All posts by chriso

Uneven Race

A penologist rushes to bring about prison reform but can't keep up with a car labeled "crime increase".
A penologist rushes to bring about prison reform but can’t keep up with a car labeled “crime increase”.

In the article “Small Prison Plants“, the author critiques the current state of the prison system, where overcrowding has led to inefficiencies in assigning classification to inmates in relation to their work and their placement with other criminals.  The root of the problem is that large prisons have grown out of necessity due to increased crime.  These issues have made it difficult to implement prison reform that has been suggested by penologists (penology being the study of the punishment of crime (Merriam Webster)).  One notable proposal by John P. McCaffrey involves the limiting of prison size to less than 500 men, with each unit intended to provide work to inmates in preparation for their return to society.  While costly to implement and estimated to take 25 years to complete, McCaffrey believes it to save money in the long run as crime is reduced.  However, the article points out that McCaffrey ignores the constantly increasing crime rate that would require prisons to be larger than proposed, though the reform would hopefully reduce crime and allow McCaffrey’s vision to be realized.

The cartoon “Uneven Race” satirizes the fact that reform can’t keep up with increased crime rate that makes prisons even larger and more unmanageable.  From 1925 to 1939, the number of prisoners per 100,000 citizens grew from 79 to 137, an increase of over 70% (  John Knott creates humor through use of metaphor that is relatable to a general audience.  While crime increase is represented by a car, symbolizing its relatively greater speed, the penologist is just a man, and obviously has no way of catching up to a moving vehicle.  This simplistic representation of a complex issue makes the discussion more accessible to readers, and that juxtaposition of different levels of complexity makes the cartoon humorous.  Also,  the situation depicted in the cartoon is comical, as anyone can tell you it is pointless to try to chase a speeding car.  While the cartoon is meant to make the issue more light-hearted, it also points out the grim reality of the situation at the time.  It seems that Knott doesn’t believe there is much hope in bringing about effective prison reform, at least if the “race” remains as uneven as it is at that point.  It is appropriate that the crime increase is not represented by a person but by an object, since it is an abstract concept that can difficult to stop or even slow down in the same way that a person could.

America had struggled before with maintaining proper prison conditions.  In colonial America, imprisonment was only temporary until the real punishment, usually fines, torture, or execution, were carried out.  The first long-term penitentiaries in Pennsylvania after the Revolutionary War were a new idea by Quakers meant to force criminals to reflect on their actions.  Around the same time, New York created similar facilities, and both cases focused on separating prisoners in working and living quarters to prevent them from corrupting each other, though New York accomplished this using a “silence system”.  Though harshly enforced, these methods were widely regarded as the most humane practices at the time.  As prison populations grew, however, the states in the north and east gave up on isolation of inmates.  Southern states often resorted to selling convicts to large-scale projects such as railroads and cotton plantations, working in harsh conditions not too different from slaves (it’s worth noting that their prison populations were disproportionately African American).  After a slow decline for fifty years, most prisoners didn’t perform income-producing labor by the 1920’s.  Unfortunately, this just made prisons even more overpopulated.  (For more information on the history of imprisonment in America, read “Prisons and Prison Reform“)

Just as prison overcrowding had been a problem before the article’s publication, it has remained so to this day.  Aside from brief declines during World War II and the Vietnam War, where crime-prone men often served in the military, prison populations have steadily increased in the decades since.  While the problems resulting from overcrowding that the article discussed have escalated since, another issue is the war on drugs.  An increased emphasis for politicians to be “tough on crime” has led to stricter laws and harsher punishments for criminals, especially for relatively victimless drug crimes.  These longer sentences result in even more crowded prisons, expanding the problems previously discussed.  In addition, funding has been focused more on law enforcement that further increases the incarceration rate, with less emphasis on treatment of drug addicts that could prevent crime in the future.  Fortunately, recent drops in crime rate have made the “tough on crime” stance less prominent in the public eye, providing hope for more effective prison reform to be implemented in the future.  (For more information on the current state of prisons, read “Prison Reform“)

As you can see, prison reform has been a slow and difficult process throughout America’s history, but there have believed and will continue to believe we can change our justice system for the better.


Works Cited


Knott, John. “Uneven Race.” Cartoon. Dallas Morning News [Dallas] 21 Mar. 1937, sec. 2: 10.
America’s Historical Newspapers. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.,. ‘Prisons: History – Modern Prisons’. N. p., 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.,. ‘Penology – Definition And More From The Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary’. N. p., 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

“Prison Reform.” Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices. Ed. Roger Chapman. Vol. 2. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2010. 441-443. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

“Small Prison Plants.” Dallas Morning News [Dallas] 21 Mar. 1937, sec. 2: 10. America’s Historical
Newspapers. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Yackle, Larry. “Prisons and Prison Reform.” Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanley I. Kutler. 3rd ed. Vol. 6. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. 476-479. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.