The world of the 1981 John Carpenter film classic, Escape From New York, is a dystopian future United States convulsed by riots, crime and the effects of a war with China and the Soviet Union. The film starts with a mechanical narration by Jamie Lee Curtis, setting the scene that crime has spiraled out of control.
This leads to the obvious solution of isolating Manhattan island and turning it into a modern day oubliette, aka the only federal maximum security prison in the country, lacking any possibility of parole. This isolation is enforced by surrounding the far shorelines of the Hudson and East rivers with tall walls and mining all the remaining bridges. The complex is controlled by the United States Police Force (USPF) who make monthly supply drops via helicopters onto the island and kills anyone who tries to escape.
I love looking back on future history to see how things turn out when people use the TV Trope 20 Minutes Into the Future to extrapolate their present. This is not a criticism of their attempt at predicting the future, more just a morbid curiosity that sometimes turns up interesting correlations.
Unfortunately, the film did not elaborate on several interesting points of the backstory but the novelization by Mike McQuay luckily did so we can look there to round things out. For instance, the war between the super-powers did not result in nuclear weapons exchanges but rather chemical weapons being deployed on a massive scale. Chemical weapons that were often slow acting nerve agents that drove people crazy as it destroyed parts of their brains.
This so called gas madness drove citizens of targeted cities into violent crime sprees that explains the lead in title page about a 400% increase in crime. New York was the first target of fire bombing and gas weapons and the result was to turn much of the city into a lawless wasteland populated by cannibals and other crazies. Already naturally isolated by water, similar to Alcatraz, the decision was made to shove convicts onto the asylum island and throw away the key.
Soldiers fighting overseas were also victims of exposure over time that caused them to become unstable and battle crazed. These features were put to use upon their return stateside as they were formed into the black suited enforcement officers of the USPF. The court system could not keep up with, or afford, due process procedures and so in the chaos these black bellies, as they were known, became sanctioned judge and jury. Their efforts effectively drove nearly three million convicts from across the country onto Manhattan island.
So let’s poke at the crime statistics a little bit and see where it takes us. When Carpenter was writing the screenplay for the film it was 1976 so that is a good place to start to see what his worldview was based on. According to data, the total crime index per 100,000 people in the population was 5,287 in 1976. This is based on the two constituent indices of violent crimes at 468 and property crimes at 4,819 per 100k.
In our 1988 the US crime index was at 5,664, with violent crimes increased to 637 and property crimes up to 5,027 per 100k. So the increase was about 7% compared to the doomsday scenario presented in the film. What if we consider the highest the crime index reached? It reached 5,950 in 1980, with violent crimes peaking in 758 in 1991 and property crimes at 5,353 also in 1980. So at their worst, violent crimes reached 162% of their 1976 value, adjusted for population, and property crime at about 111%.
Since the film is about a prison, how about we look closer at prison incarceration data? Well according to the New York Times archive, in 1976 there were 283,268 people in state and federal prisons. In 1988, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 627,402 people in state and federal prisons which is 221% of the 1976 number, or 197% adjusted for population growth. What about the highest prison incarceration numbers we have seen in the US? In 2009 the total prison population reached 1,615,487, a 570% increase over the 1976 value, or 405% when adjusted for population growth.
So depending on how you look at the statistics, the US reached a 400% increase in convicts per-capita in 2009, rather than 1988, but without requiring walling off Manhattan island or World War 3.
Or Snake Plissken for that matter.