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How the U.S. Is Becoming a Nation of Prisoners

Huge numbers of prisoners are creating social and economic problems.

Incarceration in the U.S. has become an epidemic that is threatening the very economic and social structure of the country.

Here are some figures and facts that may shock you:

  • The U.S. leads the world with more prisoners than any other country (2.2 million);
  • The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners;
  • The incarceration rate for the U.S. is 716 per 100,000. In comparison, Russia has 571, China 218, Canada, 123, Australia 133, Spain,159, Germany 82, Sweden 78, The Netherlands 82, and Japan 59;
  • Between 1930 and 1970 the average incarceration rate in the U.S. was 110 per 100,000;
  • As of 2006, 7.2 million people in the U.S. were in prison, on probation or on parole, roughly 1 in every 32 Americans;
  • 1 in 90 children in the U.S. has a mother or father in prison;
  • In major cities in the U.S., 80% of young African Americans now have criminal records;
  • The U.S. prison system has tripled since 1980;
  • In California, the amount of money budgeted for corrections is greater than that budgeted for higher education;
  • In 1995 alone, 150 new large prisons were built and filled;
  • 67% of  ex-prisoners re-offend and 52% are re-incarcerated;
  • In the U.S. more than 70,000 prisoners are raped in prison every year;
  • 60% of African American male high-school dropouts will go to prison before age 35.

Eric Holder, the current U.S. Attorney General, has declared, “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for too long and for no truly good law-enforcement reason.” This statement has signaled the intent of the administration to address the issue, including direction to federal prosecutors to no longer charge low-level non-violent drug offenders with crimes that require prison sentences. However, this change only applies to federal prisons, and approximately 90% of incarcerated Americans are in state prisons and local jails.

In an article in Harvard Magazine, Elizabeth Gudrais cites the work of Bruce Western, faculty chair of the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management. He says those released from prisons usually become very loosely attached to families and jobs, and these men frequently become homeless. Many prisoners who have served long terms cannot adjust to the outside, once released. Adaptive behavior in prison is maladaptive behavior outside prison. So going back to prison for many seems comforting and familiar, Western says. It’s clear, Western explains, the prison boom is about race and class. Two factors increase the odds of going to prison at sometime during one’s life: being African American or Hispanic and being poor. Gudrais argues that American prisons are used as surrogate mental health and substance abuse facilities. The non-profit Human Rights Watch found that 56% of the U.S. inmates are mentally ill.

There’s another argument against incarcerating so many people, Western says. Putting people in prison is not a deterrent for crime. Crime rates have actually been declining in the last decade. But crime rates have also declined in Europe, Canada and Latin America, without increases in incarceration rates in those countries. Western contends that reductions in social welfare programs since the l970’s are correlated with increases in crime: “we may have skimped on welfare and education, but we paid anyway, splurging on police and prisons.”

Western, an expert in labor markets and statistical models for sociology, says the U.S. owes its comparatively low unemployment rate in part to its high incarceration rate. People who would otherwise be unemployed are excluded from calculations. So it’s clear that increases in incarceration contributes to increases in poverty, and the U.S. poverty rates have been climbing dramatically in the last decade. Western contends that the cost of providing job placement, transitional housing and drug treatment for all released prisoners would be 1/10 of current state and federal spending on corrections.

In the U.S., stricter sentences for drug offenses and longer sentences for violent and repeat offenders has contributed to the higher incarceration rate. For example, the U.S. has 50,000 inmates serving life sentences without parole, whereas the U.K has 41. In a number of countries, life imprisonment has been effectively abolished. Many of the countries whose governments have abolished both life imprisonment and indefinite imprisonment have been culturally influenced or colonized by Spain or Portugal and have written such prohibitions into their current constitutional laws.

A number of European countries have abolished all forms of indefinite imprisonment, including Serbia, Croatia, and Spain, which set the maximum sentence at 40 years, Bosnia and Herzegovina which sets the maximum sentence at 45 years, and Portugal, which sets the maximum sentence at 25 years, while Norway has abolished life imprisonment but retains other forms of indefinite imprisonment.

Conventional American thinking about the need for criminal justice revolves partly around the belief that people have to take responsibility for bad decisions and be punished for them (retributive justice), but rarely do leaders and policy makers examine the issue of why minority and low-income groups are more likely to make bad decisions.

High incarceration rates are a major contributor to poverty and unemployment. For example, a woman who has been released from prison is not eligible for welfare, food stamps, public housing, and student educational loans in many states. She is also not eligible for subsidized housing and will not likely be able to find a job because of her criminal record.

News media and TV reality shows have fuelled the problem by superficial feeding frenzies on crime and notorious prisoners, while at the same time reducing budgets for good investigative journalism.

Yet, looking at crime statistics, despite the media focus, violence occurs in less than 14% of all reported crime. The top 3 charges after those going to prisons are: possession of a controlled substance, possession of the same for purposes of sale, and robbery. Violent crimes like murder, rape and kidnapping don’t make the top 10.

Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, makes the point that there are more people under correctional supervision in America today than there were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin in the Soviet Union.

Gopnik asks “How did we get here? How is it our civilization, which rejects hanging and flogging and disemboweling, come to believe that caging vast numbers of people for decades is an acceptable human sanction.” Some would argue, he suggests, that current prison system is essentially a slave plantation continued by other means.

Investment firms such as Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney have invested in or are part owners of prisons in Florida, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Prisons are the leading rural growth industry, with the decline of agriculture for those other than agri-corporations.

In the 1980’s the rising number of people incarcerated as a result of the War on Drugs stimulated the emergence of the private for-profit prison industry. Prior to the l980s’s private prisons did not exist in the U.S.

In a 2011 report by the ACLU, it claims the rise of the for-profit prison industry is a major contributor to mass incarcerations along with bloated state budgets. Louisiana, for example, has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with the majority of prisoners in privatized prisons. A 2013 Bloomberg report states in the past decade the number of for-profit prisons in the U.S. rose 44%.

Corporations which operate prisons such as the Correction Corporation of America and GEO Group, spend large sums of money lobbying the federal and state governments, particular pressing for the “three strikes and you’re out” laws. These companies have also negotiated agreements with the state governments which guarantee at lest 90% of the prison beds will be filled, or be compensated for empty ones.

And for private business, prison labor is a pot of gold. No unions. No strikes. No unemployment insurance or worker’s compensation. Prisoners can be forced to work and they have no workers’ rights. And some prisons are now charging prisoners for room and board, medical care and toilet paper. Gudrais cites the arguments of some experts who say the prison-industrial complex—those corporations who have employees who work in prisons, sell goods to prisons and benefit form cheap prisoner labor have become a powerful lobby that prevents change.

Citing the work of William Stuntz, a deceased professor at Harvard Law School and author of The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, Gopnik contends “the American justice system has an obsession with both due process and the cult of brutal prisons—both impersonal. The more professionalized and procedural a system is, the more insulated we become from its real effects on people…We lock men up and forget about their existence.” 

Other European countries with lower incarceration rates do things differently. A report from the Vera Institute of Justice states the differences are both philosophical and practical. Resocializeation and rehabilitation are central for the Dutch and German models, whereas the American model of justice focuses on retribution and isolation from society. In Germany and the Netherlands, prison conditions are more humane, fines are preferred over incarceration, solitary confinement is rarely used and sentences are far shorter than in the U.S.

It’s clear that the American approach to justice, with its focus on retribution and isolation, is out of step with other advanced nations, and the large numbers of people in prison and corrections, particularly young African Americans, is doing significant damage to the economy and social structure. It’s time that policy makers see the link between poverty, unemployment and incarceration.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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