Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America is one of the most famous books ever written about the politics and culture of the United States. The original purpose of Tocqueville's 1831 journey to this country is less well known. He came to tour its prisons on behalf of the French government. The United States at the time was renowned in Europe for having created a whole new social institution: the penitentiary. In New York and Pennsylvania prisons were being designed not to punish inmates but to reform them. Solitary confinement, silence, and hard work were imposed in order to encourage spiritual and moral change. At some penitentiaries officials placed hoods over the heads of newcomers to isolate them from other inmates. After visiting American prisons Tocqueville and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, wrote that social reformers in the United States had been swept up in "the monomania of the penitentiary system," convinced that prisons were "a remedy for all the evils of society."
The historian David J. Rothman, author of The Discovery of the Asylum (1971), has noted one of the ironies of America's early-nineteenth-century fondness for prisons. The idea of the penitentiary took hold at the height of Jacksonian democracy, when freedom and the spirit of the common man were being widely celebrated. "At the very moment that Americans began to pride themselves on the openness of their society, when the boundless frontier became the symbol of opportunity and equality," Rothman observes, "notions of total isolation, unquestioned obedience, and severe discipline became the hallmarks of the captive society." More than a century and a half later political rhetoric about small government and the virtues of the free market is being accompanied by an eagerness to deny others their freedom. The hoods now placed on inmates in the isolation units at maximum-security prisons are not intended to rehabilitate. They are designed to protect correctional officers from being bitten or spat upon.
The standard justification for today's prisons is that they prevent crime. The rate of violent crime in the United States has indeed been declining since 1991. The political scientist James Q. Wilson, among many others, believes that the recent rise in the nation's incarceration rate has been directly responsible for the decrease in violent crime. Although the validity of the theory seems obvious (murderers and rapists who are behind bars can no longer kill and rape ordinary citizens), it is difficult to prove. Michael Tonry, a professor of law and public policy at the University of Minnesota, is an expert on international sentencing policies and an advocate of alternative punishments for nonviolent offenders. He acknowledges that the imprisonment of almost two million Americans has prevented some crimes from being committed. "You could choose another two million Americans at random and lock them up," Tonry says, "and that would reduce the number of crimes too." But demographics and larger cultural trends may be responsible for most of the decline in violent crime. Over the past decade Canada's incarceration rate has risen only slightly. Nevertheless, the rate of violent crime in Canada has been falling since 1991. Last year the homicide rate fell by nine percent. The Canadian murder rate has now reached its lowest level since 1969.
Christopher Stone, the head of New York's Vera Institute of Justice, believes that prisons can be "factories for crime." The average inmate in the United States spends only two years in prison. What happens during that time behind bars may affect how he or she will behave upon release. The lesson being taught in most American prisons—where violence, extortion, and rape have long been routine—is that the strong will always rule the weak. Inmates who display the slightest hint of vulnerability quickly become prey. During the 1950s and 1960s prison gangs were formed in California and Illinois as a means of self-protection. Those gangs have now spread nationwide. The Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood have gained power in Texas prisons. The Gangsta Killer Bloods and the Sex Money Murder Bloods have emerged in New York prisons. America's prisons now serve as networking and recruiting centers for gang members. The differences between street gangs and prison gangs have become less distinct. The leaders of prison gangs increasingly direct illegal activity both inside and outside. A 1996 investigation by the Chicago Tribune found that gangs had gained extraordinary control over the state prisons in Illinois: formal classes at the Stateville prison law library had taught the history and rules of the Maniac Latin Disciples; a leader of the Gangster Disciples had at various times kept cellular phones, a color television, a stereo, a Nintendo Game Boy, a portable washing machine, and up to a hundred pounds of marijuana in his cell. Many of the customs, slang, and tattoos long associated with prison gangs have become fashionable among young people. In cities throughout America, the culture of the prisons is rapidly becoming the culture of the streets.
The spirit of every age is manifest in its public works, in the great construction projects that leave an enduring mark on the landscape. During the early years of this century the Panama Canal became President Theodore Roosevelt's legacy, a physical expression of his imperial yearnings. The New Deal faith in government activism left behind huge dams and bridges, post offices decorated with murals, power lines that finally brought electricity to rural America. The interstate highway system fulfilled dreams of the Eisenhower era, spreading suburbia far and wide; urban housing projects for the poor were later built in the hopes of creating a Great Society.
"The era of big government is over," President Bill Clinton declared in 1996—an assertion that has proved false in at least one respect. A recent issue of "Construction Report," a monthly newsletter published by Correctional Building News, provides details of the nation's latest public works: a 3,100-bed jail in Harris County, Texas; a 500-bed medium-security prison in Redgranite, Wisconsin; a 130-bed minimum-security facility in Oakland County, Michigan; two 200-bed housing pods at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, in Iowa; a 350-bed juvenile correctional facility in Pendleton, Indiana; and dozens more. The newsletter includes the telephone numbers of project managers, so that prison-supply companies can call and make bids. All across the country new cellblocks rise. And every one of them, every brand-new prison, becomes another lasting monument, concrete and ringed with deadly razor wire, to the fear and greed and political cowardice that now pervade American society.