Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

Prisons and Executions—the U.S. Model

A Historical Introduction

The United States incarcerates five to eight times more of its people per capita than Western European nations—though its crime rates for nonviolent crimes are comparable to those of Western Europe—and seventeen times more than Japan. The number of inmates in federal and state prisons in the United States has increased over 500 percent since 1970. Governments have been overthrown for being less abusive toward the rights of so many citizens. Yet, although this is a social crisis of the highest magnitude, it barely causes a ripple in the news media, with their emphasis on issues that concern the elite or the middle class, or in academia, where this sort of research is scarcely encouraged. Nor is this massive incarceration program an issue in the money driven political system, where politicians vie to win the honor of appearing to be “toughest” on crime by building even more prisons and lengthening sentences even for nonviolent offenses.

Monthly Review, we hope to demystify the booming prison system in the United States and draw out the important political implications for the left and all who cherish human freedom. In this introduction we will sketch out the historic rise of the prison system, and its crucial relationships with capitalism, neoliberalism, and racism.

The prison is so prominent an institution in present-day society that it is difficult to remember that the prison as a place of punishment is only a little more than two hundred years old. It emerged first in the United States and soon after in Europe, and its early phase of development was that of 1789-1848, conforming to what historian Eric Hobsbawm has termed The Age of Revolution. It was thus a product of the dual revolution that formed the basis for modern capitalism: the industrial revolution centered in Britain and the political revolution that took place in the United States and France.

Marc Mauer, Assistant Director of The Sentencing Project (Washington, D.C.), in his book The Race to Incarcerate (1999), argues that the history of prisons has been governed by two great experiments. The “first great experiment” was the creation of the penitentiary in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which quickly spread throughout the advanced capitalist world. The “second great experiment” (so far confined mainly to the United States) was the attempt, beginning in the early 1970s, to impose “a massive and unprecedented use of imprisonment” as part of a war on crime.

The First Great Experiment

Up until the 1780s, punishment by imprisonment was unknown in Europe or the European colonies. The common jail dates back to antiquity, but was used solely as a means of detention, a temporary abode for the prisoner until acquitted, fined, or subjected to corporal punishment. Corporal punishment was inflicted almost exclusively on the lower classes, since the rich were usually able to pay fines instead. All crimes not considered capital were punishable through public torture, mutilation, or embarrassment. Flogging was common. Branding with a hot iron was frequently practiced in Britain and sometimes in the British Colonies in North America. The stocks or the pillory were used for lesser crimes.

Numerous crimes or repeat offenses were considered capital crimes, and executions were public events. The death penalty was the final solution offered to compensate for all the other defects of the criminal justice system. The Massachusetts Assembly in 1736 issued a decree that a thief, on the first conviction, be fined or whipped. On the second, the offender would pay triple the fines and be forced to sit on the gallows platform with a noose around his (or her) neck, followed by thirty lashes at the whipping post. For the third offense, the culprit was taken to the gallows and publicly hanged. In his book The London Hanged (1992), Peter Linebaugh notes that those hanged for capital offenses in eighteenth century London were overwhelmingly from the working class, and particularly from trades experiencing the onset of craft-destroying manufacturing.

The rise of capitalism had resulted in substantial increases in pauperism and petty thievery, which became rampant all through Europe with the decline of the feudal system. In England, steps were taken as early as 1557 to address this problem through the construction of houses of correction or workhouses, the first of which was Bridewell in London. This type of institution quickly spread throughout Britain and the Continent. Unruly apprentices, beggars, “strumpets,” vagrants, and rogues were sent to the houses of corrections, where they were manacled, flogged, and forced to carry out hard labor. These institutions were widely regarded as successes. But they were primarily places of detention for minor offenders. Convicted felons were tortured, mutilated, deported, or executed.

