BOOK REVIEWS (2013) – Jones and Mauer’s (2013) Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling

18 August 2013


What happens for instance when in a year, TV crime coverage doubles, murder coverage triples, but the crime rate does not change?


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Sabrina Jones & Marc Mauer’s (2013)[1] Race To Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling (originally published 1999)

This graphic nonfiction book offers an illustrated version of Mauer’s (1999) Race to Incarcerate. It contextualizes the history and issues surrounding mass incarceration and especially the War on Drugs, which provides an enormous input to the prison population.

The United States has the highest total number of prisoners as well as the highest per capita imprisonment rate of any country in the world. To get the scale of this, the US has 2,193,798 incarcerated people in a total population of approximately 300 million, or 737 people for every 100,000, while India, which has a population nearly four times that of the United States (1.1 billion people), has only 332,112 people incarcerated, or 30 people per 100,000.[2]

Some other ways to look at this: the combined total prison population of the two most populated countries in the world (India and China) have 300,000 fewer incarcerated individuals. Taking the total prison populations of Brazil, India, Mexico, Ukraine, South Africa, Poland, England/Wales, Japan, Turkey, Kenya, Nigeria, Australia, Scotland, and North Ireland together still comes up some 500,000 incarcerated people less than the United States. The prison population total for Russia and China combined exceeds the US total by only 10%.[3]

The following consists mostly of quotations from the book; I hardly need add additional commentary. I quote less than I might about the so-called War on Drugs because all of the information the authors present has utter relevance that really, you simply should read the book yourself, especially as it reads quickly (in its graphic format).

Mauer reports, “In 1968, 72% of Americans told pollsters the goal of prison should be rehabilitation” (19). How come people were smarter and more compassionate in 1968 compared to now?

The Bush era Justice Department ignored a 1983 study by the Reagan Justice Department: “Incapacitation does not appear to achieve large reductions in crime …” but these polices “can cause enormous increases in the prison population” They preferred a 1987 study that claimed, “Incarcerating a single offender saves $405,000.” Even though the analysis was widely criticized. “Compound catastrophic error” (46).

Often, one hears the idea that incarceration works, and that the decline in the crime rate (past and current) results from mass incarceration. However:

in the 1970s, crime generally went up. Then it declined from 1980 to 1984. It went up gain from 1984 to 1991, then it began to decline in 1992. All this time, the prison population kept on going up. (74).

One should ask how the rate of crime can rise and fall but the number of people incarcerated should not only continue to increase but could actually increase to an extraordinary degree. And even though these facts were well in evidence:

Between 1980 and 1993, Federal spending on employment and training programs had been cut nearly in half. In 1991, a new US Attorney General hit the ground running. By the time Barr left office, the Reagan/Bush agenda was in full effect. Spending on corrections had gone up by 521% (47).

All this being so, why didn’t the general populace notice? Besides the fact that the racial disparity of mass incarceration makes it invisible to most whites, additionally, “In a year, TV crime coverage doubled, murder coverage tripled, but the crime rate had not changed” (59). So crime didn’t go up, but general anxiety (particularly among whites, hence politicians) did.

But getting tough on crime worked, didn’t it? Two examples:

Of all crimes, burglary went down the most. From 1980 to 2000 it dropped 57%. If you thought “It’s because more burglars are locked up” you’d be wrong. Compared to other offenders the number of burglars in prison went up the least. What else could explain the drop in burglary? Perhaps burglars turned to others sources of cash. Robbery is quicker. It went up. Drug dealing can be easier. It went up too” (76).

The city of New York had a dramatic reduction in crime in the 1990s. Homicide plummeted from 2,245 in 1990 to 597 in 2003. Violent crime was down 69%. Property crimes were down 70%. Mayor Rudy Giuliani was quick to take credit. “We cracked down on minor ‘quality of life’ crimes.” However, New York’s prison population grew much less than the nation’s [19% versus 68%] and its jail population shrank [-17% versus 71%]. New York’s success was not linked to any rise in prison use. New York spent more on housing, stabilizing volatile areas like the South Bronx. Compare it to Chicago, which lets its housing decay, an puts it money in law enforcement. Communities frayed. Crime shot up (77–8).

“The economic boom of the ‘90s brought jobs—the surest way to prevent crimes” (78).

When it comes to the War on Drugs, so much bogusness surrounds discussions of it. The fact that the War on Drugs has disparately affected African-American communities gets dismissed with, “It’s unfortunate, yes, but if they are doing drugs …” &c. And so we can never repeat this[4] from Tim Wise often enough:

But listen up my fellow white Americans: Our children are no better, no more moral, and no more decent than anyone else. Dysfunction is all around us, whether we choose to recognize it or not, and not only in terms of school shootings. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and the Monitoring the Future report from the National Institutes on Drug Abuse, it is our children, and not those of the urban ghetto who are most likely to use drugs. White high school students are seven times more likely than blacks to have used cocaine and heroin, eight times more likely to have smoked crack, and ten times more likely to have used LSD. What’s more, it is white youth between the ages of 12-17 who are more likely to sell drugs: one third more likely than their black counterparts; and it is white youth who are twice as likely to binge drink, and nearly twice as likely as blacks to drive drunk; and white males are twice as likely as black males to bring a weapon to school (from here).

