The Washington Post has a Sunday magazine. This week, the entire magazine, an unusually thick edition, is devoted to the topic of prison. All of the articles are written by people who are incarcerated now or were incarcerated in the past. The illustrations and photographs are also exclusively by this cohort.
The lead article is by Piper Kerman. She served 13 months in federal prison for money laundering and drug trafficking. Thirteen months seems like a lenient sentence for these offenses.
The illustration accompanying Kerman’s article is by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. He was sentenced to death for the murder of his mother and brother, but had that sentence commuted. Whitaker is serving life in prison. That sentence too seems lenient.
The title of Kerman’s article is “We’ve Normalized Prison.” But if incarceration is frequent enough to have been “normalized,” this isn’t the work of “we.” It’s the work of criminals. If they committed less crime or abstained altogether, incarceration wouldn’t be normal.
Kerman complains that “the American criminal justice system does not solve the problems — violence, mental illness, addiction — that it claims to address.” But it’s not the purpose of the criminal justice system to “solve” mental illness and addiction. The criminal justice system does not exist primarily to serve the needs of criminals.
The primary purposes of the system are to punish criminals and prevent them from committing crimes. It achieves these objectives, at least while the criminal is incarcerated. Longer sentences would prevent criminals from committing crimes for longer periods. But this, of course, is not what Kerman has in mind.
By incapacitating criminals, the justice system reduces violence. Violent crime plummeted following the harsher federal sentencing regime adopted towards the end of the last century. This isn’t the same thing as “solving” violence, but that’s not a realistic goal of a criminal justice system.
Kerman’s article is a smorgasbord of leftist cliches. She claims, for example, that “mass incarceration is a result of policies that have grown out of a history of slavery, colonialism, and punishment of the poor.”
Kerman doesn’t amplify. The use of lefty catch phrases suffices for her purposes.
It would be interesting to know how slavery and colonialism caused Kerman to traffic in drugs and launder money. She comes from a family of attorneys, doctors and educators, and is a graduate of Smith College.
If slavery, colonialism, and punishment of the poor were to blame for incarceration, we should see less, not more, incarceration as time takes us further and further away from this history. But that’s not what we see.
Why? Because incarceration has next to nothing to do with these phenomena. Incarceration has to do with the decisions of individuals, exercising free will, not to obey the law.
Kerman also complains about the denial of the vote to felons. She equates this denial with the denial of the vote to women and African-Americans in the distant past.
Kerman thereby fails to acknowledge the distinction between disenfranchisement based on immutable characteristics — gender and race — and disenfranchisement based on anti-social conduct. This failure by Kerman is symptomatic of her silent dismissal of the concept of personal responsibility.
If anything here is being “normalized” here it’s crime, not incarceration. Advocates like Kerman (and those like the Washington Post who give them a platform) treat criminal behavior as a normal and natural response to slavery, colonialism, imbalances in power, etc.
Accepting this notion will lead to rampant crime in excess even of the crime wave of the 1970s that led to the stiff sentencing regime in place until recently. It will eat away at the fabric of our society — a fate that radicals like Kerman may consider the just dessert of a “racist” and “colonialist” nation like America.