Growing up in West Texas, as I did, I acquired the habit of looking down over the railings every time I drove over a bridge. The reason why, of course, was to see if there was any water in the arroyo or canyon or streambed or riverbed below—because more often than not, there wasn’t. If you did see some water, it was like a pleasant little surprise, something always to be remarked upon as you drove past. In Ohio, of course, there’s always water under the bridge, but it took me many years for my subconscious to pick up on that, because I was always looking.
One of the easiest ways to spot when a historian does not know something is to look for the language they use to try to hide that fact. For example, the sentence “Undoubtedly, George Washington was angry when he got the letter” actually means “I have no idea whatsoever how Washington felt, but I’m going with ‘mad.’” Undoubtedly is one of the most common ways historian admit ignorance, but they have many similar stock phrases, all of which basically boil down to “this is my guess.” The fact is, though, that it is hard to know stuff. Any historian worth his or her salt will be painfully aware of all the little (or not so little) gaps of knowledge in anything they write. Sometimes the line beyond the gaps goes pretty straight, so it is not too hard to leap the gap and still be on the right path. But sometimes you just fall into the gap.
In which our intrepid hero is abruptly reminded that not everybody can come and go as they please…
Ohio has over 50,000 inmates in its state prison system, close to its all-time high. Ohio’s prison population is ranked 6th in the nation in size (Ohio is the 7th most populous state). The prison population has grown by about 33% in the past 20 years, during a time when the population of the state itself has increased only slightly. In this, Ohio is representative of a huge problem in the United States: the high rate of incarceration (the highest in the entire world, which is a sad and remarkable fact). It didn’t used to be like this; the incarceration rate was quite low through the history of the United States until the 1980s, when it began to precipitously rise. Longer prison sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, a lack of rehabilitation programs, the heavy criminalization of crack cocaine, and other factors combined to create this serious problem—a problem most people don’t know or care about (if you are interested in prison issues, I strongly recommend subscribing to Prison Legal News). I came across an example of Ohio’s high rate of incarceration myself on this excursion.