The Case for Decarceration

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

It’s interesting. People often ask me if I think reparations will happen and my answer is, “Not in my lifetime and probably not in my child’s lifetime.” But I wouldn’t go so far as you think I would—which is to say “America is not granting reparations to African Americans.” I wouldn’t say that because history, itself, shows that stranger things—more terrible and more lovely—have happened.

What I suspect is that if reparations came about they would come, not simply as a result of agitation, but because of some exterior force in American life that made them necessary. That has been the case for every single advance in our politics around the divide of racism. You can’t imagine emancipation without Southerners deciding they wanted an entire country founded on the expansion and cultivation of slavery. You can’t imagine the civil-rights movement without the Cold War and without the Holocaust and the direct evidence of white supremacy taken to its logical conclusion. I can’t even imagine this moment of seemingly bipartisan (if somewhat thin) agreement around the perils of mass incarceration, without falling crime. Let that crime start to rise and this moment will be vapor.

This is scary because we don’t know why these things happen. We still don’t have a good explanation for why crime rose and fell. And so our current consensus is essentially rooted in the weather. If it’s sunny tomorrow we decarcerate. (Yes, it's a word!) If it thunders we retrench.

So no, I don’t put reparations off the table.

I actually believe it could happen. No, I believe more than that. I believe it’s actually the only way out. You can’t beat on people for centuries, toss them some bandages, and leave them bleeding on the concrete, then wonder why they haven’t fully healed. And when those people are your people—because African Americans are among the oldest Americans—the effects of the injury don’t even end with them.

And I guess this is why I tend to stake my positions so far out. It’s not that I think the radical answer is always the answer, so much as I think that which is achievable may well be wrong. Thinking you can decarcerate (a word!) by releasing a bunch of 20-year-old potheads who’ve never hurt anybody is wrong.  Thinking we can decarcerate (word!) without grappling with the impulse toward vengeance is wrong. And, too, thinking you can decarcerate, release injured people into injured communities with more injured people, and have sane criminal-justice policy is wrong. Our task is not simply to decarcerate (!) but to make sure this never happens again. It does no good to have this fight and then have our grandchildren do the same thing in 100 years.

OK. So I'm interested in Angola. How did you feel there? Seriously, like, as a person? How does it feel to watch the descendants of slaves in those fields? I made the case to you—in private—that I felt that what you were seeing was, in fact, slavery. You helpfully pointed out that some of these people have actually killed and raped other people, that they’ve actually done something. I think that is a meaningful difference. And yet I can’t help but look at that video and see people deprived of their liberty, their rights to profit off of their labor, and not note, as Bruce Western says, that this is a population of people whose liberty was never firmly established to begin with.

I have more: How do you feel about the idea of religion basically making for a more docile prison? And not just a jail, but a prison that is parcel to a great human-rights disaster?