The idea of using prisons as the main means of punishment, building on the workhouse model, had been promoted by the English reformer John Howard in The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777). But the first such institutions were to arise, not in Britain, but in the former British colonies in America. The Quakers, who had settled in Pennsylvania under the leadership of William Penn, had long opposed both capital punishment and corporal punishment in general, arguing instead for the creation of a system of long-term imprisonment. This attack on corporal punishment was further spurred by the American Revolution, which carried with it a widespread rejection of the British colonial system of justice. The most prominent figure in this revolt in the revolutionary states of America was Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Pennsylvania surgeon and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In his pamphlet An Enquiry into the Effects of Public Punishments Upon Criminals and Upon Society (1787) he proposed the introduction of “houses of repentance” as the chief means of punishing criminals. In a later, no less influential pamphlet, Considerations on the Injustice and Impolicy of Punishing Murder By Death (1792), Rush wrote:

Kings consider their subjects as their property: no wonder, therefore, they shed their blood with as little emotion as men shed the blood of their sheep or cattle. But the principles of republican governments speak a very different language…. An execution in a republic is like a human sacrifice in religion. It is an offering to monarchy, and to that malignant being, who has been styled a murderer from the beginning, and who delights equally in murder, whether it be perpetrated by the cold, but vindictive arm of the law, or by the angry hand of private revenge.

By 1786, Pennsylvania had eliminated the death penalty for robbery and burglary and in 1794 restricted it to first-degree murder. In 1796 New York, New Jersey, and Virginia reduced their list of capital crimes. Other states followed, so that by 1820 almost all states had abolished the death penalty, except in cases of first-degree murder, or had restricted it to a handful of the most severe crimes.

These reforms in criminal penalties, however, created the immediate problem of what was to be substituted for execution. Here Pennsylvania also led the way in 1789 with the transformation of the old Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia into the first penitentiary (a term taken from the concept of “penitence”). In the early decades of the nineteenth century there arose two competing models of prison discipline in the United States. One was the “separate” or “solitary” system employed in Pennsylvania, as exemplified by Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. In this system each prisoner occupied a separate cell (an innovation in prison design introduced in the new penitentiaries) and was kept as much as possible in total solitude. The prisoner would eat, sleep and labor in isolation in this single cell for the duration of the sentence. The competing model was the “silent” or “congregate” system developed in New York, and exemplified by the Auburn and Sing Sing penitentiaries. Here workers were assigned separate cells to sleep in, but ate meals and labored during the day together with other prisoners—but under a rule of complete silence rigidly enforced by guards. Both systems were supposed to rehabilitate the prisoners and each had its separate supporters in the 1820s and ‘30s.

These two U.S. penitentiary systems were admired and copied in Europe. Numerous European notables traveled to the United States to see how the systems worked, to study the architecture that made them possible, and to determine the relative merits of one system over the other. In 1831, two young Frenchmen, Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, traveled to the United States, under the commission of the French Minister of the Interior, to study U.S. penitentiaries and write a report on their findings. It was during this trip that Tocqueville carried out the observations for his most famous work, Democracy in America. But together with Beaumont he also authored a report based on their detailed investigations in U.S. prisons, entitled On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application in France (1833). Charles Dickens was another visitor to examine the U.S. penitentiary system. Writing in his American Notes for General Circulation (1843) of the conditions he observed in the penitentiary in Philadelphia during his 1842 tour of the United States, Dickens stated,

I am persuaded that those who devised this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution, do not know what it is they are doing. I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.

Unlike Dickens, most European prison reformers, including Beaumont and Tocqueville, seem to have been strongly impressed by Pennsylvania’s separate system, and sought to reproduce the same system in Europe. Perhaps the greatest example of the transference of this system to Europe was the erection of Pentonville prison in England in 1842. It held 520 prisoners in separate cells, with four separate wings radiating out from a single point, allowing all cells to be easily observed. Not only did this prison represent the implementation in England of the separate system, it also exemplified the system of constant surveillance that the liberal utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham had conceived of in his Panopticon Writings (1791). In the ideal prison, as described by Bentham, the prisoners would be confined to cells radiating around a central point, where they would fall under the surveillance of some “all seeing” supervisor—hence the word “panopticon.” The intention was to realize simultaneously within the penitentiary the key objectives of isolation, labor and perpetual surveillance.

