“Prisons Make Us Safer” and 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration
Author: Victoria Law
Publisher: Beacon Press, 2021. 240 pages
Reviewer: Nicole Frisch-Scott ǀ November 2021
In “Prisons Make Us Safer” and 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration Victoria Law draws attention to important issues surrounding systems of incarceration in the United States. From inadequate healthcare, to staff abuses, to burgeoning costs and lack of crime prevention, Law showcases the failure of current incarceration practices. The book is divided into four parts: 1) how and why the incarcerated population grew in the United States; 2) the failure to support and provide adequate services to people incarcerated; 3) a closer look at marginalized incarcerated populations; and 4) assessments of purported reforms to end mass incarceration. Each chapter presents a “myth” about incarceration in the United States, stemming from common belief, and a discussion about how such beliefs are not true. Each chapter also serves as a platform to demonstrate a flaw or shortcoming with current corrections practices. Law’s criticism of the incarceration systems in the US is multifaceted: too many people are incarcerated, for too many legal infractions, for horrendously long periods of time. The system is racist and sexist. Conditions inside prisons, jails, and detention centers are deplorable and not suitable for rehabilitation, penance, work, or anything else that incarceration is supposed to achieve. She maintains that we need a system overhaul — our current practices are not working on pretty much any level.
I would like to applaud Law for the breadth of topics she covers. She broaches 21 different issues concisely in short chapters that are quick to read and full of important information. Law’s writing style is powerful; she presents statistics and historical information in a way that is attention grabbing so the reader does not feel as though they are reading a textbook. She also addresses incarceration with attention to emergent issues relevant in today’s world such as the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBTQ+ rights, and mass shootings. I would gladly assign this book in an undergraduate criminal justice or corrections course.
I also commend Law for discussing incarceration in a novel way: she uses a broad definition of incarceration that includes not only state prisoners, but individuals confined to jails, private prisons, and immigration detention centers. She sheds light on the unique challenges experienced by women incarcerated, incarcerated trans-people, abuse survivors, and non-citizens. So often discussions of incarceration omit anyone who is not male and confined to a state prison, and thus only scratch the surface of the issue.
Also important is Law’s acknowledgment that mass incarceration is the product of policies and societal conditions that extend beyond the criminal justice system. Scholars are quick to point out that rising prison populations could be driven by aggressive policing tactics and harsh sentencing policies such as mandatory minimum sentences. These discussions insinuate that incarceration is strictly a criminal justice issue. Law explains that crime and the conditions leading up to incarceration stem from broken educational systems, poor economic conditions, under-resourced communities, and lack of public assistance, along with racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic ideologies. This is an important point.
The author humanizes the discussion of incarceration through the use of personal stories that elucidate the experiences of incarcerated people. As a quantitative criminologist, I find that most scholarly debates are sanitized, presenting incarceration as an issue without a face. Law forces the reader to recognize how mass incarceration takes a human toll. Itis hard to ignore the problems with incarceration systems when hearing from people affected by it.
While there is much to praise about the author’s review of the issues surrounding incarceration in the United States, there are also several things that challenged me as a reader. First, Law claims to “debunk” the myths she presents in each chapter “using facts, figures, and stories” from individuals who have experienced it. As mentioned above the stories that Law includes from people who were incarcerated are compelling, but in many cases, she fails to place these stories in the context of available empirical evidence from longstanding academic literature. As one example, the heart of the argument in Chapter 2 is that prisons do not reduce crime. Criminologists and economists have been asking and answering this question for years; many high-quality empirical studies speak to this issue. The literature does not clearly state that prisons cause reductions in crime, a conclusion which could help Law’s case, but there have been studies suggesting that some relationship exists. For example, the work of Levitt (1996) and Spelman (1994) find that as incarceration increases, crime decreases. Neither of these studies, or those which draw other conclusions, are mentioned here.
Law’s failure to incorporate research is problematic for two reasons. First, in my opinion, to debunk existing myths about incarceration, the premise of Law’s book, requires science. Omitting available scientific literature means that the reader is not given all of the best information available on the subject and cannot make an informed decision as to whether the myth may in fact have some basis in truth, and is thus not really a myth. Second, ignoring the scientific literature in part or in its entirety suggests that Law is not providing an objective assessment of the topic at hand, and presents only information that supports her critique of incarceration. This can lead the reader to say that the writing is biased. This is too bad because many of the arguments Law makes are empirically supported and could be strengthened by a thorough assessment of the empirical literature.
The author claims that incarceration does not keep us safe because crime exists and because incarceration only occurs after a criminal act. This argument is presented in chapters 2, 8, 16, and 17, wherein Law contends that incarceration does not deter people from violence because murder, rape, and sex offenses still occur despite high incarceration rates. Though she details several chilling cases, this argument is categorically flawed. First, though some engage in serious violent crime despite the threat of being incarcerated, the vast majority of individuals do not and will not ever commit a crime. We do not know the exact role that the threat of incarceration plays in that decision, but research suggests that the threat of punishment plays some preventative role. Second, we do not know the counterfactual condition: how high would crime be or how prevalent would murder and rape be without incarceration? We can only speculate. It is possible that without incarceration, serious violent crime would be the same or maybe even lower, but it is also possible that it would be much higher. Third, incarceration is purported to reduce crime by (at least) three mechanisms: general deterrence, specific deterrence, and incapacitation. In stating that incarceration does not keep us safe because some people are not deterred, Law touches only upon the failure of general deterrence. Incarceration could prevent crime by removing dangerous individuals from the street (incapacitation) or if the threat of future incarceration reduces the chances a person engages in additional criminal behavior upon release from a prison or jail (specific deterrence). To be clear, I am not arguing that incarceration does prevent crime; but I am saying that a few sensational cases do not prove that it does not. There are other logical possibilities that are not addressed. In fact, the research supports Law’s contention that incarceration does not keep us entirely safe insofar as recidivism rates are high nationwide, and communities that have more parolees returning from incarceration may have higher crime rates (e.g., Hipp & Yates, 2009).
