It contains some errors (Rep. Bobby Scott is a Democrat, not a Republican) but it’s a good look at why the Feds can’t just come in and fix the problem of mass incarceration. I mean, if they wanted to do so.

This video is a bit longer; it’s Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk. It’s a good lens for all of the reform stuff you’ll read on this site and others.

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