A Sociologist Goes to Prison
Associate Professor of Sociology, SUNY New Paltz
Although I’ve never been arrested, never broken any laws (as far as I know), and never even received a speeding ticket (really, it’s true), last week I made my third trip in less than two years to the Shawangunk Maximum Security Correctional Facility (aka “the Gunk”). I was not there to visit a family member or loved one nor was I there to collect research. I was there to teach sociology to the inmates.
After parking my car in a lot that was closely monitored by security cameras and armed guards high up in a tower, I proceeded to the visitor’s center by walking next to a twenty foot fence that was covered in barbed wire. At the visitor’s center I was required to pass through a metal detector and relinquish all metal materials—coins, keys, belt, pens, etc. I then followed the Gunk’s librarian through a dizzying maze of no less than seven security walls and doors until we finally arrived in our assigned classroom.
In a few moments, I was standing in front of a group of twenty men who ranged in age from 20 to 60. Although I was instructed not to ask the men about why they were in prison, I had been told by the librarian that those who end up in the Gunk are there because of the most serious and usually violent crimes: murder, rape, assault with a deadly weapon, armed robbery, drug trafficking, child molestation. Most of the men in the Gunk will not be getting out of prison any time soon and some will never get out.
In the three visits I’ve made to the prison (speaking to a total of about 75 inmates), I can only recall two or three white inmates in my classes. The near majority of inmates, or at least those who signed up for the classes, were either Black or Latino (officially, the Gunk is 84% Black/Latino and 14% white).
As a sociologist, I know this is not surprising given that the national prison population is disproportionately comprised of Blacks and Latinos. This extreme racial imbalance has been described as The New Jim Crow by legal scholar Michelle Alexander who argues that the mass incarceration of Black men amounts to a modern-day system of racial control.
In New York, the racial demographics of state prisons are similarly skewed by race:
Besides not being able to ask about the crimes they committed, I also cannot ask the inmates anything personal such as where they came from. But it is no secret that many inmates in New York State come disproportionately from the five boroughs of New York City:
If we dug a little deeper into these demographics, what we would find is that many of these inmates do not come from just anywhere in New York City; rather, they come from among the poorest and most economically disadvantaged areas. And this is not just true for inmates from New York City. It is true for inmates in the United States prison system as a whole.
According to a sociological study by Becky Petit and Bruce Western, there is a very strong relationship (a correlation) between race, social class (which the researchers measured by completed level of education) and the likelihood of going to prison. For example, the researchers found that 30% of Black men without a college education served some time in prison while this percentage nearly doubled to 60% for Black men who were high school dropouts.
The correlation (some would even argue this is a causation) between poverty, race, and crime illustrates the importance of viewing the world from a sociological perspective. Poverty is not a single variable. With poverty comes lots of other poor things: poor neighborhoods (that often lack safe public spaces), poor schools (that often have high teacher turnover, outdated books, insufficient computers, and the subsequent high dropout rates), poor health and nutrition (asthma, diabetes, obesity are common ailments among the urban poor), and poor job opportunities (deindustrialization has made many of these neighborhoods into economic ghost towns).
But if you listen to the popular discourse about crime you’ll quickly realize that many people do not have a sociological understanding of this situation. People often fail to see (or refuse to see) the correlation/causation between poverty, race and crime. Instead of blaming the structural conditions that may contribute to a young, non-white male turning to a life of crime, many people blame the individuals directly.
They take a social Darwinist approach and argue that these individuals are just not fit enough to survive. In effect, such an argument suggests that these are defective individuals, a bunch of bad apples. But how, then, do we explain that so many of these so-called defective individuals come from the same racial and economic group? Is this just a strange and unfortunate genetic coincidence?
According to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the United States now has more people in prison than any other country in the world. Despite making up only 5% of the world’s population we now incarcerate nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners. This is a troubling statistic for a country that prides itself on being the land of the free.
If we really wanted to do something about our nation’s prison population we have to take a long hard look at the social structural reality of the criminal justice system. Blaming individuals is easy because it exonerates the rest of us. Why should we law-abiding citizens have to do anything if it’s those bad apples that are causing the problems?
But as C. Wright Mills suggested in the first chapter of his classic book, The Sociological Imagination, we are not just dealing with one person’s personal trouble of going to jail. Instead, we need to recognize that the prison population in the United States is a public issue and therefore it requires that we make societal, and not just individual, changes if we have any hope of shedding our newfound reputation as the incarceration nation.