What if, instead of lifting the unemployed out of poverty, a multibillion-dollar project steadily drove poor communities further and further out of the American mainstream, asks commentator Christopher Shea in the Boston Globe. That’s how America should think about its growing prison system, some social scientists are saying, in research that suggests prisons have a far deeper impact on the nation than simply punishing criminals. Fueled by the war on drugs, “three-strike” laws, and mandatory minimum sentences, U.S. prisons and jails house some 2.2 million inmates – roughly seven times the figure of the early 1970s. Americans invest vast resources to keep the system running: The cost to maintain correctional institutions is some $60 billion a year.
“This is a historic transformation of the character of American society,” says Glenn Loury, a Brown University economist. “We are managing the losers by confinement.” On Oct. 4, Congress’s Joint Economic Committee will hear testimony from Loury and others on the economic and social costs of the prison boom. The session will be chaired by Jim Webb (D-VA.) Princeton University sociologist Bruce Western, who also will testify, says that of black males born in the late 1960s who did not attend college, 30 percent have served time in prison. For high-school dropouts, the figure is a startling 59 percent. “I don’t think the really deep penetration of the criminal justice system into poor and minority communities has been fully understood by people outside these communities,” says Western.