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The prison is dying. By the mid-1970s this was the sentiment in the U.S. Incarceration rates were low and governmental officials and academics all seemed to agree that imprisonment did not prevent crime and that it should be used as a last resort (Wacquant 2009).
The prisonless scenario did not materialize, to say the least. Between 1975 and 2000, the number of inmates in U.S. prisons exploded, going from 380,000 to 1.9 million (Wacquant 2009). Today between 2.3 and 2.4 million Americans are in prison, around one in every 100 adults; in 1970 the ratio was below one in every 400 (The Economist 2010). Imprisonment has increased dramatically in Europe as well (albeit not as steeply as in the U.S.). In some countries, like the Netherlands, the number of inmates has increased by more than 200 percent over the last decades (Wacquant 2009).
The neoliberal penal state
The explosion of incarceration must be seen in conjuncture with some other major trends which have taken place over the last decades. In the postwar era, working life was stable, people worked full-time their entire careers for a livable wage (Wacquant 2001), and state policies were based on solidarity and intervention to prevent adverse effects of the market and reduce inequalities in society (Wacquant 2001).
Since the 1970s neoliberal economic and social policies have eradicated the stability and safety of the postwar era. The results are higher inequality, a precarious labor market, poverty and social unrest (Wacquant 10/11/2010, lecture). Wacquant (2009) writes that the increase in imprisonment is a direct consequence of this; the penal system is used as a tool to manage the negative outcomes - concentrated in the lowest, most vulnerable social classes - of deregulated wage work and less welfare protection. Neoliberal policies which weaken the state's role in economic and social matters necessitate a strengthening of the state on the punitive side (Wacquant 2009): the "invisible hand" of the market together with the "iron fist" of the penal state (Wacquant 2009).
The reason why the growth of the penal system goes hand in hand with neoliberal economic and social policy is that the former has three important functions (Wacquant 2001): Firstly, it disciplines the lowest class into accepting the new, precarious labor market as (most) people would rather have an underpaid, uncertain job than be in jail. Secondly, it simply warehouses those in the lowest class who choose not to work but instead resort to antisocial behavior. Finally, it compensates the deficit of legitimacy that politicians face as their role weakens more and more on the economic and social front. The same politicians, both Right and Left, who have given up the state's role as an agent for economic well-being and social safety, are being "tough on crime" to reassert the state as powerful and important (Wacquant 10/11/2010, lecture).
The "tough on crime" agenda has been propagated by powerful neoliberal think tanks, such as the Manhattan Institute in New York - the same intellectuals, importantly, who also have been at the forefront when it comes to advocating the state's withdrawal from economic and social policy (Wacquant 2009). These think tanks have managed to create a discourse where politicians, academics and the media all agree that the penal state is necessary to combat phenomena like "juvenile crime" and "urban violence" (Wacquant 2009).
To sum up, the explosive growth of imprisonment and the penal state is the western, postindustrial state's way of controlling and managing the poor lowest classes who have been "destabilized by the revolution in wage work and the weakening of social protection" (Wacquant 2009, p. 130). This is done under the veil of fighting crime, effectively criminalizing the poor and particularly targeting blacks (in the U.S.) and (second-generation) non-white immigrants (in Europe) as these are the groups most adversely affected by neoliberal policies (Wacquant 2009).
Crime rates and the prison-industrial complex
There are those who propagate that the penal state is a crime-fighting tool, i.e. that the increase in imprisonment is a result of rising crime rates. A look at some statistics disproves this claim. According to Wacquant (2008), holding crime constant shows that the U.S. was five times more punitive in 1999 than in 1975. Actually, over the last decades crime rates have been stable and then declining (Wacquant 2009). New York, one of the early bastions of the new punitive state, has been internationally hailed for its harsh zero-tolerance crime policy, based on its falling crime rates in the 1990s. However, this decline took place before the zero-tolerance policies, and cities without such policies (e.g. Boston and San Francisco) also experienced declining crime rates (Wacquant 2009).