The separate system was far more expensive to run than its competitor, hence most prisons in the United States and elsewhere gravitated toward the New York system. What was important in the long run was not the differences between these models but their similarities, which still exemplify prisons today: the emphasis on isolation (with prisons being organized on the cell model), labor and surveillance. Despite numerous attempts to reform the penitentiary over the last two centuries, the institution remains remarkably similar to what it was from the beginning.

The Critique of the Prison

Most contradictions of the prison system were apparent from the very beginning, and remain with us today. In France in the 1830s and ’40s, as Michel Foucault emphasized in his Discipline and Punish (1975), it was already recognized that prisons do not reduce crime; rather detention causes recidivism, bringing back almost inevitably before the courts those who have been released from prison. Workers in this period already presented sharp critiques of the prison system and of the profits derived from prison labor. Thus a French worker imprisoned for joining a workers’ association wrote in 1842: “One inveighs against the slave trade. But are not our prisoners sold, like the slaves, by entrepreneurs and bought by manufacturers.…Is this how we teach our prisoners honesty? Are they not still more demoralized by these examples of abominable exploitation?” (quoted in Foucault, Discipline and Punish). Working class papers in France relentlessly asked: “While misery strews your streets with corpses, and fills your prisons with thieves and murderers, where are the swindlers of the fashionable world?…The most corrupting examples, the most revolting cynicism, the most shameless robbery….Are you not afraid that the poor man put into the dock for snatching a piece of bread from a baker’s stall will not, one day, become so enraged that stone by stone he will demolish the Stock Exchange, a wild den where the treasure of the state and the fortune of families are stolen with impunity?” (La Ruche populaire, November 1842, quoted in ibid.)

During the 1840s in France, there were already protests against prison workshops. According to Foucault:

When a Chaumont glove-maker succeeded in organizing a workshop at Clairvaux, the workers protested, declared that their labour was dishonored, occupied the manufactory and forced the employer to abandon his project. There was also a widespread press campaign in the workers’ newspapers: on the theme that the government encouraged penal labour in order to reduce ‘free’ wages; on the theme that the inconveniences of these prison workshops were even more evident for women, who were thus deprived of their labour, driven to prostitution and therefore to prison, where these same women, who could no longer work when they were free, then competed with those who were still at work.

Fourierist papers, influenced by the ideas of the utopian socialist Charles Fourier, offered a radical critique of the prison system. Responding to bourgeois ideology, they argued that, “There is not, therefore, a criminal nature, but a play of forces which, according to the class to which individuals belong, will lead them to power or to prison: if born poor, today’s magistrates would no doubt be in the convict-ships, and the convicts, if they had been well born, ‘would be presiding in the courts and dispensing justice’” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, referring to an 1838 article in a Fourierist paper).

Jeremy Bentham, who grasped the essence of the prison early in his Panopticon Writings, pointed to the possibility of running a prison as a private enterprise for a profit, based on prison labor. “I would farm out the profits, the no-profits, or if you please the losses, to him who, being in other respects unexceptionable, offered the best terms.” On the question of the extreme exploitation of prison labor he remarked, “Nor do I see why labour should be the less reforming for being profitable.” Bentham saw his method of surveillance and control of inmates, equally applicable to prison and factory, both of which should be organized so as to isolate, separate, and divide individuals engaged in labor, while extracting the product of that labor.

