Applying Philosophy to Our Prison Problem


How did the United States go from a country that incarcerated roughly 500,000 citizens in 1980 to one that incarcerates roughly 2.3 million today? Civil unrest and rising crime were used to focus public debate on ideals of law and order. Those ideals were then employed to justify a criminal-justice system that, given social conditions, runs counter to race-neutral, fair ideals of law and order. But absent an account of how the misapplication of these ideals was overlooked, the story is only partial.

What allowed “the misapplication of these ideals” to be overlooked, argues Jason Stanley (Yale), is “dehumanizing propaganda.” Stanley makes the case in “The War on Thugs” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The piece is notable not just for its content but as an example of applied, public philosophy, the likes of which is good to see in the Chronicle (and would be great to see in publications that aim to reach more than the particularly well-educated). Stanley donated his earnings from the piece to the Prison Policy Initiative, a choice he explains here. He is also donating to the group all of the royalties from the sales of his new book, How Propaganda Works.

As the topic of prisons is gaining increased interest from philosophers, including those planning to teach units or whole courses on it, it would be helpful for readers to mention in the comments other recent philosophical work on prison or on matters relevant to our understanding of it.

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Alex Guerrero
5 years ago

This is a great and urgent topic. I hope it becomes standard fare in political and legal philosophy courses and discussions. It’s one area, though, where I think philosophers really need to engage with work in other fields. So the two things I’d recommend starting with are actually by law professors: Michelle Alexander and John Pfaff. Many will know Alexander’s important work on The New Jim Crow. I’d also recommend Pfaff’s empirical work on what actually has driven increases in incarceration rates (he argues against what he calls the Standard Story that it is mostly about the War on Drugs and punitive drug laws). I’d also recommend Angela Davis’s work on abolishing prisons and alternatives to incarceration. Heather Strang also has done great work on alternatives to incarceration, along with Lawrence Sherman.Report

Jason Stanley
5 years ago

I’d like to second Alex’s comments here about the need to engage with other fields (I link to John Pfaff’s excellent work in my Chronicle piece). Michelle Alexander’s work is very important, and I also think that Vesla Weaver covers some of the same points in her “Frontlash” piece, which was earlier so I tend to go to that. But in general, yes Alex is right that this is one area of political philosophy where it is extremely to be connected to the work in history, political science, and law, and I tried to reflect that in this article (if you follow the links).Report

Alex Guerrero
5 years ago

Another philosopher to read on these topics: Doug Husak, particularly his excellent book _Overcriminalization_.Report

Seth Mayer
Seth Mayer
5 years ago

I’m really glad to see Jason Stanley’s very interesting article. In agreement with previous commenters about the value of looking at work by people outside philosophy, I’ve learned a lot from the work of both William Stuntz and Naomi Murakawa (in addition to some of those who have already been mentioned). I also can’t recommend the Marshall Project enough. That site is by far the best and most accessible resource for learning about current issues in the criminal justice system in the U.S. Angela Davis’s work has been mentioned, so I’ll also link to an interesting philosophical symposium on her work from a few years back: http://link.springer.com/journal/10746/30/4/page/1

Also, for those who are interested in a commentary on current efforts in criminal justice reform (that I’ve co-authored with Italia Patti, a lawyer), we have posted a short, forthcoming paper that can be accessed here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2616754Report

Matt
5 years ago

I want to signal some caution on the Stuntz book. I taught it a little while ago and found it very “lawyerly”, in a pejorative sense. When evidence that went against his view was presented at all, it was buried in the foot-notes, and often just ignored. There is lots of reason to doubt his account. For some excellent discussion, see this review by Steve Schulhofer. http://repository.law.umich.edu/mlr/vol111/iss6/11/
The book reads very much like a lawyer’s brief for a client, not as scholarship. That seems to me to be exactly what we don’t need here.

On the other side, I think that the work highlighting the connection between high levels of lead in the environment and increased crime (crime really did increase) in the 70’s and 80’s, is very interesting. We’ve not corrected our policies from that time, unfortunately. A good popular discussion is here: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/01/lead-crime-link-gasoline It’s surely not the full story, but shouldn’t be ignored.Report

Thom Brooks
5 years ago

There’s a lot of fabulous work on prisons and philosophy from Antony Duff’s Trials and Punishment over 20 years ago to Rick Lippke’s Rethinking Imprisonment. Richard Frase’s Just Sentencing is also excellent. I’ve also written one or two things on the topic, such as: http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415431828/

Work in this area can often bring together philosophy, law, criminology, public policy and other disciplines in exciting ways – or at least I find them fascinating.Report

Geoff
Geoff
5 years ago

Not philosophy but relevant to understanding mass incarceration: I recommend Marie Gottschalk’s work, especially her recent book Caught. She’s put out a couple of popular pieces in the last few months, most recently this excellent article in the Boston Review, which is basically a précis of that book:

http://www.bostonreview.net/books-ideas/marie-gottschalk-neoliberal-prison-reform-caught#Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
5 years ago

Within philosophy, let’s not forget Lisa Guenther’s work on solitary confinement. (Her book, of course, but also this piece: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/the-living-death-of-solitary-confinement/?_r=0 )

Also, quite different but still relevant, is Lori Gruen’s work with the Center for Prison Education at Wesleyan: http://www.wesleyan.edu/cpe/Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
5 years ago

I was somewhat surprised to see the term ‘our’ used in the title of this post, since I had the impression that this blog was meant to have international participation and an international readership, unlike the CHE which is more explicitly produced by and for a US readership.

I would be interested to know how Jason Stanley thinks he would have written his CHE article (I don’t have his book) if he had also taken gender and/or disability into account. Although he explicitly refers to “black males” only once in the article, it seems that his analyses of and remarks about mass incarceration and propaganda in the US are gender-specific, rather than gender-neutral, that is, his analysis of and remarks about the grievous situation of the disproportionate incarceration of American “blacks” seems to be more specifically about black men. Thus, his discussion of propaganda seems likewise (cis)gendered. Furthermore, given the significant number of disabled black people (all genders) who are incarcerated in the US (and elsewhere) and even executed in the US, that is, given that a substantial percentage of the black prison populations in the US is disabled, I would have liked it if there were some acknowledgement of this state of affairs in Stanley’s article, and ideally, some reference to the distinct terms specifically used to dehumanize these groups of people in his analyses of the role that language plays in the creation and usurption of political ideals, practices, and so on.Report

Christian Coons
Christian Coons
5 years ago

I’m glad to see interest this philosophically neglected topic, partly because it’s also the provisional topic of our (Bowling Green’s) annual workshop in applied ethics and public policy; we might widen our scope to the ethics of law enforcement more generally–e.g. something like “Prisons and Police”. Though the details are still up in the air, you might want to start working on some abstracts/papers. Each year, so far, we’ve managed to produce a volume associated with the workshop (published by either CUP or OUP); so it’s also a good professional opportunity. Expect an official call for abstracts later this summer. The workshop itself is usually held in March or April–more likely March this year.Report

Thom Brooks
Thom Brooks
5 years ago

Christian – many thanks and please let me know when call is out.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
5 years ago

Readers of this post who want to inform themselves about ways in which to integrate disability into analyses of incarceration, prison reform, etc. might wish to take a look at _ Disability Incarcerated_, Ben-Moshe, Chapman, and Carey, eds. (Palgrave Mcmillan, 2014). Read about the book here: http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/disability-incarcerated-liat-benmoshe/?K=9781137393234. The book includes a preface by Angela Davis.Report