‘Lock Up America’ lecture provides insight into mass incarceration

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    The war on crime that began in the 1960s continues to affect America.

    Dr. Heather Ann Thompson of Temple University lectured Wednesday night on mass incarceration and how it affects society today. Thompson said she believes her work is where “scholarship and activism meet.”

    Thompson began by defining mass incarceration as the widespread jailing of people. Research used by Thompson showed that more and more people are being jailed even though it is not necessarily true that more crimes are occurring.

    Instead, what has happened is “new things are now crimes and old things have worse punishments,” Thompson said.

    This phenomenon did not begin recently. The war on crime began about 50 years ago, and now America has more people locked up than any other country around the globe, Thompson said.

    Statistics used by Thompson showed that black and Latino incarceration far exceeds white incarceration, and the fastest growing group to be incarcerated consists of black women.

    The problem stems from the idea that “mass incarceration was a policy decision,” Thompson said.

    Targeted areas are known as “million dollar blocks,” which is the term used for neighborhoods where it costs around one million dollars to jail everyone in the area for misdemeanor crimes. “Million dollar blocks” are not wealthy areas where the homes cost millions of dollars.

    In these “million dollar blocks,” parents, guardians and even youths are being arrested for misdemeanor crimes that are now punishable for more extreme sentences than they have been in the past.

    The effects? Children are left without parents, and foster homes are having more children arrive. The education system then is broken down because it becomes difficult for children to attend school, especially when they are moved from one foster home to another or they are left without guardians entirely, Thompson said.

    Another effect is that those arrested are then used for labor while incarcerated. Prisoners are exploited and work for far less money than people outside of the system, Thompson said.

    There is also a loss of political power. The incarcerated are moved from their homes to other areas of the state. 

    The result is that the census counts those who are incarcerated as residents of wherever they reside during their sentence. From the census, those areas claim greater political power, and the hometowns of the incarcerated lose political power, Thompson said.

    So while people believed the war on crime would make America a safer place to live, it has not, Thompson said. She added it is important that people are “caring about everyone’s public safety.”

    Max Krochmal, assistant professor in the department of history and geography, said he believes all students are affected by mass incarceration in some way and Thompson’s work brings innovative research to the subject.

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