Bentham, from the standpoint of classical liberal political economy, offered to make the punishment of the criminal a model of individualized, rationalized exploitation. In contrast, Marx, from the standpoint of socialism, argued for an approach to crime that was the opposite in all respects. “Crime,” Marx wrote in The Holy Family (1845), “must not be punished in the individual, but the anti-social sources of crime must be destroyed, and each man must be given social scope for the vital manifestation of his being. If man is shaped by environment, his environment must be made human. If man is social by nature, he will develop his true nature only in society, and the power of his nature must be measured not by the power of the separate individual but by the power of society.” For Marx, as he indicated in Capital, vol. 1 (1867), the majority of criminals were drawn from what he called “the lowest sediment of the relative surplus population” of the unemployed, which “dwells in the sphere of pauperism.” Every increase in the rate of employment tended therefore to decrease the number of criminals in society, whereas every decrease in employment tended to enlarge both the reserve army of labor and the criminal element. Under capitalism, Marx observed in a September 1859 article for the New York Daily Tribune (“Population, Crime and Pauperism,” Collected Works, vol. 16), “violations of the law are generally the offspring of economical agencies beyond the control of the legislator, but, as the working of the Juvenile Offenders’ act testifies, it depends to some degree on official society to stamp certain violations of its rules as crimes or as transgressions only.” Crime and punishment were therefore to be understood as social more than individual—both a reflection of the dominant economic and social forces, and a means for perpetuating their domination.

Marx’s observations were echoed by later socialists, who often saw prisons from the inside-out. Following the Civil War in the United States most state prisons continued to be run on the New York model. What impressed foreign visitors most about these prisons was the silence that was imposed on the prisoners, who were also compelled to wear striped clothing and walk in lock step. These conditions were modified in the Progressive era, but the harsh, vengeful, non-rehabilitative environment remained. It was in prisons of this sort that political prisoners served lengthy sentences, notably Eugene Debs, the socialist leader, who was locked up for opposing the entrance of the United States into the First World War. Debs’ indictment of prisons, in his Walls and Bars (1927), was a model of socialist critique. “Just as the exploitation of the many by the few has reached its highest cultivation and refinement under present day capitalism, and is now carried on more scientifically and successfully, and is yielding infinitely richer returns than ever before, so has the prison under this system been cultivated and refined in the infliction of its cruelty, and in its enlarged sphere and increased capacity.” For Debs “the prison as a rule, to which there are few exceptions, is for the poor…As long as the people are satisfied with capitalism they will have to bear its consequences in the prison sentences imposed on increasing numbers of them.”

If the penitentiary in the United States was from the first a system of class control, it was also from the beginning a system of racial control. Records of the New York State Prison from 1814 show that 29 percent of the inmates (144 out of 494) were black. In their 1833 report on prisons in the United States Beaumont and Tocqueville remarked: “In general, it has been observed that in those states in which there exists one Negro to thirty whites, the prisons contain one Negro to four white persons.” In the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, blacks made up more than 75 percent of the inmates in Southern prisons. These states often leased the prisoners to private entrepreneurs who employed them during the day in chain gangs, in what was called the “leasing system.” As W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in Black Reconstruction (1935), “In no part of the modern world has there been so open and conscious a traffic in crime for deliberate social degradation and private profit as in the South since slavery….Since 1876 [the end of Reconstruction], Negroes have been arrested on the slightest provocation and given long sentences or fines which they were compelled to work out. The resulting peonage of criminals extended into every Southern state and led to the most revolting situations.”

By the early twentieth century, even the critique of prisons as centers of drug abuse was already well developed. Thus Joseph Fishman, in his Crucibles of Crime (1923), reported on the development of drug addictions among inmates after their admission to the prison systems. According to Fishman, who was former U.S. Inspector of Prisons at the time that he wrote his book, prisoners “will use any substance which will give them the desired ‘kick’ or ‘jolt’,” including not only morphine but also “cocaine, heroin (a narcotic which is usually snuffed up the nose), opium yenshee (the residue of smoked opium) and in fact anything they can obtain which has any narcotic effect whatever.”

