Under the headline “The American Prison Nightmare,” the New York Review of Books offers a combined review by Jason DeParle of “Punishment and Inequality in America” by Princeton’s Bruce Western, the Vera Institute’s report on safety and abuse in U.S. prisons, and “Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy,” by Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen. DeParle notes that Western may be underestimating the role that increased imprisonment has played in reducing crime, but “whatever the number, one can accept that imprisonment has helped reduce crime, while appreciating Western’s disclosure of the costs and sharing his sense that the urge to incarcerate has gone too far.” Prisons’ fate “affects the taxpayers who support them, the guards who guard them, the families they leave behind, and the communities to which they return,” says DeParle.
The Vera report concluded that U.S. prisons are dangerously overcrowded, unnecessarily violent, excessively reliant on physical segregation, breeding grounds of infectious disease, lacking in meaningful programs for inmates, and staffed by underpaid and undertrained guards in a culture that promotes abuse. Yet since 1980 the murder rate inside prisons has fallen more than 90 percent, which DeParle says “should give pause to those inclined to think that prisons are impossible to reform. But programs for inmate education, training, and drug treatment have been made scarce.” Manza and Uggen find that the more African-Americans a state contains, the more likely it has been to ban felons from voting. If felons had been allowed to vote in Florida, the U.S. would have a different president. Manza and Uggen say seven modern Republican senators owe their election to laws that keep felons from voting.