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Just Facts: Quantifying the Incarceration Conversation

Use of the term “mass incarceration” has undergone as dramatic a change as incarceration itself.

  • Oliver Roeder
July 16, 2014
The United States has the highest incar­cer­a­tion rate in the world. We have 5 percent of the world’s popu­la­tion, yet 25 percent of its pris­on­ers. There are over 2 million people in prison and jail, and nearly 2 million chil­dren with a parent incar­cer­ated. Of them, 400,000 are age four or younger. One in three black males born today will go to prison at some point in his life. There are over 500 percent more women in prison today than in 1980. Our incar­cer­a­tion rate is 800 percent higher than Germany’s and 1300 percent higher than Japan’s.
What do you call some­thing like that?
Undeni­ably, today’s term of art is “mass incar­cer­a­tion.” The phrase now seems ubiquit­ous, and is in use by The New York Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Econom­ist, CNN, Al Jazeera, and MSNBC; Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School, The Univer­sity of Chicago Law School, NYU Law, and myriad other academ­ics; the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion, the Senten­cing Project, the Urban Insti­tute, the AFL-CIO, and count­less others, includ­ing the Bren­nan Center.
The prob­lems embod­ied by the phrase “mass incar­cer­a­tion” are now the bête noire of crim­inal justice reform advoc­ates. The term means much to many on both the left and right of the polit­ical spec­trum: a fail­ure of social justice, a viol­a­tion of human rights, an inef­fect­ive crime-control policy, an egre­gious waste of taxpayer money.
The term’s use, however, has under­gone as dramatic a change as incar­cer­a­tion itself. In fact, it barely exis­ted in its current sense even 20 years ago. Here is the relat­ive frequency of usage of the phrase “mass incar­cer­a­tion” in the U.S. in books published in the last hundred years (a corpus of some 150 billion words), accord­ing to Google Books:

Certain early uses of the term are almost tragic­ally quaint. One of the earli­est Amer­ican cita­tions I can find, from a speech to the Meet­ing of the National Proba­tion Asso­ci­ation in June 1938, warns against the diffi­culties of rehab­il­it­a­tion amid the “mass incar­cer­a­tion of hundreds or even thou­sands of inmates.” We’ve since reserved the term for some­thing three or four orders of magnitude more extreme.


Its rise to broad use in more imme­di­ate history has been remark­able as well. Here are the instances of the phrase “mass incar­cer­a­tion” in news­pa­pers over the last 35 years, compiled using a Lexis­Nexis search:

Mentions of Mass Incarceration
Again, the term was not often used until about ten years ago, and effect­ively didn’t exist in its current sense ten years before that. (The figure I include for 2014 is a projec­tion based on uses thus far.) Its use also has an inter­est­ing rela­tion­ship to the phenomenon itself. Here again are the news­pa­per mentions, now compared to the actual U.S. incar­cer­a­tion rate in state and federal pris­ons (per 100,000 popu­la­tion, in red):
The use of the term (“mass incar­cer­a­tion”) has lagged far behind the use of the policy (mass incar­cer­a­tion). The phrase wasn’t uttered in the press more than ten times in a year before the incar­cer­a­tion rate had already risen to over 235 percent its 1978 level. In the year 2002, with the incar­cer­a­tion rate at over 260 percent its 1978 level, the phrase was used just four times.
But today, even as incar­cer­a­tion rates have largely plat­eaued, use of the phrase shows no signs of abat­ing. It was used 352 times in 2013, and 278 times already in 2014 (compare that to 12 and 13 times in 2003 and 2004, respect­ively). The New York Times alone used the phrase 25 times in 2013, and 26 times already in 2014. This phenomenon is as inter­est­ing as (but thank­fully far less tragic and seri­ous than) the rise in incar­cer­a­tion itself.
So what did we used to call this phenomenon? It’s not entirely clear, and it’s not clear we even had a name for it. In the 1990s, for example, accord­ing to Google Books the most commonly used adjectival phrase contain­ing the word incar­cer­a­tion was “shock incar­cer­a­tion,” which seems to be a refer­ence “boot camp” style short prison stints for offend­ers. For the word impris­on­ment, the only phrase with a mean­ing­ful number of mentions was “false impris­on­ment.”  

More recently, several other terms have also been used to describe the unpre­ced­en­ted levels of incar­cer­a­tion in Amer­ica. These include “mass impris­on­ment,” “over­crim­in­al­iz­a­tion,” and “over­in­car­cer­a­tion.” The term “prison indus­trial complex” also became far more widely used, but its rise as a phrase may have even occurred after that of “mass incar­cer­a­tion.” Here are the frequen­cies of use of a few of the candid­ate phrases:

So who or what was respons­ible for the rise of mass incar­cer­a­tion (the phrase)? There are a few candid­ates. An obvi­ous one might be Michelle Alex­an­der’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incar­cer­a­tion in the Age of Colorblind­ness. While that book likely further cemen­ted the term’s use, it can’t have been largely respons­ible, as it was first published in 2010. A couple of earlier books mention the term, and may stake a good claim to promul­ga­tion, includ­ing Invis­ible Punish­ment (2003, edited by Meda Ches­ney-Lind and Marc Mauer) and No Equal Justice (1999, David Cole). The latter was respons­ible for the very first New York Times use of the term in its current sense, in the paper’s book review. (Inter­est­ingly, the three books mentioned here were published by The New Press.)

