A number of our readers felt the previous post on mass incarceration was incomplete or didn’t have enough facts to support the claim that mass incarceration is fundamentally about policing the underclass. They were not convinced that mass incarceration is therefore not analogous to Jim Crow, which was not only explicitly racial, but about creating a docile agricultural proletariat, not policed underclass. In a quest for more facts we scoured the Bureau of Justice Statistics and Department of Justice websites, as well as independent websites, and discovered that statistics on incarceration based on race, and to a lesser degree gender, are a dime a dozen. BJS is drowning in them. But class-based statistics, or even weak proxies for class, like income and/or education, are much more difficult to come by. That alone tells us something about how our consciousness is shaped and continues to shape the gathering of information about this social problem.
Nevertheless, after a few emails to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, we turned up the following information, based on survey data from 2004 (raw data is available here). In 2004:
- 28% of state and federal prisoners were unemployed in the month before their arrest. The national unemployment rate at the time was 5.5%. So the inmate rate was six times the national average.
- 88% of state prisoners and 80% of federal prisoners had a high school education or less. The national average for adults (over 18 years of age) was half that – 48%. Inmates are twice the national average.
- 70% of state and 58% of federal prisoners had an income of less than $2000 in the month prior to arrest. That means they had an annual income of less than $24000. Median personal income in 2004 was about $34,000. So about 2/3 of prisoners had incomes that were at least 1/3 below the median. By any reasonable measure (though not by unreasonable official measures) that is real poverty for households, and just scraping by for an individual.
In other words, the poor, uneducated, and un/deremployed are the targets of mass incarceration. The surplus population. Racial factors undoubtedly play a role, especially in likelihood of conviction and length of sentencing, but far less than the ‘New Jim Crow’ thesis implies. Moreover, there is at least one way in which the present mass incarceration is importantly not a system of racial control. The data suggests that middle and upper class Blacks – like the rest of the middle and upper class – are much more immune to incarceration. One likely reason is that, like the rest of the upper and middle class, they can do their drugs in the privacy and much less heavily policed environs of their middle class homes and suburbs. This class cleavage, moreover, is one strong reason why, despite the much greater social and political influence of Black voters and leaders than in the Jim Crow era, mass incarceration gets little play in mainstream politics, and much less attention than other (middle class) ‘racial justice’ concerns like affirmative action.