September 20, 2002

New York Times Reporter Lectures on Prison System

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Fox Butterfield, the New York Times national correspondent on crime and criminal justice policy, spoke to over 60 students about America’s prison system yesterday in a lecture entitled “Lessons from the U.S. Experiment in Mass Incarceration.”

“Mass incarceration,” according to Butterfield, refers to the current prison policy dating back 30 years to a fourfold increase in inmates. The U.S. has a much higher rate of incarceration — approximately 2.1 million inmates — than any other country, he said, with the closest rates belonging to the former Soviet Union and South Africa. Yesterday’s lecture asked, “Does such a high rate of imprisonment deter or contribute to crime?”

“Experiment” is the word he chose to describe the prison policy. The rest of the lecture explained why.

“Prisons may be part of the problem,” he said.

Butterfield began with the story of how he had given a similar lecture but to a smaller audience: 25 inmates at Sing Sing Prison in New York. The guards locked him in the room with the inmates and left.

He told the experience of one of the inmates in the room, a murder convict from Manhattan. After over two decades at Sing Sing, the inmate was surprised to come across his own son in the shower. His son, who he had not seen since he went to jail, was convicted of armed robbery.

“Not only had he wasted his life, but his son had also wasted his life,” Butterfield said.

In the next hour, Butterfield matter-of-factly recounted his research of the prison system, some of which concerned his book All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence.

The story, he said, “represents one of the profound consequences of this experiment we have been conducting with mass incarceration.” This is an example of “intergenerational transfer” — the violence of the criminal lifestyle moving from parents to their children.

As support, Butterfield cited many statistics during the lecture. For instance, 47 percent of inmates have a parent who was previously incarcerated. Half of juveniles in custody have a relative who was in jail. Nationally, there are two million children of parents who have been incarcerated, plus another five million children with parents on probation.

Butterfield eventually addressed directly whether mass incarceration has been successful: “The answer is yes and no.”

He acknowledged the drop in crime during the 1990s but attributed it to several factors, including aggressive policing techniques in cities, the economic boom, a waning interest in crack in the drug market and increased efforts by social groups.

But in prison the story is different. He said, “There is very little real preparation for inmates to return home.”

68 percent of inmates in California, he said, were on parole when they were arrested.

“We accept such a high failure rate in our prisons because we fail to see … what must our prisons achieve?” he asked. “As we lock up more and more people, we are almost guaranteed to lock up even more [such as inmates’ relatives]. … This is a nasty dynamic.”

Another large issue Butterfield tackled was the treatment of mentally ill offenders in the justice system.

“The largest mental institution in the nation is the L.A. County Jail,” he said.

Butterfield cited a Bureau of Justice Statistics study estimating that 16 percent of inmates in local, county and state prisons are mentally ill. In the 1960s, he said, there was a mass closing of state psychiatric hospitals with the introduction of new drugs.

“So jails became the default institution, the only place open 24 hours a day that could take the mentally ill,” Butterfield said.

Butterfield offered few solutions to the problems in the prison system, conceding that research in alternatives has not effectively been done. He did ask, however, whether the $147 billion spent in 2000 on the prison system — prisons, courts, the police — could be more effective if directed into the poor areas of the nation’s cities in the form of schooling and drug treatment.

“This is a discussion that simply does not take place,” he said.

Archived article by Andy Guess