Prison USA: The Dilemmas of Mass Incarceration

Event Recap

November 6, 2013
By Julien Savoye, PCJ Program Fellow

At an event titled "Prison USA: The Dilemmas of Mass Incarceration" organized by the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University on Wednesday, November 6th, scholars tried to explain how the United States reached incarceration rates that are both particularly high and unequal across social groups, and explored avenues that could lead to an improvement. 

Different approaches – moral, historical, international – were used to denounce the nature and size of the problem. Panelists using historical and cross-country perspectives in particular showed that even though today’s American society has unique features, the phenomenon of mass incarceration was not inevitable.

Particularly rich was the debate about the way forward. Panelists focused their remarks on tools that might contribute to alleviate the phenomenon that were very different from one another. In particular, changes in the use of the "tough on crime" rhetoric as a political tool, changes in criminal justice policies, increased empathy, and the restoration of certain social groups’ citizenry and connection to the rest of society were advanced as avenues to explore.

One panelist’s observation that the most recent changes were positive – supported by data showing a reduction in the number of inmates over the past 3 years in most states, and by changes in criminal justice policies that increasingly allowed for the use of alternatives to incarceration – sparked a rich debate: Some scholars were seeing encouraging signs in these changes, while others argued that the conditions were not yet met for this change to be sustainable nor significant.

Opening Remarks

  • Shannon Mackey, Smith College
  • Homi Bhabha, Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard

Panel 1: How Did We Get Here?

  • Paul Butler, Georgetown Law
  • Bernard E. Harcourt, University of Chicago
  • Nicola Lacey, London School of Economics
  • Caleb Smith, Yale University
  • Chair: Carol S. Steiker, Harvard Law School

Panel 2: How Do We Get Out?

  • David D. Cole, Georgetown Law
  • Marie Gottschalk, University of Pennsylvania
  • Linda Ross Meyer, Quinnipiac University School of Law
  • Bruce Western, Harvard Kennedy School
  • Chair: Lawrence D. Bobo, Harvard University

See Event Program for panelist bios and event details