David Garland has been given expli­cit credit for coin­ing the kindred phrase “mass impris­on­ment” in a 2001 book. However, Garland acknow­ledges the contrib­ut­ors to his book (which he edited) for their use of the phrase. Plus, as one can see in the picture above, “mass impris­on­ment” was used, and used increas­ingly, well before 2001. 

It’s likely no one cita­tion is respons­ible for the dramatic rise of “mass incar­cer­a­tion.” Rather, a snow­balling list of mentions by research­ers and advoc­ates, followed some years later by the news media, seem to have cemen­ted it as the term of art. The medi­a’s use of “mass incar­cer­a­tion” has not only made the term widely popu­lar, but has brought increas­ing public atten­tion to the under­ly­ing substant­ive prob­lem. One reason mass incar­cer­a­tion may have been picked up so quickly by the media is its implic­a­tion of the enorm­ity of the prob­lem, imply­ing a need and urgency to act.

The phrase, however, is not without its crit­ics. The work of authors such as Michelle Alex­an­der have led some to argue that the term mass incar­cer­a­tion implies that our crime policies were enacted with a delib­er­ate racial intent. Simil­arly, Robert Weis­berg and Joan Petersilia argue that while “mass incar­cer­a­tion” is in many ways a justi­fi­ably dramatic term, it may also be melo­dra­matic, “imply­ing some things about Amer­ican crim­inal justice that are not entirely true.” On the other hand, Loïc Wacquant argues that “mass incar­cer­a­tion” fails to high­light the outsize effect of the justice system on African Amer­ic­ans and the poor, and instead advoc­ates for the phrase “hyper­in­car­cer­a­tion.” But, for better or worse, the medi­a’s popular­iz­ing of the term may have divorced it from earlier racial connota­tions. Mass incar­cer­a­tion as used in public discourse is start­ing to refer simply to the massive size of our incar­cer­ated popu­la­tion.

Critiques notwith­stand­ing, has the seem­ingly univer­sal adop­tion of this current phrase enabled discus­sion and, maybe more import­antly, will it effect any broad policy changes?

Import­antly, the current term mass incar­cer­a­tion is, if not coopted, then at least recycled. A simple compar­ison to the now ubiquit­ous phrase “global warm­ing” helps illus­trate that point. Here are both of the terms’ book mentions in the last hundred years:

Both begin to increase in frequency in the mid- to late-eighties, and “global warm­ing” may have even had a more dramatic rise. However, the term “global warm­ing” was never used before 1980. The term “mass incar­cer­a­tion,” while far rarer than today, was used occa­sion­ally.

It was used, though, to mean some­thing quite differ­ent.

Follow­ing the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. ordered the intern­ment of Japan­ese Amer­ic­ans on the west coast. Over 100,000 people were incar­cer­ated as a result. Nearly all uses of the phrase “mass incar­cer­a­tion” before 1980 are in refer­ence to this. For example, see this early use in a 1962 lecture, or this from a 1971 educa­tion journal.


The history of Japan­ese intern­ment came to an end with Pres­id­ent Ford declar­ing it a “national mistake” in 1976, and Pres­id­ent Reagan sign­ing the Civil Liber­ties Act of 1988, which allowed for repar­a­tions for those interned.

It remains to be seen how the history of our current mass incar­cer­a­tion epidemic will end.

As far as I can tell, the very first appear­ance of the phrase “mass incar­cer­a­tion” is in Karl Marx’s Eight­eenth Brumaire of Louis Bona­parte, published in 1852. (The German is “massen­hafte Einkerker­ung.” The English trans­la­tion is from at least 1935, but earlier trans­la­tions do exist, back to at least 1897.) In this case, the term is invoked to high­light perse­cu­tion of the French peas­antry under Napo­leon III.

The German:

The English:
Coin­cid­ent­ally, this is the same essay where Marx remarks that history repeats itself: “The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” 
At the very least, the dramatic entrance of “mass incar­cer­a­tion” into Amer­ican public discourse demon­strates that an increas­ing number of people are aware of how dire our incar­cer­a­tion crisis has become. If accept­ance of a prob­lem’s exist­ence is the first step toward creat­ing public and polit­ical will to resolve it, it would seem the United States is at least part of the way there. 
Research assist­ance: Zach­ery Crow­ell
(Photo: Think­stock)