Understanding mass incarceration as a grand social experiment

Date25 August 2009
Published date25 August 2009
AuthorNatasha A. Frost,Todd R. Clear
Natasha A. Frost and Todd R. Clear
Prison populations in the United States have increased in every year since
1973 – during depressions and in times of economic growth, with rising and
falling crime rates, and in times of war and peace. Accomplishing this
historically unprecedented penal pattern has required a serious policy agenda
that has remained focused on punishment as a goal for more than a
generation. This paper seeks to understand that policy orientation from the
framework of a social experiment. It explores the following questions: how
does the penal experiment – which we have called the Punishment Imperative
– compare to other ‘‘grand’’ social experiments? What were its assumptions?
What forms did the experiment take? What lessons can be learned from it?
What is the future of the grand social experiment in mass incarceration?
The term ‘‘experiment,’’ however, carries connotations quite different in the natural
sciences than in social developments. It is the rule, indeed almost inevitable, that an
experiment in the physical sciences does not disturb the course of the natural events with
which it is concerned. Just the opposite is the case with an experiment in current social
life. We are told that if an experiment in the New Deal does not turn out well, it will be
dropped and something else devised. The implication is that when the experiment is
Special Issue: New Perspectives on Crime and Criminal Justice
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Volume 47, 159–191
Copyright r2009 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1059-4337/doi:10.1108/S1059-4337(2009)0000047008
dropped, nothing has happened. But this is just the opposite of the fact; when an
experiment is introduced into a set of social relations, these are modified, and
modifications persist after the experiment has been withdrawn.
– Social experiments, 1935
In the same week that New York’s former (and now disgraced) Governor
Elliott Spitzer announced plans to begin closing prisons in New York
(Confessore, 2007), Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, announced that
California would be sending more than 7,000 prisoners to private prisons in
other states to relieve overcrowding (Vogel, 2007).
Those contrasting
incarceration policies should stand as a clear indication that what a place
does in terms of prison expansion is not necessarily a reflection of what has
been happening with crime in that place. Crime has been declining
nationwide for more than a dozen years – indeed, over the past decade,
we have seen the largest sustained declines in crime since World War II
(Zimring, 2007). In keeping with the national trend, both New York and
California have also seen notable declines in crime since 1993 (Travis &
Waul, 2002). New York’s response to the crime decline – start closing
prisons; California’s response – send prisoners out of state to stave off court
interference (which has since followed anyway (see Egelko & Buchanan,
Since the early 1970s, reliance on incarceration as a sanction has increased
so consistently and steadily that we have reached the point where the term
‘‘incarceration’’ is all too frequently preceded by the word ‘‘mass’’ (e.g.,
Clear, 2007;Garland, 2001a;Gottschalk,2006;Lynch & Sabol, 2004;Patillo,
Weiman, & Western, 2004). Long gone are the days when incarceration was
reserved for only the most serious, violent, or recalcitrant offenders. Gone
also are the days when incarceration was used reluctantly as a last resort. We
now incarcerate first-time offenders and career criminals; we incarcerate
violent criminals, but also no shortage of drug and property offenders; we
incarcerate the very young and the very old. Women and girls are being
incarcerated at rates unprecedented in U.S. history (Frost, Greene, & Pranis,
2006). In our quest to incarcerate our way out of crime, it seems few have
been spared. Evidence shows that we are not only quicker to send someone
to prison but more willing than ever before to send them there for protracted
periods of time (Blumstein & Beck, 2005). We are also more inclined to use
the prison than any other Western democracy. Indeed, the United States has
the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world
(Pew Charitable Trusts, 2007).
We no longer simply rely on incarceration as a punishment response of
limited or last resort, our commitment to a policy of incarceration is now so
entrenched that we have created the problem of mass incarceration. The
penal system has always been an institution of social and political
significance. Today, however, it is embedded as a cultural power. In our
life of symbols, the penal system is ever-present on television, in movies, and
on the written page. Mass incarceration is not just a culturally powerful
symbol, but it is now a tangible fact in real lives more than was even
imaginable a few decades ago. Today the United States incarcerates more
than 2.3 million people – or 1 in 136 of its residents (Harrison & Beck, 2006).
At least 1 in every 36 Americans now has ‘‘prison experience’’ (Bonczar,
2003). Prison is no longer an elusive, ominous, distant place that many fear
but few ever experience. What was at one time a back-up institution,
infrequently used, and a bit curious to the everyday person is now a core fact
of present-day life. Unfortunately, prison and jail have become routine
features in the lives of an increasing number of Americans living in the areas
most affected by our incarceration policies (Fagan, 2004).
In this article, we propose that America’s recent experience with
incarceration might be best understood as a grand social experiment. We
describe the ever-growing American use of the prison – a pattern that has
now lasted longer than a generation – as a social experiment in the grand
tradition of utilitarian political ideas in American history. We argue that for
more than the last 30 years, American penal policy has been dominated by
an ideology in which punishment became an imperative, and the prison
became a penalty of choice. We call this social experiment the Punishment
Imperative. By using the term ‘‘imperative,’’ we imply a kind of structured
intellectual economy in which the idea of punishment – as opposed to other
ideas such as reform or reintegration – becomes so powerful that it drowns
out any other voices in the discussion about penal policy. We hold that the
Punishment Imperative arose when all options disappeared (or at least lost
legitimacy) in the face of broad acceptance of the need for a punitive
response to crime (or, more accurately, public alarm about crime). Punitive
ideas became an irresistible force in post-conviction policy, and no idea
could find a hearing unless it first accepted the logic of the need for more –
ever more – punishment.
Unlike many grand social experiments, enacted by political leaders taking
advantage of the co-alignment of forces taking place at a particular point in
time, the Punishment Imperative is an experiment that has maintained
strength for decades and has been embraced across the political spectrum.
Nonetheless, it has been a major change in social policy enacted in order to
gain certain utilitarian ends, and may thus be seen as a classic kind of grand
social experiment in the pragmatic American tradition.
Understanding Mass Incarceration as a Grand Social Experiment 161

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