Finally, on a few occasions Law misrepresents or misinterprets criminal justice data. For example, in chapter 14 she writes that “judges are elected” and asserts that political pressure leads judges to impose harsher sentences (p. 121). Judges are elected in some states and appointed in others, and the nuances of how elections are run, when, whether appointments require confirmation (among other things) are state and sometimes court specific (National Center for State Courts, 2020). It is therefore not accurate to simply state that all judges are elected and therefore want to be tough on crime as Law does on page 121. Additionally, she introduces issues with incarceration systems by sharing the stories of an individual directly affected, or by providing an example from a single state or incarceration facility. For example, in Chapter 3, she addresses the atrocious living conditions and lack of available programming in some facilities, using examples from Mississippi and the federal prison system respectively. She fails, however, to mention the germaneness of these conditions in prisons, jails, and detention centers across the country. Because each chapter is set up to address a myth about incarceration broadly, the reader could be tempted to conclude that these extreme examples are emblematic of incarceration everywhere, when this may not be the case. The strategic use of these stories is somewhat misleading without a proper disclaimer that what occurs in one place or is the opinion of one person may not be the norm.
In another instance, when Law claims that mass incarceration was a purposeful decision of policy makers, she suggests that decision-makers were aware that crime was declining in the 1990s prior to enacting a host of tough-on-crime policies (p. 14). While she convincingly argues that the growth in the incarcerated population and accompanying racial/ethnic disparities were not accidental side effects of race-neutral policies, she assumes that decision-makers had more information available to them than they probably did. For example, when she discusses the 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act that funded many prisons and police officers, she writes that the sponsors of this act “did not get the memo” that crime had been declining prior to this policy. The large-scale crime decline that Law references began in 1991, and continued well into the 2000’s. Prior to 1991 crime fluctuated throughout the 1970s and 80s, but by the late 1980s crime and violence were historically high. When the Act was passed in 1994, crime had only been declining for 3 years. Even if this information was available to policy makers, three data points is only the very beginning of a trend. It is not reasonable to assume that decision-makers knew that trend would continue for the rest of the decade and beyond. Further, annual crime rates are often not available for months after the year-end. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report crime statistics are published the following winter. As of July 24, 2021, only the 2019 crime statistics are available on the FBI’s website. So, we should not assume that policy makers unequivocally knew that crime was declining, and chose to enact aggressive criminal justice policies that were not needed.
It is not my intention to justify the actions of law makers or argue they should not be held accountable. I believe that Law is correct, and that mass incarceration was much more intentional than other texts would lead someone to believe. She should be applauded for making this point. However, when placing blame and making claims about historical events, it is important to get the facts right. To a reader familiar with crime trends and data, this section of the book raises questions about the author’s objectivity. She appears to ascribe blame based on an argument that is at least partly flawed.
Finally, the book’s title includes the term “mass incarceration,” which in academic settings refers to the increase in both the number of people incarcerated, and the incarceration rate between 1973 and 2014. While many of the issues Law presents in her book do pertain to this time period, other chapters focus on general problems with incarceration that are not specific to mass incarceration. For example, Chapter 12 discusses how victims of abuse can be incarcerated for killing their abusive partners or because they are found complicit in abuse if it was never reported. While this is an intriguing discussion, packed with information about intimate partner violence and current reform efforts, it is not specific to the time and context of mass incarceration. The incarceration of abuse victims very likely existed before the incarceration boom and the author does not grapple with the extent to which the rise in incarceration exacerbated this existing practice. The same can be said for chapters 8, 9, and 10, which cover the inadequacies of mental healthcare, medical treatment, and substance abuse programming while incarcerated. It may be more appropriate to frame this book as one which addresses issues with incarceration broadly, rather than mass incarceration specifically.
To conclude, Victoria Law writes a viscerally compelling book about the complicated and contentious realities of incarceration in the United States. While her arguments could be strengthened with incorporation of the extant criminological literature on incarceration, she sheds light on many topics that are important in today’s everchanging society.
Hipp, J.R. & Yates, D.K. (2009). Do returning parolees affect neighborhood crime? A case study of Sacramento. Criminology, 47(3), 619-656.
Levitt, S.D. (1996). The effect of prison population size on crime rates: Evidence from prison crowding litigation. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 111(2), 319-351.
National Center for State Courts (2020). “How many states elect their judges?” Retrieved from: https://www.ncsc.org/information-and-resources/trending-topics/trending-topics-landing-pg/how-many-states-elect-judges-with-more-than-20-different-selection-systems,-thats-a-very-complicated-question.
Spelman, W. (1994). Criminal Incapacitation. New York, NY: Plenum Press.
Nicole Frisch-Scott, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Merrimack College.