Empire and Incarceration: Incarceration Rates over Time in 20th Century Colonial Empires

Michael Zanger-Tishler, Harvard University
Rachel Rood-Ojalvo, Independent Scholar
John Clegg, University of Sydney
Adaner Usmani, Harvard University

Stylized facts about incarceration strongly influence our understanding and analysis of the carceral state. It is well established, for example, that the United States’ incarceration rate is one of the highest in the world and has grown dramatically over the past fifty years. Furthermore, the United States is often compared to contemporary western European states, which have substantially lower incarceration rates. Yet these international comparisons are usually cross-sectional and include only the western European metropoles. Thus, these stylized facts ignore the incarceration rates of colonies and protectorates, which often had substantially larger populations than their European metropoles. In this paper, we construct a novel time series of incarceration rates for some of the biggest European colonies in the 20th century and compare the United States to Europe when including colonies in western European incarceration rates. We assemble a unique longitudinal dataset derived from over a dozen 20th century archival sources to compile incarceration data from France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and the United States and their largest colonies: Algeria and Vietnam (France), India and Nigeria (UK), Congo (Belgium), and the Philippines (United States). We find that incarceration rates were substantially higher in colonies than in the metropole, especially in French Algeria and Vietnam and the Belgian Congo. Additionally, admissions rates are particularly high in colonial possessions suggesting that the number of those entering prisons each year in European colonial empires was even more extreme than in the metropole. When compared to the United States, we see that combined colonial and metropolitan European incarceration rates were significantly higher than in the United States in the early 20th century, and then declined during decolonization. We argue that this stylized statistical fact can be used to reframe debates about comparative incarceration rates and American penal exceptionalism.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 177. Crime, Justice and the Law