Mass incarceration no antidote to crime
On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City By Alice Goffman University of Chicago Press, 288pp $50 (HB) ANYONE following the media coverage of last month’s shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a heavily armed white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, might assume the collective social despair was because the tragedy was so rare. But Brown, 18, was one of five young black men shot dead by police in the US last month alone. His death is just the latest episode in the complex racial drama of American criminal justice policies.
Since the late 1960s, the US prison population has expanded eightfold. Sociologists have put a label on this phenomenon: mass imprisonment. It forms part of a broader punitive turn in which US society began locking up more people for longer terms.
No group suffers more from these trends than black men. One in three can expect to find themselves in prison during the course of their lifetime. There are more African-Americans in prison than in higher education institutions.
September 20-21, 2014 More than 60 per cent of black male high school dropouts end up spending some time in prison. In On the Run, Alice Goffman, a young American sociologist, explores what these statistical patterns look like for the people whose lives they document.
Between 2002 and 2007 Goffman undertook field work by living in a poor, majority-black neighbourhood in west Philadelphia that she terms 6th Street. Although it is far from the poorest section of Philadelphia, 6th Street’s best days are behind it. White flight in the 1970s and de-industrialisation have left behind a community of few jobs and much misery. It is a place where ‘‘police helicopters circle overhead, police cameras monitor passers-by, and police routinely stop, search and arrest people in the streets’’.
Goffman’s account largely centres on the lives of two figures: Chuck, the middle of three brothers, who lives in his grandfather’s house with a crack-addicted mother; and Mike, his friend who comes from a slightly less miserable background. Their lives are formless and transitory. If they are not in and out of prison, they are dodging court dates or angry girlfriends. For the six years the book tracks, Mike spends more than half the time in prison and 87 of the 139 weeks out of prison on probation or parole. There is a simple and compelling argument at the core of this book: high imprisonment rates and intensive policing have turned many black neighbourhoods into ‘‘communities of suspects and fugitives’’. In 6th Street, as in many places like it, Goffman contends a new social fabric is emerging where ‘‘a climate of fear and suspicion pervades everyday life’’.
It is clear that 6th Street is a community palpably lacking in trust. Men don’t visit their girlfriends for fear they may turn them in. Funerals are avoided or attended at great risk because the police are watching. Hospitals are similarly dodged and broken arms are fixed by hospital janitors with purloined supplies. The central irony is that this community, while so heavily policed, is so poorly safeguarded. Many of its residents are fugitives in their own homes.
On the Run is not a simple morality tale. Its characters are not the carceral state’s unwitting victims. Crime is still a choice for those who commit it. But Goffman’s larger argument is that choice is made much more difficult than it should be by the aggressive prosecution of lowlevel offences. After a period in juvenile detention, Chuck is too old to re-enrol in high school. Nearly half of the arrests made in the commun- ity are for technical violations (such as drinking while on probation). Huge numbers of warrants are issued for delinquencies with court fees, or failure to attend court. It’s much the same in Ferguson. Last year, fines and court fees were the city’s second biggest source of revenue and the local court issued about three warrants per household. Once you are caught up in the system, escape is nearly impossible.
Community life becomes dominated by avoiding authority. Young children pull down each other’s pants to do “cavity searches”. “Call list” (the list of approved people who can contact individuals in prison) becomes synonymous with close friends. But it also breeds new and alternative forms of law-breaking. A passport photo booth doubles as a place to buy illicit clean urine for drug tests. Prison guards accept oral sex and cash to pass drugs on to prisoners.
Imprisoning large numbers of black men threatens future generations too. An AfricanAmerican child born today is less likely to be reared by both parents than a black child born during the slavery era. To a large extent this is because too many of their fathers get locked up. One in four black children born in 1990, for example, had an imprisoned father by the time they turned 14. Paternal absence goes some way