Michelle Zhiqing Yang / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Joe Margulies gave a lecture on incarceration in Goldwin Smith Hall on September 26, 2019. This time, he spoke about the topic virtually.

April 15, 2020

First Virtual Tatkon Center Event Takes on ‘Myth’ of U.S. Mass Incarceration System

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Despite social distancing measures preventing guest lectures to happen on campus, students still tuned in over Zoom to discuss mass incarceration in America.

In the Tatkon Center’s first virtual event, Margherita Fabrizio, director of the Carol Tatkon Center, welcomed Prof. Joe Margulies ’82, government, to speak to students regarding the size of America’s incarceration system, as well as some misconceptions regarding those who are incarcerated.

The lecture is part of the “Behind Bars: Exploring Humanity and Incarceration” speaker series. The series focuses on prisons, prison reform and community service with the prison population.

With an audience of approximately 100 virtual guests, Margulies opened his Zoom lecture by offering his condolences to all those affected by the stresses of the current pandemic.

Margulies described COVID-19 as “the most pressing humanitarian crisis of the moment, with respect to mass incarceration,” stating that both prisons and jails contain “a very high concentration of people who cannot, in any meaningful way, exercise social distancing.”

Many prison inmates suffer from conditions that put them at a higher risk of severe cases of COVID19, including diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

“They cannot take the public health precautions that officials recommend,” Margulies said. “You also have an extremely high percentage of folks who are especially vulnerable, particularly in prisons, either because they are elderly, or they are infirm, or they are both.”

The United States currently has the world’s largest prison population. With over 2.2 million people behind bars, it is both the largest number and highest concentration around the globe.

But “it wasn’t always this way,” Margulies said of America’s record number of prison inmates.

In the last 50 years, the U.S.’ prison system has seen rapid growth, skyrocketing 10-fold from just 200,000 behind bars in 1970.

Margulies cited the end of Jim Crow, a longstanding “formal mechanism of social control,” as a catalyst for this phenomenon. The dismantling of the segregationist system created a sense that “the world is careening out of control,” fueling demand for a more punitive justice system.

Margulies also referenced Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, noting that it brought about a surge of interest in the current mass incarceration crisis.

“It is by far the most influential book of the 21st Century,” Margulies said. “It probably has brought more people into familiarity with the criminal justice system and some of its defects than any other single work.”

Although the book has enhanced general awareness, Margulies argued that Alexander’s narrative has brought forth one of the biggest myths about the current mass incarceration issue in the United States: that the conviction of drug offenders is to blame for the problem of mass incarceration.

Under the “benevolent influence” of works like The New Jim Crow, Margulies believes that many people are developing the wrong idea of mass incarceration.

“They think that if we can just extract the low-level non-violent drug offender from the prison, then we will solve the problem of mass incarceration,” Margulies. “And [that] will end decades of systemic and systematic racial injustice.”

In fact, only about 15 percent of prisoners in state custody are held for any drug crime, and the proportion imprisoned for low-level, non-violent drug times is likely only one to two percent.

In this way, Margulies said, many reformers are targeting their efforts at a population that does not exist.

“That is a pernicious mistake,” Margulies said. “It has handcuffed our ability to respond to the reality of the largest prison population the world has ever known.”

One out of every seven people in state or federal custody is serving a life sentence.

“Many will die in prison,” Margulies said. “We are locking people up and keeping them there for essentially their natural lives.”

Margulies said that, although there is overwhelming evidence that people “age out of crime,” much of society and law enforcement denies prisoners a second chance at freedom.

“We deny the truth that we know, which is that people change,” Margulies said. “We know this with a certainty that is unmatched by anything else.”

Ultimately, he called on members of society to reconsider their relationship to criminals, and ask why we believe that those who commit crimes must remain imprisoned forever.

“We have wedded ourselves to the idea that those who commit violent crimes are simply bad people,” Margulies said. “Unless we confront that fallacy, we will never, ever alter the reality of mass incarceration.”

Clarification, April 15, 8:35 p.m.: This story was updated to reflect the fact that 15 percent of state prisoners are held for any drug crime, not simply non-violent drug offenses.