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Brent Staples Introduction: Defining Décarcération T H E M ANDATORY S E N T E N C IN G CRAZE TH A T SW EPT TH E U N IT E D STATES during the late tw entieth century distorted the civic landscape in ways th at will be difficult to undo. The prison population was driven up tenfold, creating a large and growing felon class that is prone to recidi­ vism and therefore likely to spend m uch of its life behind bars. Children who grow up visiting parents and siblings in prison have come to view incarceration as a perfectly norm al part of life, if not a rite of passage into adulthood. The prisons have m eanw hile evolved into holding pens for the country’s poorest, sickest citizens—and become hot spots for bloodborne diseases like HIV and hepatitis C, w hich can be transm itted am ong inm ates w ho participate in unprotected sex or share dirty needles for intravenous drug use. The illnesses th a t fester behind bars don’t just stay there. In city after city, m ost of the 650,000 people released from prison each year return to a handful of neighborhoods that are also epicenters of HIV and hepatitis C. Poorly educated and marginally employable from the start, the people who live in the prison zip codes are often doomed to long-term unem ploym ent by state laws that bar them even from occupations that have nothing to do with their offenses. The im poverished, m ainly m inority com m unities w here convicted felons typically m ake their hom es are also shut out of the democratic process by laws that strip felons of the right to vote, often tem porarily but som etim es for life. It is estim ated th at just over 5 social research Vol 74 : No 2 : Summer 2007 647 m illion people were barred from voting by such laws. But the actual num ber of people who do not vote—out of fear or confusion about eligibility requirem ents—is no doubt far greater. Children w ho grow up in these com m unities do so w ith the unfortunate exam ple of parents—and even grandparents—who do not vote and who are gener­ ally disengaged from the political process. The prison zip codes are further underm ined politically by census rules that count prison inm ates as “residents” of the largely white, rural areas where prisons are built, instead of the largely urban and m inority com m unities to which the inm ates return the m om ent they are released (Staples, 2004). W hen statewide electoral maps are drawn, sparsely populated com m unities that would otherwise be too small to pass m uster under federal election law are declared legitimate districts (based on their prison populations) and given seats in the legislature. This exaggerates the political influence of the mainly rural prison districts while diluting the power of the urban districts, where the inm ates actually live. As m ight be expected, prison district legislators are naturally inclined toward the status quo. This situation is fully evident in the state of New York, where Governor Elliot Spitzer is trying to close unneeded prisons, some of which are half em pty for lack of inmates. Corrections officers and prison district politicians have mobilized to fend off cuts to the state’s $2.7 billion a year prison system, which has long served as a jobs program for failed areas that have been losing people for decades (Confessore, 2007). The prison-industrial com plex is im posing in its power, but not im pregnable. Indeed, in recent years, several states have begun to realize that they cannot afford to build prisons in perpetuity—and that prison populations are continuing to rise, even at tim es w hen crime is stagnant or declining. Alarm about this trend led the Council of State Governm ents to form the Re-Entry Policy Council, a study group com prised of 100 policym akers, including elected officials. The council’s groundbreaking report, which was generally ignored in the press...


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