So we ought to ask, if white high school students at least seven times more likely to have used drugs than black high school students, how do African-Americans account for a proportionately disparate percentage of drug arrests? If white kids commit crimes by multiples more often than black kids, then shouldn’t at the very least 1 in 3 white kids spend time in prison as well? Yet that does not happen. Nor does it stop at black youth.

The number of drug users was down from 14.1% in 1979 to 6.3% in 2000. African-Americans make up 13% of the populations, 21% of drug arrest in 1980, 36% of drug arrests in 1992. [And] Blacks and whites have about the same rate of drug use (91).

Since “most people buy drugs from someone of their own racial or ethnic background” (93), how can African-Americans account for 47% of arrests for drug sales, when African-Americans comprise only 22% of the population?

Remarkably, “A study of low-income children in Philadelphia found those exposed to any form of cocaine in the womb fared no worse than their drug-free counterparts” (95).  And even though “there was no data on crack-addicted babies … early media reports were alarming” (95). Instead, the study found, “Many suffered from poor nutrition, smoking, and lack of pre-natal care” (95). So again, false or inaccurate reporting in the media created anxiety in the (white) population without a basis.

Since a vast proportion of the incarcerated serve time for drug offenses, whether addicts or not, the California study that found that each dollar invested in substance abuse treatment reduced necessary spending on crime and hospitalization by seven dollars, the rational approach from a fiscal standpoint points to substance prevention programs, to say nothing of an end of drug prohibition.

Bottom line, in something of a slogan: “we should invest in community based treatment and prevention programs” (105). Incarceration doesn’t work and mass incarceration massively doesn’t work.

The plains facts, presented in this clear overview, help to throw in very stark relief the so-called War on Drugs,[5] but what it somewhat underemphasizes—partly because it does not take this as a focus—involves the role of the media. The authors do not the increase of violence reported in the media compared to the unchanged crime rate, and they expose the myth of crack-babies as a myth. They get to and underlying heart of this when they write:

The criminal justice system is reactive and punitive. It only comes into play after [a long chain of events, involve police, courts, plea bargains, incarceration, parole, &c]. This may seem like the only way, when criminals are seen as alien to the rest of us (10).

Besides committed racists, who actively set out to demonize people of color, how do folks in general come to see criminals as alien to the rest of us except via our information sources, principally the media. Notice that Nixon—who took an unambiguously racist approach to a “Negro problem”— “Nixon ran in 1968 for law and order, sending an unsubtle message to whites concerned with a supposed rise in black criminality” (23).

Semi-recently, someone I know go assaulted and badly hurt somewhat near where I live. He did not (or could not) identify the race of his attackers. And since that attack, I have gone out of my way to make sure that my partner doesn’t have to walk the quarter mile or so to and from work, because while I rationally acknowledge that any risk to my partner walking probably remains very low, the consequences of being wrong about this very low-potential threat seem serious enough that I stay motivated to do something about it, i.e., drive him to work.

Honestly, I believe white guys attacked my friend, and not just because I know that most crime occurs intra-racially (rather than inter-racially). So, because I cannot convincingly banish my worry—because I cannot dismiss entirely the potential threat given the direness of the potential consequences—this seems related to the sort of thing identified in “whites concerned with a supposed rise in black criminality”.

But, in the first place, I have certainly argued with people who want to say “what if” that we should make decisions based on plausibilities not possibilities. We normally operate this way. Despite the possibility that I might get into a fatal driving accident, the implausibility of this outweighs the possible dangers (usually) and I get in the car and drive. In the case of my partner, I clearly recognize that I allow a possibility to trump plausibility, and the reason (I also clearly recognize) arises from how I imagine the (possible) direness of the consequences. This informs why I don’t neurotically refuse to drive—my own sense of self-convenience or whatnot makes me not take the (possible) dire consequences of a fatal driving accident seriously, even though statistics clearly demonstrate that driving represents the most dangerous form of travel.

I say this so two things remain clear: (1) when we start making decisions based on possibilities rather than plausibilities we create problems; (2) I sometimes cannot make decision (or talk myself out of decisions) because the potential consequences of certain possibilities seem so dire.

