by Simon Balto •

Roughly 35,000 Wisconsin citizens will go to sleep tonight behind bars. That’s somewhere between the populations of Manitowoc and Brookfield, or, if you’ve been to a Brewer game at Miller Park in recent years, about the same number of people that pack the stadium for an average game. Expand the accounting to include Wisconsinites currently on probation or parole, and the number jumps to 100,000. Putting that number in perspective, more Wisconsinites are in prison or jail, or on probation or parole, than there are undergraduate students at the state’s six largest public universities (Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Eau Claire, Whitewater, and La Crosse) combined.

Nationally, the reach of the criminal justice system is even greater. More than 2.2 million Americans are behind bars. Roughly five million more men, women, and, yes, children, are on parole and probation. The majority of Americans caught up in this correctional apparatus are people of color–black men, in particular, though increasingly black women and Latinos, as well. Although scientifically the relationship between incarceration and crime rates remains vague, the United States imprisons more of its citizens, nominally in hopes of deterring crime, than any other nation on the globe — and by a pretty wide margin. The majority of these are petty or non-violent offenders, many of them arrested and imprisoned on drug charges. The proportion of incarcerated Americans who constitute serious threats to public safety is small.

It hasn’t always been this way. Until the beginning of the 1970s, the U.S. prison population wasn’t particularly noteworthy. But the last four decades have seen a nearly seven-fold expansion of the prison population. The public and policymakers alike used to favor rehabilitation for criminal offenders; now both track toward retribution in the form of lengthy imprisonment.

Why has this happened? What have been the impacts of this radical reinvention of the size and function of the criminal justice apparatus? Taxpayers fund the correctional system to a significant degree (in Wisconsin as of 2011, in fact, more public money flowed to corrections than it did the state’s public universities), but what have they gotten in return? Has mass incarceration made modern America a better, safer place?

Heather Ann Thompson, a Temple University historian, has been at the forefront of a multidisciplinary group of scholars that are seeking answers to these questions. In mid-February, Thompson was on campus as a Visiting Scholar through the A.E. Havens Center for Social Structure and Social Change, in coordination with the Center for the Humanities’ ongoing Emancipations series. Over the course of two public lectures and a faculty/student seminar, Thompson examined mass incarceration’s development, and explained the serious implications it’s had on the United States politically, socially, and economically. Echoing some of the Emancipations series’ central themes, Thompson’s talks raised important questions about freedom and “unfreedom” (prisoners, after all, are both legally and physically unfree); the relationships between race, justice, and democracy; and the shaping of modern America.

The story behind mass incarceration’s evolution is murky. Until recently, common wisdom was that crime was on the upswing throughout the 1960s, and that by the early 1970s, local, state, and federal governments responded in kind by implementing preventive measures to combat and punish it. But Thompson points out that the picture is actually markedly more unclear. The so-called War on Crime, which fostered the War on Drugs and in turn created the intense upward turn in the U.S. prison population that continues to this day, dates to 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson created the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance (OLEA). Soon after its creation, the OLEA was soon converted into the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which offered massive injections of federal funding to support state and local law enforcement in crime prevention and punishment.  State and local officials moved quickly to take advantage.

But as Thompson shows, when the Johnson administration began constructing this framework in 1965, crime rates actually weren’t rising. If Americans felt more at risk than they had in the past, it wasn’t actually because their world was more dangerous than at other points before or since.

Courtesy of Heather Ann Thompson. This image first appeared in the Journal of American History.

And moreover, when crime rates did tick upwards at the close of the sixties, it was at least in part the result of LEAA creating incentives for over-reporting crime: local and state governments had to show the need for crime-fighting funds in order to receive them. Though historical work remains to be done in explaining the timing and political impulses behind this dynamic, the result was the same: the sustained entrance of the federal government, and more importantly, federal funding, into matters of local law enforcement. When the drug and crime wars escalated, it was these financial and functional relationships between the feds and state and local governments that would prove to be their main engines.