The Second Great Experiment

Reliable statistics on incarceration in federal and state prisons in the United States date back to 1925—at the time Debs was writing Walls and Bars. These statistics show that the incarceration rate (persons imprisoned in federal and state prisons per 100,000 in total population) has been higher in periods of economic stagnation (when the unemployment rate, and hence the reserve army of labor, is much higher). In the Great Depression the incarceration rate for federal and state prisons peaked at 137 per 100,000 in 1939, after which it rapidly dropped with the coming of the Second World War. (See Figure 1
, which shows the trends at five year intervals. Note: the peak year of 1939 does not appear in the chart.) The decline in the rate of incarceration in the war years was not simply the result of millions entering the military. Jobs were plentiful—jobs where one learned skills along with the opportunity to use the skills in better paying positions. Lots of overtime and weekend work boosted incomes despite the low wage rates.

Figure 1

Immediately after the war, unemployment and imprisonment went up but in the following decades the incarceration rate was fairly steady, so much so that that a “theory of the stability of punishment” gained adherents in the criminology literature. However, the incarceration rate began to climb rapidly in the 1970s. Even with that, it was not until 1980 (the first year of the Reagan administration) that the incarceration rate for those confined to federal and state prisons would finally pass its previous Depression era peak. But rather than leveling off when it reached this point, the incarceration rate kept on climbing. By 1999, the rate of incarceration in federal and state prisons had grown to 476 per 100,000—3.5 times the record set in the Great Depression.

This meteoric rise in the rate of incarceration, which began almost thirty years ago in the early 1970s, at a time when the economy was slowing down, appears to still be continuing today—with no end yet in sight. The number of inmates in federal prisons rose by more than 9 percent between 1999 and 2000. As Figure 1 shows, when data on incarceration in local jails is added to that of state and federal prisons, the combined rate of incarceration comes to 702 inmates per 100,000 in 2000 as compared to 458 per 100,000 a decade earlier in 1990. (While discussing rates of incarceration, we should keep in mind that there are now about two million people in federal and state prisons and local jails in the United States. The total number of people in prison [including jails], on probation, or on parole has increased dramatically during the last two decades to over six million by 1999—see Figure 2.)

Figure 2

There is no mystery as to why the incarceration rate began to rise in the early 1970s, since this accompanied the onset of economic stagnation, nor is there any mystery that the incarceration rate continued to climb in the 1980s, given that conditions of stagnation continued to characterize the economy for most of the remainder of the twentieth century. Such an increase is exactly what one would expect—based on purely economic factors.* But the skyrocketing increase in the rate of incarceration that actually took place—more than a 500 percent increase in federal and state imprisonment between 1970 and 1999—goes way beyond what can be explained by economic forces alone. How then do we account for a quantitative change so big that it obviously represents a qualitative transformation in the social relations of imprisonment?

This question looms before us even more vividly when a comparison is made between the United States, the world leader in incarceration, and the other advanced capitalist states. The U.S. incarceration rate in 1999 was five to eight times that of Western Europe and seventeen times that of Japan (see Figure 3). Yet, apart from violent crimes, and in particular homicide, crime rates (most accurately measured internationally in terms of victimization rates) in Western Europe are roughly comparable to those of the United States. Why then is the U.S. rate of incarceration so high, not only in relation to its own previous history, but also in relation to that of the other developed capitalist societies?

Figure 3

Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project has attempted to explain this historical acceleration in the U.S. incarceration rate, distinguishing it from both its own previous history and also from other capitalist states, by arguing that in United States in the mid-1970s,

The second great ‘experiment’ in the use of incarceration came into being. The first…involved the development of the penitentiary in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a means of controlling deviance through an institutional response. It ultimately failed to achieve many of its objectives, but it nevertheless represented a consciously articulated approach to the problem. The more recent experiment was to see whether a massive and unprecedented use of imprisonment would effectively control crime (Mauer, The Race to Incarcerate).

There is no doubt that the whole legal-ideological movement to put more criminals behind bars for longer periods of time in order to “incapacitate” criminals and bring down the crime rate, was the way that the “second great experiment” was rationalized. But it was also clear from the start that other, more political, motives were involved. The 1960s were a time of dissent and rebellion, against the Jim Crow system in the South, against the Vietnam War, against patriarchal institutions, and so on. The establishment treated all of this dissent as criminal in intent if not in reality. As Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman wrote in his diary, “[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to” (quoted in Christian Parenti, Lockdown America).

