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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

This Week:

  1. A new crime crisis: 'catch and release'
  2. Places & Culture
  3. City Scene
  4. Weekly Digest


Reader Brent Gibson caught me on a statement I submitted somewhat nervously in my April news in review column last month. "The prison system's cycle of frustration reached a milestone," I wrote, "as the country's prison population surpassed two million for the first time ever, despite a decade-long decline in crime." Gibson wrote: "Isn't it logical to assume that the decade-long decline in violent crime is because more of the people who commit said crimes are being put away, and for longer periods of time?" The reason I was nervous was that this seems like a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg—is crime dropping because we're locking more people up, or are we locking more people up even though crime is dropping? In other words, are there fewer criminals on the streets because more are in prison, or are we actually filling prisons faster at a time when there are fewer criminals to fill them with?

After a courteous exchange with Gibson, I wanted to do a little more looking into the incarceration increase. According to the Washington Post story my statement linked to, two-thirds of the nation's two million inmates are in state and federal prisons (which hold people convicted of felonies); the rest are in jails (which hold those convicted of misdemeanors and those awaiting trial). According to recent issues of Wired and In These Times, the U.S. rate of 700 inmates per 100,000 people is the highest in the world.

But if you look at this series of charts from the Department of Justice, the prison population planes steadily upward over the last 20 years, seemingly oblivious to the peaks and valleys of rates of homicide and other violent crime (though these start to sink steadily in the early 1990s). A more consistent overlap occurs between two graphs on the page: prison population and drug arrests, both of which rose at a nearly constant rate over the last two decades. More than half of the nation's inmates, In These Times says, are locked away for drug offenses. Which is too bad, because drug arrests seem a decidedly inferior method of addressing the nation's drug problem compared with drug treatment.

There is much more to be said about the social and moral roots of crime (the latter of which the secular media all but ignore, while Christian leaders tend to downplay the former). But there is one aspect of the incarceration boom that people of all viewpoints should be able to rally around, and that's the issue of how well we are preparing prisoners to be released. And this is not a pretty picture. In an Atlantic Monthly article aptly titled "Catch and Release" (reprinted here at PrisonerLife.com), the New America Foundation's Margaret Talbot reported that 1,600 prisoners are released every day. "Many will be drug abusers who received no treatment for their addiction while on the inside, sex offenders who got no counseling, and illiterate high school dropouts who took no classes and acquired no job skills," she wrote. "Only about 13 percent will have participated in any kind of pre-release program to prepare them for life outside," As a wave of tough-on-crime legislation passed in the 1990s, lengthening the average prison sentence, Talbot said, funding for vocational and educational programs for prisoners declined. Even if it is hard to muster sympathy for people who break the law, and even if it is easier for politicians get elected with lock-em-up slogans rather than long-term solutions, the stakes have never been higher for citizens of various political views to demand that society must, out of self-interest if not compassion, more effectively serve its inmate population.


-"Throwing Away The Key," from In These Times magazine.

-Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries

-The plight of African American men in America, from the Atlantic Monthly.

-"The Falling Crime Rate" from the Koch Crime Institute

-Graphs of New York City's 1990s plunge in crime rates

-Earlier in this weblog: Is the world as violent as it looks on TV?


From the Washington Post:

NORILSK, Russia—For decades, this frigid arctic city was Joseph Stalin's secret, a closed metropolis built on the bones of slave labor to tap and smelt the rich nickel ore that lay beneath its permafrost surface. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Norilsk was thrown open to outsiders, many presumed that the city's residents would rejoice at finally being linked to the rest of the world. They didn't. Almost overnight, residents here say, immigrants from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Ukraine poured in. An estimated 30,000 of them set up ramshackle stands to peddle clothes and food and competed for high-paying jobs at city plants and mines, bringing with them a measure of crime and drug addiction. Residents raised such a fuss that by the fall of 2001, city and regional officials had persuaded the Kremlin to once again restrict entry to the city of roughly 230,000 and three satellite towns. Now foreigners are allowed in only by invitation of an immediate family member or a commercial enterprise … To [union leader Valeri] Melnikov, the new rules simply reinforce the power of Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest nickel producer, and by extension the power of its main investor. full story

It was not a fair fight. The wolverine may have been as nasty as any predator in the mountains, but it weighed only 27 pounds. The black bear had arisen from a long winter's sleep and was almost certainly very hungry. The slain elk, carrying as much as 550 pounds of meat, was a prize worth fighting for. "We don't know how it unfolded, except that the wolverine lost," said wolverine expert Kristine Inman, of the Wildlife Conservation Society … This encounter [was] an unusual example of predator killing predator in the remote reaches of greater Yellowstone Park, a 40,600-square-mile tract of wilderness spreading like an ink blot across the junction of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. But while the wolverine may have chosen a mismatch bordering on madness, scientists say that predators killing one another is probably part of the natural order of things, and greater Yellowstone is offering an unprecedented opportunity to test the theory. With the reintroduction of the gray wolf in 1995, the park and its suburbs now have a full complement of North America's great carnivores: wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, cougars, coyotes and wolverines. Nowhere else on the continent can boast such variety. full story


Conversations collide in a coffee shop on a Friday afternoon. Suddenly a voice parts them: "Fifth period!" A man rises out of his seat and starts talking to himself about cutting class, his eyes on the floor as he navigates a path through the tables and chairs. At one of the tables he passes, a woman is incredulous (though somewhat confused—he seems too well-dressed and self-assured to be crazy). "Excuse me. I'm trying to talk to my friend here!" For a second, a hint of sheepishness registers on the man's face, but he avoids her glare and continues with his monologue. The woman must not have seen the announcement in the paper: today actors from the Chicago Dramatists Theatre are appearing at ten area Starbucks (a benefactor of CDT), and, as the clock hits 5:15, launching into monologues written by middle schoolers in the city. This monologue is rather pedestrian (no pun intended), about a speaker at a school assembly who motivated the young writer to "quit cutting class and hit the books." But for a strange few minutes during Friday rush hour, it turns a Starbucks into a stage.