Obviously, many people will feel concern and worry on behalf of their loved ones, and that most likely largely informs the fear of those “whites concerned with a supposed rise in black criminality.” From what I’ve written so far, I won’t try to ignore how it amounts essentially to a non-objection to tell such white people, “You should not allow your decision making to be guided by a mere possibility, since the real patterns of criminality, especially between races, makes it implausible that you or your loved ones will get victimized by black people.” The response my well come, “Yes, but what if it does happen that way?” We can try to batter down that irrational construction all we want, but it really does stand as an unanswerable question. One would have to say, “It’s not even possible for that to happen.”

What I want to keep very clear here involves the difference between the (non-rational) question, “What if someone hurts my loved one?” versus the (irrational) question, “What if a [supposedly criminal] black person hurts my loved one” remembering, as we do, that the media (our information sources) principally become the major input to framing this question.  One has to call it perfectly non-rational to admit that we cannot entirely and completely eliminating the risk of violence to a loved one, because here the “nemesis” consists essentially of random bad luck, random violence. On the other hand, it becomes actually irrational (not non-rational), if not also explicitly racist, to imagine that African-Americans represents the most plausible source of “random violence” especially for whites.

In confronting the possibility of random violence against my partner, I cannot really do anything about it; precisely this makes it random violence. Just like accidents, which we truly cannot actually prevent, we speak instead of increasing safety and reducing risk by various protocols and enforcing them; but these efforts do not eliminate the possibility of accidents entirely and for that reason we have emergency response measures for when those occur. Just so, we cannot truly prevent random violence, but can only act in certain kinds of safety-increasing ways to attempt to reduce risk, &c.

So when we speak of what the “threat” of random violence looks like, we must admit that any idea we form of it no longer constitutes random violence. As soon as we imagine something we may actually avoid or do something about, then this no longer constitutes random violence. As soon as we imagine something that may lead to a problem in the functioning of some machine or another, then if we don’t do something about that factor, we can no longer really speak of an “accident” when something happens. And usually, in an institution, when a catastrophe occurs, an investigation kicks off to determine whether the catastrophe really represents an accident or whether or not some negligence, some failure to recognize dangerous factors or patterns in advance, occurred.

I have to repeat that: when we speak of what the “threat” of random violence looks like, we must admit that any idea we form of it no longer constitutes random violence. So as soon as I imagine that black people will do harm to my loved one, I have already moved away from the possibility of (random) violence. Again, the unanswerable part of random violence hinges entirely on the unknowable possibility of it.

What one can’t avoid concluding in the face of this involves the tremendous relief and consolation offered (to white people) in imagining that black people propose a plausible source of violence.

After my friend got attacked, I found myself picking out certain attributes he has that probably made him a victim; I found it easy to imagine (and other people who know him said this too) that he likely brought the attack on himself. The consolation of this assuaged my fear that he’d gotten attacked randomly, because I know that my partner (and me also) do not have the kinds of attributes that I (and others) cited as possibly leading to his attack. In other words, I found it more reassuring to imagine the attack did not randomly occur.

So when white people tell themselves that walking in Black neighborhoods puts them in danger, this amounts to the same thing as pointing to a characteristic of the victim (unwisely walking in “dangerous” neighborhoods) as bringing on the attack. It also, of course, points to the neighborhood (and people in it) as possibly offering violence, &c.

So, even though I cannot prevent random violence, I convinced myself somehow (presumably much as I convince myself that I will have no fatal accidents driving) that driving my mate to work would (plausibly? Possibly?) reduce his risk of random violence. I assume that white people who stay out of certain neighborhoods—where I live, I proposed going to a restaurant and the objection got raised that “that area is dangerous”—make a similar kind assumption that this will (plausibly, possibly) reduce risk?


[1] Jones, S., & Mauer, M. (2013). Race to incarcerate: a graphic retelling. New York: The New Press, pp. i–xii, 1–111.

[2] India, in fact, has one of the lost per capita rates in the world. China has the world’s second-largest prison population over all, at 1.5 million, but this represents approximately 600% fewer people incarcerated per 100,000 at 118. Russia stands closest to the US in per capita incarceration at 615 per 100,000, but at 874,161 incarcerated people this represents not even 40% of the US prison population.

Some more recent details:

Countries with the most prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, as of 2013

[3] Per capita, the biggest incarcerators (measured at numbers per 100,000 citizens) run: the United States (737), Russia (~500), Iran (~350), Brazil (193), Britain (145), China (118), Canada (~110), France (~90), Germany (~80), Japan (62). Estimates come from reading the chart on Jones and Mauer (2013), p. 3; specific figures come from here.

[4] See here for the entire article.

[5] The authors not only allude to but do not discuss how beginning in the 1960s three successive drug epidemics occurred in the United States—i.e., who played the primary roles in manufacturing and distributing heroin, cocaine, and crack cocaine, &c. They also leave out of the picture the avowed emphasis by Nixon on “the Negro problem” and how to deceive the (white) populace into doing something about it. “Nixon ran in 1968 for law and order, sending an unsubtle message to whites concerned with a supposed rise in black criminality” (23).


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