University News

Panel discusses U.S. incarceration

Study’s authors urge greater awareness of issues surrounding domestic incarceration trends

Contributing Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2014

At a panel on U.S. incarceration Wednesday, some participants passionately steered discussion toward moral considerations and the impact of race.

Panelists at a talk exploring incarceration in the United States Wednesday evening veered away from their prepared remarks, moving “beyond the scientific research (and) bringing up political, moral and social issues” related to crime and imprisonment, as moderator Richard Locke, director of the Watson Institute for International Studies, said at its conclusion.

Approximately 50 students, faculty members and community members crowded the Joukowsky Forum in the Watson Institute to hear the four academics describe the results of a 2012 study they helped conduct. A total of 20 individuals aided in the study, which was entitled “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States” and was sponsored by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.

Though the panelists began by presenting their findings, they ended up discussing the ways in which social and economic inequalities influence incarceration in the United States, prompting the atmosphere in the room to grow charged.

Glenn Loury, professor of economics and social sciences, began his remarks by saying, “I’m mad as hell. This is not a joke. Brace yourselves, I’m about to go off script.” He introduced an emotional level to the discussion, leading a community member to ask how individuals can be “more active, more emotional, more demanding” when considering the nature of modern incarceration.

“Social formation of race plays an enormous part” in the unprecedented high level of incarceration, Loury said, adding that “racial disparity in the punishment complex reflects implicit and explicit racism.” He added that he thinks the current number of incarcerated individuals reflects a “reproduction of social stratification” that is an “abhorrent expression of who we have become as people at the dawn of the 21st century.”

Bruce Western, professor of sociology and criminal justice policy at Harvard, said he and other panelists “want to enlist university audiences in disseminating information found in the report and in the criminal justice system,” noting that the panelists have spoken at other institutions.

The panelists all said they believe the country needs greater social awareness around incarceration. Much of the mysticism surrounding this issue comes from the way society perceives felons and prisons, Western said.

“Prison should be a pillar of justice,” said Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. Prisons “should be elevated and held up for inquiry. They should not be kept out of our consciousness.”

The panelists all expressed hope that change was possible and provided ideas for ameliorating this problem, all while recognizing the difficulty of attempting to reform the course democracy has taken toward its current stance on incarceration.

“We need a more inclusive vision of citizenship that does not exclude and marginalize this group of people,” Travis said.

The question-and-answer session that followed the talk reflected the tension in the room, with many attendees eager to discuss the issue further.

Frank Sharber, a retired physician, said of the incarcerated, “We warehouse them and they become invisible. How do we shine light on these invisible people?”

“We must provoke people’s curiosity and reveal a hidden social reality,” Western said in response. “We must highlight people’s agency and ability to make choices. This capacity for agency is something that joins us all.”

Locke concluded by thanking the panelists for “inspiring” the audience with their willingness to explore new areas of discussion.

One Comment

  1. Stop blabbing says:

    What a massive circle jerk. They wouldn’t be criminals if pot were legal. This is not that complicated, this experiment has been done multiple times over the course of history.

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