"Nor is it merely the scope of the mass imprisonment state that has expanded so impressively in the United States. The ideas underlying the doing of criminal justice — the superstructure of justifications and rationalizations — have also undergone a sea change. Rehabilitation is a dead letter; retribution is the thing. The function of imprisonment is not to reform or redirect offenders. Rather, it is to keep them away from us. “The prison,” writes sociologist David Garland, “is used today as a kind of reservation, a quarantine zone in which purportedly dangerous individuals are segregated in the name of public safety.” We have elaborated what are, in effect, a “string of work camps and prisons strung across a vast country housing millions of people drawn mainly from classes and racial groups that are seen as politically and economically problematic.” We have, in other words, marched quite a long way down the punitive road, in the name of securing public safety and meting out to criminals their just deserts.
And we should be ashamed of ourselves for having done so. Consider a striking feature of this policy development, one that is crucial to this moral assessment: the ways in which we now deal with criminal offenders in the United States have evolved in recent decades in order to serve expressive and not only instrumental ends. We have wanted to “send a message,” and have done so with a vengeance. Yet in the process we have also, in effect, provided an answer for the question: who is to blame for the maladies that beset our troubled civilization? That is, we have constructed a narrative, created scapegoats, assuaged our fears, and indulged our need to feel virtuous about ourselves. We have met the enemy and the enemy, in the now familiar caricature, is them — a bunch of anomic, menacing, morally deviant “thugs.” In the midst of this dramaturgy — unavoidably so in America — lurks a potent racial subplot."