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Big Prisons, Big Dreams

Big Prisons, Big Dreams: Crime and the Failure of America's Penal System

Michael J. Lynch
Raymond J. Michalowski Series Editor
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 274
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1hch85p
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  • Book Info
    Big Prisons, Big Dreams
    Book Description:

    The American prison system has grown tenfold since the 1970s, but crime rates in the United States have not decreased. This doesn't surprise Michael J. Lynch, a critical criminologist, who argues that our oversized prison system is a product of our consumer culture, the public's inaccurate beliefs about controlling crime, and the government's criminalizing of the poor.While deterrence and incapacitation theories suggest that imprisoning more criminals and punishing them leads to a reduction in crime, case studies, such as one focusing on the New York City jail system between 1993 and 2003, show that a reduction in crime is unrelated to the size of jail populations. Although we are locking away more people, Lynch explains that we are not targeting the worst offenders. Prison populations are comprised of the poor, and many are incarcerated for relatively minor robberies and violence. America's prison expansion focused on this group to the exclusion of corporate and white collar offenders who create hazardous workplace and environmental conditions that lead to deaths and injuries, and enormous economic crimes. If America truly wants to reduce crime, Lynch urges readers to rethink cultural values that equate bigger with better.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4140-2
    Subjects: Sociology
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Chapter 1 Introduction: Big, Dark Secrets and America’s Prison System (pp. 1-19)

    This book examines whether a bigger prison system, such as the one we have built in America to control crime, necessarily makes for a better prison system. Many things make a prison system better. Being bigger is not necessarily one of them.

    Over the past three decades, the United States has built the world’s largest prison system. This system is ten times larger today than it was in the mid-1970s. This book examines why America’s prison system has grown so large and what the consequences are of having such a big system. From a philosophical and policy perspective, we want...

  5. Chapter 2 Prisons and Crime (pp. 20-48)

    This chapter provides an overview of numerous issues that need to be considered in an examination of prison systems. These issues include exploring how philosophies, policies, politics, and economic factors drive the growth of prison systems, and whether there is a relationship between the growth of prisons and a reduction in crime. Before we can begin to examine whether a bigger prison system is better, we have to define what we mean when we ask whether one type of prison system is better than another.

    For the purposes of this book, a better prison system is one that has a...

  6. Chapter 3 The Growth of America’s Prison System (pp. 49-81)

    The United States has the world’s largest prison system. At mid-year 2005, federal and state prisons in the United States housed more than 1.4 million inmates (Harrison and Beck, 2006). Given the long-term and recent trends in imprisonment in the United States, we can estimate that the U.S. prison population will surpass the 2 million inmate mark before 2010. Only a decade ago (1994), the U.S prison system had just managed to squeeze in its one-millionth inmate. In 1986, the system incarcerated 500,000 inmates, which was twice the number of inmates incarcerated in 1976. To make a long (three decade)...

  7. Chapter 4 Raising Questions About America’s Big Prison System (pp. 82-109)

    In the previous chapter, the growth and size of the American prison system was examined in detail. That examination brought numerous facts to light, but it did not attempt to explain any of these facts in any detail. In this chapter, several questions are raised about America’s prison system with the intention of exploring what lies behind American’s big prison model.

    There are numerous reasons that can be forwarded to explain the rapid rate of prison growth in contemporary America. For any of these explanations to be viable, they must not only explain the pattern in imprisonment, but must also...

  8. Chapter 5 Explaining Prison Growth in the United States: The Materialist Perspective (pp. 110-145)

    There are a number of different mechanisms for understanding and explaining the extraordinary rate of prison growth experienced in the United States over the past three decades. It is common to read or hear explanations of the following kinds:

    1. Imprisonment responds to crime. In this view, imprisonment expanded in response to a growing crime problem. As the problem of crime in the United States got worse, imprisonment grew at an increased rate both in an effort to incapacitate and deter criminal offenders.

    2. Imprisonment responds to public demand. In a democracy, it can be argued that trends in imprisonment should follow...

  9. Chapter 6 Prison Effects: Who Gets Locked Up (pp. 146-172)

    The rate of imprisonment in the United States has increased consistently from 1973 through 2000, growing by 920 percent! During that period, the rate of crime rose 42 percent. Thus, over this thirty-year span, as imprisonment increased each and every year, crime was not suppressed; in fact, it was as high in 1991 as it was two decades earlier. A further examination of the relationship between imprisonment and crime rates is found in the next chapter. For now, it is useful to remember that when imprisonment rises, crime sometimes goes down and sometimes up. In other words, in the long...

  10. Chapter 7 The Imprisonment Binge and Crime (pp. 173-202)

    This chapter examines the association between crime and imprisonment in the United States since 1973. One of the interesting features of this period was that the number of people imprisoned and the rate of imprisonment both showed a persistent annual increase. This circumstance establishes conditions required for a “natural” experiment assessing the impact of imprisonment on crime to the extent that one of the key elements, incarceration, was constantly increased. Following the logic of both the deterrence and incapacitation approaches, there should be a persistent decrease in crime,if incarceration is an effective crime control strategyand no other factors...

  11. Chapter 8 The End of Oil and the Future of American Prisons? (pp. 203-219)

    This chapter examines operating and reforming America’s large prison system within the context of two interrelated problems: the decline of the fossil fuel or “the end of oil,” and global warming.¹ Researchers who take an extreme view on the end of oil are concerned that a worse-case scenario will develop unless societies immediately begin to overhaul energy production, produce non–fossil fuel energy alternatives, and teach people to live on less by promoting sustainable growth as both an economic development strategy and consumptive value system. Some, for example, have suggested that the end of oil will correspond with the end...

  12. Chapter 9 A Consuming Culture (pp. 220-228)

    The history of the American prison system is an effort to perfect the use of the penal apparatus the Quakers introduced in Philadelphia meant for the reform of the criminal offender. America, more so than another other nation, has relied upon the prison as a means of responding to criminals, and has expanded this apparatus far beyond the level found in other nations. But, throughout its history, especially in the modern era, the U.S. prison system has not lived up to the lofty ideals of the Quakers.

    In the United States, the prison began as a means of reform, and...

  13. Notes (pp. 229-240)
  14. References (pp. 241-252)
  15. Index (pp. 253-258)
  16. Back Matter (pp. 259-260)