Jack is doing the Monday book this week –
Crime Control as Industry – Nils Christie
Regular readers of this blog will probably know that I visit inmates at our local Federal prison each month, and I’ve been doing that for over four years. It’s against that background and in that context that I’m reviewing this book – – –
One thing I had inevitably learned in my conversations with inmates was that there seemed to be an enormous economy surrounding prisons in the US, then research showed me there was a very disproportionately high number of African-American prisoners, and the overall percentage of the population behind bars in this country was among the highest in the world (the three highest are China, Russia and the US).
Christie’s book is mainly concerned with western European countries and the US, and focuses on the very different attitudes and approaches to crime and punishment in them.
Nils Christie is a Norwegian criminologist, and his world-view is naturally affected by where he is based and grew up. The first thing that caught my attention in this book was that (at the time it was written – 1998) there was a waiting list in Norway for folk to serve their prison sentences! The number of prisons was small and there was a consensus that people shouldn’t be crammed in, so folk carried on with their lives and waited to be told when there was a space for them. The sentences were fairly short in most cases and only the most serious actually received prison time at all. Despite this, crime figures were low compared to other countries.
What on earth was going on here?!
What Christie goes on to unravel is the very definition of crime, the need for ruling elites to create and then control a ‘surplus population’ and the market led industry that operates that control. At its crudest (which is always), the market needs a level of unemployment in order to suppress wages and allow the economy to compete with others around the world (this is exactly the thinking of the recent winner of a certain Presidential election). That ‘surplus population’ in the US has historically been mainly black, so there are residual racist reasons feeding into the equation as well.
So, where are we now?
Christie is/was tentatively optimistic that reason would prevail and that his Norwegian model would set an example, however, other more recent research suggests otherwise. The growth of private prisons, the economic market surrounding State, Federal and private prisons, the increase in the ‘surplus population’ and the demonization of anyone who isn’t a WASP.
Maybe the fact that I’m a WASP and can write this is a good sign? There again, maybe an algorithm has already identified me as part of the ‘surplus population’?