The ruling element in U.S. society therefore responded to popular challenges to its rule with calls for “law and order” that got louder and louder from the late sixties on (amplified as they were by the establishment media). The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) was launched in 1968, under the Johnson administration, as part of the Safe Streets Act. The LEAA provided federal support for a professionalization and militarization of law enforcement agencies nationwide. Support for “law and order” legislation gained further ground, under the Nixon administration, and was to soar again with the dual “war on crime” and “war on drugs” of the Reagan years.

Republicans and Democrats gave equal support to “getting tough on crime” legislation. Criminal justice expenditures grew (in constant 1996 dollars) from $234 per person (in total population) in 1982, half way through Reagan’s first term of office, to $454 per person in 1996, at the close of Clinton’s first term in office (see Table 1). The cost of this to the population, not only directly, but in terms of the loss to health, education and welfare spending was incalculable. States went on a prison-building boom in the last quarter-century of the twentieth century, more than doubling capacity, yet found themselves faced with more and more overcrowding. In Alabama on May 19, 2001, a federal judge declared that nearly 2000 state prisoners were being held wrongfully in county jails (beyond the date for transfer to state prisons) because of overcrowding in the state prisons. In the previous month one federal judge had compared conditions in one Alabama county jail with a slave ship (New York Times, May 20, 2001).

Table 1

Little or no pretense was made in the get-tough 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s that the war on crime and the increased rate of incarceration had as their object the rehabilitation of offenders. Rather, the stated purpose was to deter and incapacitate criminals through more severe punishment, including longer sentences, thereby bringing down the crime rate. At the same time, new categories of criminals were created through the war on drugs, which fell disproportionately on the poor and people of color. Certain actions, such as the use of crack-cocaine, were “stamped,” as Marx had said, as “violations” of the rules of official society, rather than “transgressions only.”

The supposed object of reducing the crime rate was pursued without any solid evidence that the crime rate would in fact be reduced. (The actual fall in the crime rate in the 1990s had much more to do with demographic shifts—the aging of the population—and lower unemployment than the increasing rate of imprisonment.) Conservative Harvard professor James Q. Wilson argued in his influential book Thinking About Crime (1975) that the correction system should have as its primary function “to isolate and punish” since “society really does not know how to do much else”—with the possibility at least of thereby deterring and incapacitating would-be criminals. Rehabilitation, in contrast, was condemned as an unrealistic goal.

In line with this increasingly harsh establishment approach to crime were the attacks made against indeterminate sentencing—necessary for rehabilitation to work in prison by giving prisoners the possibility of early parole. Instead, mandatory minimum sentences were promoted, beginning with the draconian Rockefeller drug laws in 1973. The mandatory minimum sentencing policies instituted in every state, —and used disproportionately for drug offenders who now represent one out of every four prison inmates nationally—have resulted in stiff sentences for what is, in significant parts of Western Europe, not even considered criminal conduct. Another landmark was Washington State’s passage of the first three-strikes-and-you’re-out law in 1993, which quickly spread to other states and to the federal government, and was applied increasingly not only to violent crimes, but also burglaries and drug offenses.

The results of all of this were predictable. In 1985, according to The Sentencing Project, offenders admitted to state prison served a sentence of thirty-one months on average, by 1995 this had risen to forty-three months, an increase of 39 percent. Studies of sentencing for property crimes in the early 1990s indicated that burglars in the United States received prison sentences three times as long on average as those in Canada, while U.S. larceny offenders received a sentence three to six times longer in the United States as Canada. Research has shown that it is not the rate of sentencing to prison but the length of sentences inflicted that primarily accounts for the much higher incarceration rate in the United States in recent decades as compared with both its previous history and other developed capitalist states. Moreover, levels of incarceration are highest in those countries such as the United States and South Africa, which have the highest income and wealth differentials (Mauer, The Race to Incarcerate).