Studies done in many countries find no significant correlation between crime rates and incarceration rates. What they do find is a significant relationship between the worsening of labor markets and the number of people in prison (Wacquant 2009). In sum, the increase in imprisonment cannot be explained by higher crime rates.
Another claim is that the growth of the penal system is a result of the growth of a so-called "prison-industrial complex" (PIC), the idea being that there exists a powerful network of private business interests which cooperates with politicians to expand the penal state for profits; this network is thought to be overlapping or at least related to the so-called military-industrial complex (MIC) which profits from war (Wacquant 2009). This theory is flawed, however. Firstly, U.S. judicial/penal policy, unlike military policy, is not controlled by a centralized governing body; the fragmented, highly decentralized nature of the judicial/penal system would make it impossible for any group to simply utilize it in their own interest (Wacquant 2009). Secondly, the notion that a private profit motive is the source of increased imprisonment makes little sense. While private firms do earn from delivering supplies to prisons, this is the case with all public goods. The prison system is very much a public system (Wacquant 2009). Wacquant (2009) also points out that the earnings from inmate labor is negligible and that the PIC is a not vital part of the U.S. economy as some claim. In 2001, the U.S. spent 57 billion on corrections; this was less than 0.5 percent of gross domestic product (Wacquant 2009). The prison is a political device, not an economic (Wacquant 10/11/2010, lecture).
The U.S. and Europe converging?
As earlier mentioned, imprisonment has increased in both the U.S. and in Europe. And the sentiments are the same - a panic over "youth delinquents", "problem neighborhoods" and "urban crime" (Wacquant 2009) - as well as the rhetoric ("war on crime", "recapturing public space" etc. ) (Wacquant 2009). Are these signs of a convergence in carceral policies in Europe and the U.S.?
Yes, in the sense that Europe has been converging toward the U.S. The rise of the penal state in Europe is due to the U.S. exporting its neoliberal penal policies. The aforementioned U.S. think tanks have forged intellectual ties with likeminded institutions in Europe, particularly in England which has traditionally been a place of market-friendly liberalism. Wacquant (2009) writes that England has acted as a "Trojan horse", meaning that U.S. penal policies have spread throughout Europe after initially being imported to England. This has been very successful, and politicians both on the Right and the Left have been eager to implement American policies (Wacquant 2009), helped along by academics who, for the sake of fame and influence, have sacrificed their intellectual autonomy and legitimized the new penal policies by giving them a poorly researched academic sheen (Wacquant 2009).
So, Wacquant (2009, p. 118) writes that "a new neoliberal penal common sense is thus being propagated across Europe", forming a consensus around carceral policy similar to the consensus around economic and social policy (Wacquant 2009).
However, it is important to note that European countries are not importing and imitating American policies blindly; they are adapting them to their own needs and traditions (Wacquant 2009) and many countries (e.g. France, Italy, Germany) are combining stronger penal regulation with social policies rather than substituting penality for welfare the way the U.S. has done (Wacquant 2001). Whether this constitutes a separate European road or simply a step on the road to American hyperincarceration remains to be seen (Wacquant 2001). It should also be mentioned that not all European countries have experienced a dramatic increase in imprisonment over the last decades. Sweden has seen a moderate increase, Norway and Denmark have seen stagnation, Finland has actually seen a decrease of more than 40 percent (Wacquant 2009). In light of what we have discussed, it should not come as a surprise that these Nordic countries also have displayed a relatively high strong resistance toward economic deregulation and welfare retrenchment.
But despite some differences and exceptions, the overall picture is clearly that Western, advanced societies on both side of the Atlantic have been, and are, moving in a direction to control lower-class populations who are struggling with precarious, underpaid work and other negative effects of economic deregulation and welfare retrenchment. The increases in imprisonment are a clear sign of this.