Context on the Carceral State

The American carceral state’s inhumanity and racism are not new problems, but the events of 2020 and the movement for racial justice have shone a brighter light than ever before on the inherent immorality of the current system.

As crime increased in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, politicians at all levels of government responded by passing increasingly punitive measures in an effort to increase public safety. Yet, many of these laws failed to adequately address the social ills underlying the rise in crime and often aggravated the problem. Intentionally and unintentionally, these laws, along with law enforcement and the legal system, have targeted racial minorities, especially Black and Brown people. In turn, the number of prisoners across the country has skyrocketed, from 196,000 in 1970 to 1,570,000 in 2010, many of them non-violent offenders. This rise is bolstered by the prison industrial complex, which benefits economically from high incarceration rates and which includes a number of private prisons, whose emergence has worsened the problem by creating a cohort with a vested interest in keeping more and more people detained. Black Americans make up a disproportionate number of those incarcerated and executed in our country.

Increasingly, the US carceral system is being challenged because of the racial disparity of its effects. Advocates are working to reduce the pipeline to incarceration by redefining what is an offense, what the consequences are of low-level offense, and by breaking linkages between money and detention. For those who are found guilty of crimes, restorative justice, the idea that offenders should be rehabilitated, has become prevalent across the country. Architects, governmental officials, and criminal justice reformers have been reimagining our criminal justice system and conceiving of buildings that limit detention and focus on rehabilitation. Total correctional population across the country has been falling over the last decade, particularly among Black Americans, showing that these policy changes can have a major impact.


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