Class and Race

Prison remains in large part a class and race phenomenon—and hence a form of social control. Table 2 illustrates this, showing a significant contrast between five states (all from the South) with exceptionally high prison rates that are also among the lowest in personal income per capita, and five states (all from the North) with exceptionally low incarceration rates that are also among the highest in personal income per capita. A Department of Justice survey in 1991 indicated that 65 percent of state prison inmates had not completed high school, 53 percent earned less than ten thousand dollars per year prior to their imprisonment, and almost one half were either unemployed or working part-time jobs prior to their arrest (Mauer, Race to Incarcerate). The rate of incarceration of black males in state and federal prisons in 1997 was 3,209 per 100,000, of Hispanic males 1,273 per 100,000 and of white males 386 per 100,000. This means that the black/white differential in male incarceration is more than 8:1, the Hispanic/white differential more than 3:1. African Americans represented a smaller proportion of those admitted to federal and state prisons early in the twentieth century than at present. Thus while in 1926 blacks accounted for 21 percent of all those admitted to federal and state prisons, by 1954 this had risen to 30 percent, and by 1997 to nearly 50 percent.

Table 2

The penitentiary system first arose in the United States as part of a revolt against the death penalty. In recent decades the United States has been at the forefront among industrialized capitalist states in bringing back the death penalty as part of an increasingly repressive climate. (Benjamin Rush, we are reminded, declared that “an execution in a republic is like a human sacrifice in religion.”) The pending execution (at the time this essay is being written) of Timothy McVeigh, to be televised on closed-circuit TV, will bring back federal executions, which have not occurred since 1963. In the period 1977-1999, 598 individuals were executed, 211 (or 35 percent) of whom were black.

“There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system,” Marx observed in his 1859 article on “Population, Crime and Pauperism,” “which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery, and increases in crimes even more than in numbers.” This rottenness had its ultimate expression in the execution of criminals, which, as Marx had remarked in February 1853 in a New York Daily Tribune article on “Capital Punishment” (Collected Works, vol. 11), reflected “a state of society” which “knows of no better instrument for its own defense than the hangman, and which proclaims ‘through the leading journal of the world’ [The London Times] its own brutality as eternal law.”

With the rise in recent decades of the supermax prison and the attempts of corporations to privatize prison labor and even prisons themselves, U.S. penitentiaries have come more and more to resemble the panopticon of Benthamism and the solitary system of early nineteenth century Pennsylvania. It is this model, moreover, that the United States is marketing to the rest of the world along with its neoliberal institutions and ideology. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary of John Major’s Conservative government in Britain in the mid-1990s, proposed mandatory sentences and supermax high control prisons, along with other U.S. innovations, and did a “photo-op” visit to the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

So far the rest of the advanced capitalist world has perpetuated the penitentiary model with all of its contradictions—but on a much lesser scale. But as capitalism with its gloves off—the globalization of the neoliberal order already evident in the United States—proceeds, it is rational to consider whether the other leading capitalist countries will at some point join the United States in pursuing the “second great experiment.” How likely, we might ask, is it that states will follow the U.S. lead in economic organization, without also eventually moving toward the same system of brutality as the United States (perhaps including the reintroduction of capital punishment) in order to defend their increasingly exploitative societies? Beaumont and Tocqueville remarked of the United States in the early nineteenth century that there was a monomaniacal tendency, among some elements, to see the penitentiary system as the solution to all social ills. More than a hundred and fifty years later, capitalism at its richest and most unfettered, in the United States, still has no better solution to the problems that it itself creates than to lock away a larger and larger share of its population, primarily drawn from the poor, in penitentiaries designed to isolate and punish, to incapacitate and deter, but almost never to rehabilitate.

If the introduction of the penitentiary was one of the greatest achievements of the new class power unleashed by the great bourgeois revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the subsequent evolution of these same institutions is a telling commentary on how fundamentally barbaric capitalism remains to this day.


* For notes to this essay, please contact the assistant editor.

2001, Volume 53, Issue 03 (July-August)
Comments are closed.