Previous City Scene


For links with an * you can log in with member name and password of "bcread"

• Well, what do you know? The 20th Century brought an "explosion of scientific knowledge," from Einstein's relativity to quantum mechanics to a map of our DNA, says the Wall Street Journal. "But the last century also brought the first hints of fundamental, inherent limits on the knowable." Some scientific laws actually prevent certainty, and Kurt Godel found mathematical statements that cannot be proved or disproved. It's enough to inspire one foundation's grant for a seemingly self-defeating "Limits To Knowledge" research program. "We grow up thinking more is known that actually is," the foundation's president says. "Will the world continue to yield to [humans'] curiosity," ask the Journal, "or will we encounter evermore Godelian limits?" For that matter, how can we go about discerning the unknown from the unknowable? http://online.wsj.com/article …


What Marshall McLuhan got wrong about cars, and the limits of futurism, from the Canadian National Post.

Last month from this weblog: What can science tell us about free will?

• Speaking of the unknown, why do sociologists throw out God when studying religion? Sociologists must, they profess, "set aside all such metaphysical speculations and … see in religion only a social discipline." Religion, in the sociological mind, is merely a system of rituals or a means of deriving a code of behavior. God has nothing to do with it. This, you may have noticed, is quite a leap of faith, and Rodney Stark says as much in his forthcoming book For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery, an excerpt of which appears in the Chronicle of Higher Education. If religion is merely ritual, Stark asks, than why the "variation in the precision needed for the adequate performance of rituals"? Nor can religion be merely a moral code: "The proposition about the moral functions of religion requires a particular conception of supernatural beings as deeply concerned about the behavior of humans toward one another," Stark writes. The piece is a provocative and devastating dismantling of sociological conventional wisdom about religion. http://chronicle.com/free/v49/i39/39b00701.htm

Related from B&C:

"History Wars," a series by Mark Noll [1 | 2 | 3 | 4] (plus a sidebar on the history of history)

Discerning God's providence in American history

• Even as the United Nations seemed to hand the United States a blank check to do whatever it wanted in Iraq last month, France insisted the U.N. was as relevant as ever. There's one way to find out, says Philip Gourevitch in the New Yorker, and that's The Congo Test. "The true test lies in those vexed areas of the world that hold no compelling strategic or economic interest for the United States," he writes. "Most immediately, the U.N. is facing that test in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where seven hundred poorly armed U.N. peacekeepers in the northeastern Ituri region have watched helplessly over the past few weeks as massacres by tribal militias have filled graves with fresh corpses at about the same clip that the dead of Saddam Hussein's reign of terror have been exhumed in Iraq." This invisible but ghastly genocide, Gourevitch says, will test the world's conscience less than ten years after Rwanda. http://www.newyorker.com/talk …


News coverage of the Congo as summarized by Slate

From B&C: Review of Samantha Power's Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Rwanda

• Cochlear implants can bring sound to the deaf. Can new technology give sight to the blind? A company called Optobionics is testing its first artificial retinas, says Newsweek. One test subject recovered the ability to detect shapes, light, and motion through a silicon chip in his eye that takes in light and sends signals to the brain. "The new devices do not cure ocular disease, and none are approved by the FDA for general use," Newsweek says. "Yet early promising results have spurred cautious optimism among ophthalmologists that the age of combating blindness has finally begun."


Related from B&C:

"Led by the Blind" by Virginia Stem Owens

A Baghdad-born architect is about to open her first American building, not in New York or Los Angeles, but Cincinnati. Zaha Hadid's Contemporary Arts Center in downtown Cincinnati is a "spectacular" work of architecture, says New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger. Hadid gave the building "a hint of formal, institutional grandeur without making it feel formal or institutional," although it's better from the outside than the inside, he writes. With Hadid's design for a museum at Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower in Oklahoma, cultural treasures are starting to turning up in unlikely places. "With buildings by Peter Eisenman in Columbus and Cincinnati, and by Frank Gehry in Toledo, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, the state of Ohio is beginning to seem as hospitable to cutting-edge architecture as the Netherlands." http://www.newyorker.com/critics …

• Last week, a federal grand jury indictedMartha Stewart for conspiracy and obstruction of justice related to her stock in ImClone. This came less than three weeks after a made-for-TV movie portrayed Stewart as a bellowing megalomaniac. But in an issue of the Atlantic Monthly last year, Caitlin Flanagan wrote that two unauthorized biographies of the do-it-yourself diva (one of which became the basis for the TV movie) are so transparently eager to portray their subject as "the rottenest, nastiest person ever to draw breath" that they "border on the comical." http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2002/09/flanagan.htm


How a hyped drug stock started it all, from the Washington Post

• In the first days of the war in Iraq, a weblogger writing under the name Salam Pax ("peace" in Arabic and Latin) transfixed an Internet audience with his witty first-person descriptions of life inside Iraq (see "war links" here from this weblog). The blogger went quiet in late March, and readers feared his fate. Turns out he was touring Iraq and taking notes even while he couldn't post to the Web. Now Pax's notes have been posted at his blog, and he has been hired to pen a bi-weekly column for the London Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq …


What Salam Pax saw in his postwar tour, from United Press International.

How I met Salam Pax, by Peter Maas in Newsweek.

Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.

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