Let’s Watch: Prison State

We’re number 1. We’re number 1. We’re number 1. In the United States we incarcerate more people than any other country in the world. In fact, “The United States has about five percent of the world’s population and houses around 25 percent of its prisoners.” After reading a sobering statistic like that, the sociological question you should be asking is… why? In this post Nathan Palmer will answer this question and introduce you to the film Prison State by Frontline.

The United States imprisons more of it’s people than any other country in the world. Does this mean that Americans have the lowest moral character of any country in the world? That is, are we just crummy people making crummy choices? Well, lets play that one out. First, take a look at the chart below that shows the U.S. incarceration rate over time.

Chart of Incarceration Rate by Time

What happened around 1980? Did we all lose our minds? Can we blame the hockey stick like growth to lots of individuals making poor choices? Probably not.

Around that time period our federal drug policies changed and we declared “War on Drugs”. In 1986 the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was signed into law and everything changed. Before this law the maximum sentence for possession of any narcotic was 1 year in jail. After this law, the death penalty was authorized for some drug offenses. The “War on Drugs” brought with it far more severe punishments for drug users and dealers.

However, this alone cannot explain mass incarceration. Let’s watch Frontline’s documentary Prison State and learn more about how we became the leader in imprisonment. After you watch, go to the dig deeper questions to reflect on what you learned.

NOTE: The embeded video above is only the first chapter of the film. Watch the entire documentary here: http://video.pbs.org/video/2365235229/

Dig Deeper:

  1. Imagine that a friend of yours has just told you that he or she believes that mass incarceration stems from bad people making bad choices. Drawing from the evidence discussed in Prison State, make a sociological argument that mass incarceration is the product of changes to our social institutions and social policies.
  2. After watching the film, what role does mental health play in mass incarceration? How is prison used to treat the mentally ill?
  3. Look at this map of incarceration rates by state. What do you make of the fact that The South imprisons more people than The North?
  4. What public policy and law changes do you think should be made to reduce the U.S. incarceration rate?