What’s more, 1965 didn’t just mark the moment that the federal government began its turn toward consistent and forceful involvement in local criminal justice issues. It was also the year that President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, intended to protect African American voting rights and giving meaningful federal support to the idea of a racially inclusive democracy. In other words, as the civil rights revolution succeeded in finally prying open some of the most tightly sealed doors of American democracy, the growth of the carceral state served almost immediately to begin circumscribing the post-civil rights nation’s democratic promise. Much as it had in the post-emancipation U.S. South (one of the other critical moments of democratic possibility in American history), a significant forward step for racial democracy ran up against a dramatic expansion and intense racialization of the criminal justice system.

The relationship between mass incarceration and democratic integrity is far from abstract –because in fact, Thompson argues, the former undermines the latter.  Millions of Americans currently lack the right to vote because their states restrict the franchise for those serving a correctional sentence. The voting rights of 2.5 million more remain stripped, some for the rest of their lives, even though they’ve finished their sentences. One in thirteen black Americans can’t vote because of felon disenfranchisement.  In elections from the local to the state to the national level, this has been shown to have real impacts on outcomes.

Mass incarceration influences the political landscape in other ways, too. While a majority of people in prison today are nonwhite residents of urban areas, the vast majority of prisons themselves are situated in predominantly white rural or small-town areas.  In many states (though not, at present, in Wisconsin) the communities where those prisons are located include prisoners in their census counts.  In our system of proportional representation, this bloats the political power of those communities (the prisoners, after all, can’t vote). The physical relocation of imprisoned people from their own communities to someone else’s matters, then, in that it weakens the political influence and resource allotment of areas where prisoners come from, and bolsters that of the communities where they end up.

This shifting of political influence and power away from prisoners’ places of origin echoes and reinforces larger discordances in how different places and groups are affected by mass incarceration. Urban spaces in general, and distressed, low-income spaces of color in particular, have been dramatically criminalized over the past half-century.  Especially with the advent of the War on Drugs, city governments hired more and more police to conduct ever more aggressive patrols, surveillances, and sweeps. This is true of streets and parks and sidewalks, where citizens are often stopped and questioned, and sometimes arrested, for very minor infractions of the criminal code. But it’s also true in less expected places, like city schools. In recent decades, built-in security forces with deep ties to the broader law enforcement apparatus have become fixtures in most cities’ public school systems.  While there’s little denying that some of these schools need help for violence-prevention purposes, the intensity of the police presence in them has also resulted in the criminalization of certain things that kids have always done: skipping class, mouthing off, fighting on the playground, and so forth.

Mass incarceration also orphans children (more than two million kids presently have at least one parent in prison); hinders employment opportunities for offenders by creating a permanent stain on their record; and inflicts intense psychological trauma on some of those who spend time beyond bars. By removing potential wage earners from the community and parents from homes, it also concentrates poverty; dilapidated sections of some cities have begun to be known by the name “million dollar blocks” – not because of their real estate value, but because of the financial cost to the state of warehousing residents of that street in prisons and jails.

Courtesy of Heather Ann Thompson. This image first appeared in the Journal of American History.

When considered in its totality, then, the answer to the question of whether or not large-scale incarceration makes us safer may not just be a simple no. Violent crime, after all, was significantly higher across the country in 1995 than it was at the outset of the War on Crime. And so part of what Thompson forces us to consider is the possibility that—because of what it does to the social fabric, the way that it concentrates and exacerbates poverty, the means through which it limits opportunity—mass incarceration may itself actually be criminogenic. In other words, what if mass incarceration actually cultivates more crime, and makes certain groups of people less safe?

The takeaway from Thompson’s Madison talks, then, is this: if mass incarceration doesn’t demonstrably, conclusively make Americans safer and better off; if it siphons billions of dollars from our economy; if it erodes our cities and imperils our democratic aspirations and strains our social fabric – if that’s all true, is it really a system that we can sustain? As the evidence mounts that shows that we can’t, it also becomes increasingly obvious that there are few clear reasons why we should even want to.


Simon Balto is a PhD candidate in History at UW-Madison. His current research focuses on policing and police-community relations in twentieth-century Black Chicago.