Review Essay—Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment

Review Essay-Invisible Punishment:
The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment

John Riley

Riley, John. (Winter 2003). "Review Essay-Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment." Alaska Justice Forum 19(4): 8-9. Over two million persons are currently held in American jails or prisons, and recent official statistics indicate that state and federal agencies spend over $27 billion annually to fund correctional programs, and nonfinancial costs of mass imprisonment are also having an increasing effect on society. Invisible Punishment, the first comprehensive discussion of the broad range of consequences imposed by recent policies of mass incarceration, focuses attention on "the collateral consequences of mass imprisonment" that affect not only on the offender, but also on families, communities, and the nation as a whole.

Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment
Edited by Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind
The New Press, New York. 2002. 355 pages.

Incarceration is a costly business. There are now over two million persons held in American jails or prisons, and recent official statistics indicate that state and federal agencies spend over $27 billion annually to fund correctional programs. Given our aging prison population, there is little doubt that costs will continue to rise in the years to come. Of course, the cost of incarceration cannot be measured in exclusively financial terms. Imprisonment imposes a variety of costs on inmates, correctional workers, and on the community. Some of these costs have long been obvious, while others have only recently come to our attention.

Invisible Punishment, edited by Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind, is a collection of articles focusing attention on "the collateral consequences of mass imprisonment." These consequences, often only dimly foreseen at sentencing, have a tremendous impact, not only on the offender, but also on families, communities, and on the nation as a whole. On a broad scale, imprisonment today typically involves felony convictions of poor and minority defendants, often for charges involving drugs. Some of the consequences of a felony conviction are well known—longstanding restrictions on travel, firearms ownership, and voting—but many additional restrictions have been enacted in laws passed since the beginning of the "get tough" movement in the 1980s. There have been hundreds of changes to state and federal law that impose additional penalties on felons, penalties that also impact families and the communities from which the majority of today's felons come. These include laws limiting access to public housing, federal educational benefits, jobs, and job training. This collection of articles brings together a set of concerns that until now have been discussed independently, in works reaching smaller, more narrowly focused audiences. This is the first comprehensive discussion of the broad range of consequences imposed on us by recent policies of mass incarceration. For this reason alone Invisible Punishment is a useful and important book.

Mauer and Chesney-Lind are well known and respected contributors to the criminal justice literature. In addition to collaborating on an introduction, they have each authored individual articles that appear in this collection. The book also includes work by others who are well known in the criminal justice community, including Todd Clear, Angela Davis, Vivian Stern, Peter Y. Sussman, and Jeremy Travis.

The articles found in Invisible Punishment touch on topics as diverse as family life, voting behavior, epidemiology, econometrics, and foreign policy. Taken as a whole, the articles raise serious questions about the viability of a national crime policy that seems grounded in fear of the poor and tends to reject rehabilitation in favor of punishment and exclusion. The essays use first-rate scholarship and the substantial experience of the authors without becoming mired in apologetics, formulaic criticism, or professional jargon. Some of the articles, like Forman's essay on minority/police relations, are focused on problems within the justice system. But most go beyond the system itself, suggesting that the impact of mass incarceration may be discerned in a variety of unexpected places in the larger society. In Invisible Punishment, we see the collateral consequences of punishment in the eroding status of poor and minority women, in policies that force innocent family members from their homes as punishment for the suspected crimes of others, in the struggles of communities forced to forgo the social and economic contributions of many of their young men, and in the spread of diseases like drug-resistant tuberculosis and AIDS. We also see systematic distortion in electoral politics and in economic planning and policies.

Mauer's "Mass Imprisonment and the Disappearing Voters," an account of the electoral consequences of current incarceration policies, is particularly thought-provoking. According to Mauer, four million Americans were prohibited from voting in the presidential election of 2002 by laws that disenfranchise convicted felons. Citing the work of sociologists Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, Mauer argues that disenfranchisement of convicted felons has changed the face of American politics:

Even with a projected lower turnout, [Uggen and Manza] conclude that disenfranchisement policies have affected the outcome of seven U.S. Senate races from 1970 to 1998, generally in states with close elections and a substantial number of disenfranchised voters. In each case the Democratic candidate would have won rather than the Republican victor. Projecting the impact of these races over time leads them to conclude that disenfranchisement prevented Democratic control of the Senate from 1986 to 2000.

Western, Pettit, and Guetzkow's article, "Black Economic Progress in the Era of Mass Imprisonment," describes another way in which current crime policies alter both the political landscape and our perception of our own economic progress. The authors argue that the failure to account for incarcerated individuals in standard economic statistics has resulted in misleading official reports on employment and economic inequality. Standard reports create the illusion of economic progress for many low-income Americans where actual progress is lacking. They do so through a kind of statistical slight-of-hand:

In measuring employment or wages, the predominately low-skill and minority men locked up in prisons or jails are not included in the standard labor force. Thus imprisonment effectively conceals economic inequality by excluding large numbers of poor men from official accounts of the labor market. As we will see…the economic progress of young black men has been substantially overstated.

According to Western, Pettit, and Guetzkow, conventional economic statistics show that the employment prospects of young, white dropouts improved between 1980 and 1999, while their research, after adjusting for incarceration, found that employment for this group actually declined during those years. Adjustments for other incarcerated populations produce even worse findings. Conventional economic statistics overstated employment for young black high school dropouts by 9 percent at the start of the incarceration boom in 1980 and by 21 percent in 1999. Overall, the authors of this piece conclude that mass incarceration "…conceals and deepens economic inequality between blacks and whites."

While many of the individual contributions to this collection shine, it is the overall collection that is the great strength of the book. The individual articles come together to offer a broad and compelling perspective on America's abnormal dependence on incarceration. The essays are united by a number of themes, perhaps the most powerful of which is the notion that mass incarceration may well become a self-perpetuating phenomenon—a vicious cycle of arrest, imprisonment, and recidivism. Researchers have only recently begun to consider the ways in which mass incarceration weakens social control in poor, high-crime communities. Emerging evidence suggests that we may actually promote increased recruitment to criminal careers in these communities when we incarcerate at the very high rates that have been common in the United States in the last twenty years.

Since incarceration on the scale now seen in the United States is unprecedented in modern, western democracies, it is not surprising that it should have unprecedented consequences, and the longer policies of mass incarceration are tolerated, the harder they may be to eliminate. The articles brought together in Invisible Punishment show how mass incarceration has undermined the status of minorities and women, diminished trust in the legal order, weakened families and communities, altered political outcomes and economic policies, and hurt our standing in the rest of the world. These are compelling reasons to rethink our sentencing policies and to reconsider those alternative sentencing options that have proven useful and durable in other democratic nations. As legislatures become increasingly hard pressed to find the resources required to sustain high levels of imprisonment, these options may come to seem more attractive.

John Riley is an associate professor with the Justice Center.