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Big Prisons, Big Dreams

Crime and the Failure of America's Penal System

Michael J. Lynch

Publication Year: 2007

The American prison system has grown tenfold since the 1970s, but crime rates in the United States have not decreased. This doesn't surprise Michael J. Lynch, a critical criminologist, who argues that our oversized prison system is a product of our consumer culture, the public's inaccurate beliefs about controlling crime, and the government's criminalizing of the poor. While deterrence and incapacitation theories suggest that imprisoning more criminals and punishing them leads to a reduction in crime, case studies, such as one focusing on the New York City jail system between 1993 and 2003, show that a reduction in crime is unrelated to the size of jail populations. Although we are locking away more people, Lynch explains that we are not targeting the worst offenders. Prison populations are comprised of the poor, and many are incarcerated for relatively minor robberies and violence. America's prison expansion focused on this group to the exclusion of corporate and white collar offenders who create hazardous workplace and environmental conditions that lead to deaths and injuries, and enormous economic crimes. If America truly wants to reduce crime, Lynch urges readers to rethink cultural values that equate bigger with better.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Critical Issues in Crime and Society


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xii

This book was written in response to troubling trends in American society. Since 9/11, America has been edging closer and closer to a limited democracy that accepts the curtailment of freedom and the enhancement of governmental power and control as the price for safety. This movement, however, has been underway for decades in the way America responds to crime, especially...

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Chapter 1: Introduction: Big, Dark Secrets and America’s Prison System

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pp. 1-19

This book examines whether a bigger prison system, such as the one we have built in America to control crime, necessarily makes for a better prison system. Many things make a prison system better. Being bigger is not necessarily one of them. Over the past three decades, the United States...

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Chapter 2: Prisons and Crime

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pp. 20-48

This chapter provides an overview of numerous issues that need to be considered in an examination of prison systems. These issues include exploring how philosophies, policies, politics, and economic factors drive the growth of prison systems, and whether there is a relationship between...

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Chapter 3: The Growth of America’s Prison System

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pp. 49-81

The United States has the world’s largest prison system. At mid-year 2005, federal and state prisons in the United States housed more than 1.4 million inmates (Harrison and Beck, 2006). Given the long-term and recent trends in imprisonment in the United States, we can estimate that the...

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Chapter 4: Raising Questions About America’s Big Prison System

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pp. 82-109

In the previous chapter, the growth and size of the American prison system was examined in detail. That examination brought numerous facts to light, but it did not attempt to explain any of these facts in any detail. In this chapter, several questions are raised about America’s prison system...

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Chapter 5: Explaining Prison Growth in the United States: The Materialist Perspective

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pp. 110-145

There are a number of different mechanisms for understanding and explaining the extraordinary rate of prison growth experienced in the United States over the past three decades. It is common to read or hear explanations of the following kinds:...

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Chapter 6: Prison Effects: Who Gets Locked Up

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pp. 146-172

The rate of imprisonment in the United States has increased consistently from 1973 through 2000, growing by 920 percent! During that period, the rate of crime rose 42 percent. Thus, over this thirty-year span, as imprisonment increased each and every year, crime was not suppressed; in fact,....

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Chapter 7: The Imprisonment Binge and Crime

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pp. 173-202

This chapter examines the association between crime and imprisonment in the United States since 1973. One of the interesting features of this period was that the number of people imprisoned and the rate of imprisonment...

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Chapter 8: The End of Oil and the Future of American Prisons?

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pp. 203-219

This chapter examines operating and reforming America’s large prison system within the context of two interrelated problems: the decline of the fossil fuel or “the end of oil,” and global...

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Chapter 9: A Consuming Culture

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pp. 220-227

The history of the American prison system is an effort to perfect the use of the penal apparatus the Quakers introduced in Philadelphia meant for the reform of the criminal offender. America, more so than another...


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pp. 229-239


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pp. 241-251


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pp. 253-257

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About the Author

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p. 259

Michael J. Lynch is a professor in the department of criminology at the University of South Florida whose research examines crime and penal trends, environmental...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813541402
E-ISBN-10: 0813541409
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813541853
Print-ISBN-10: 0813541859

Page Count: 274
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Critical Issues in Crime and Society
Series Editor Byline: Edited by Raymond J. Michalowski See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 191680099
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Big Prisons, Big Dreams

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Subject Headings

  • Imprisonment -- United States.
  • Criminals -- Rehabilitation -- United States.
  • Criminal justice, Administration of -- United States.
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