The Race to Incarcerate: Two Million and Growing

During the ’90s, the United States surpassed South Africa, Russia, and China in the proportion of its citizens locked up behind bars. This race to incarcerate has been fueled by a “rage to punish,” but in the process, the US has inadvertently recreated all the vestiges of a forgotten horror – slavery. Minorities are the ones who form the demographic majority within this nation’s prison industrial system, where they are daily stripped of their humanity, and brutally exploited for an economic gain by the private sector. If you look for a moment longer you will find the intense anti-democratic nature intrinsic in this complex, where some states even go as far as permanently disenfranchising their felons. Let it be well understood, and made clear, Prison expansion affects us all – it’s not just about those who are unfortunate enough to be caught in this web of profitable punishment. We cannot even begin to consider the future of democracy – without recognizing the threat and devastation that is posed by the prison industrial complex -.

As the United States prison population continues to climb above two million, the world’s largest proportion of incarcerated individuals relative to the general population, the “tough on crime” philosophy which has had a marked impact on this trend has been increasingly challenged by critics. Questions of institutional racism, private profiteering, and the efficacy of the current punishment-oriented model of justice have been amplified by the staggering increase of people behind bars and the massive reallocation of public funds to house them.

During the period between 1930 and 1970, the rate of prisoners relative to the general population remained relatively steady, but the 1980s ushered in a dramatic increase which continues today, although somewhat slowed in recent years. The number of prisoners sentenced for more than one year, who represent 96% of the inmate population, per 100,000 US residents grew from 139 in 1980, to 476 in 1999.

This sharp increase in incarceration rates is due in part to rising overall crime rates during the 70’s and 80’s. But a steady decline during much of the 90’s has not been matched by a similar reduction in the inmate population. Critics attribute this ongoing expansion largely to the punitive emphasis of the criminal justice system resulting from the “war on drugs” and the hardening of public opinion toward criminal offenders.

“Build it, and they will come,” asserts Clark Watson, a former political science professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and longtime criminal justice volunteer. “There is a symbiotic relationship between the legislature which makes the laws which fill the prisons [and prison expansion],” he says. A variety of legislative approaches, such as double-sentencing for felony convictions, eliminating discretionary parole, and mandating 25 years to life for 3-time felons (“Three strikes, you’re out”), have contributed substantially to the burgeoning population of people behind bars, Watson says.

Mandatory minimum sentencing has also had a marked affect, particularly within the federal system. First enacted by Congress in 1986, mandatory minimums require that judges sentence drug offenders to harsh prison terms for a predetermined amount of time without the possibility of parole. Under the mandatory minimum formula, sentences are determined solely by the weight of the drugs. Mitigating factors such as the severity of the crime, the offender’s role in the offense, and his or her past criminal record – [factors historically used by judges to tailor the punishment to the particularities of each case] – can no longer be considered.

Even though such statutes have serious financial impacts on the limited resources of government budgets, when it comes to building and operating prisons, “money is no object,” Watson insists.

The costs of incarceration, which include operational funds, and investments in the construction of new facilities and maintenance of old ones, are the fastest growing area of state and federal government spending.

From 1987 to 1995, state government expenditures on prisons increased by 30% while spending on higher education dropped by 18%. On the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons budget request of $3.8 billion in 2000 was an increase of 1700% since the 1986 budget of $220 million.

Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the tax dollars allocated for incarceration is questioned by critics, some of whom are former inmates themselves.

Fleet Mall, who spent 14 years in federal prison on small time drug charges argues that the widespread demonization of prisoners reflected in “tough on crime” statutes constantly reinforces the perception of prisoners, even amongst themselves, of being less than human. Mall explains that the prison system creates a “pervasive environment of anger and bitterness,” which “buries individuals under a mountain of guilt.” Mall insists that under these circumstances, guilt is a debilitating emotion that does not permit individuals who have committed a crime to access genuine regret.

With 95% of prisoners eventually released into the free world, the disempowering nature of incarceration may actually aid the ongoing prison expansion. Recidivism rates, which show that a majority of persons released from prison will be rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within 3 years of their release, indicates that many former inmates quickly repeat their same mistakes.

“There is something fundamentally flawed about the assumption that you can lock people up and then expect them to become rehabilitated,” says Angela Davis, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz widely known for her activism in the 60’s and 70’s, and whose “life’s work” has been taking on prison issues. Rather than provide an opportunity for self-improvement, “Prisons are breeding grounds for homophobia, racism, and sexism,” she contends.

“Many people in prison are there because they just made a mistake. We tend to think about the imprisoned population as a population of murderers and rapists,” but, “The vast majority of [people] in prison in this country are in for non-violent charges, charges that are related to drugs,” says Davis. She sees this distorted public perception reflected in the questionable rationale behind the illegality of street drugs on one hand, and the mainstream acceptance of prescription drugs on the other. “I find it absolutely ironic that you can turn on the television and see an add that says, ‘if you have social anxiety, ask your doctor about praxo’.” Meanwhile, “there are poor people who don’t have a doctor they can ask about praxo,” but there is a whole range of street drugs available to them, she says. “They’re trying to feel better and they end up getting punished as a result of it.”

Issues of class, race, and gender all interrelate to compound the handicap for how individuals are dealt with by the criminal justice system, Davis says.

Watson refers to poor children of color as “kids born with one foot in the jail.” He spoke of the case of 16-year-old Mathew Adam Romero of Colorado who recently received a jail sentence for truancy charges. Romero couldn’t even remember the name of his court-appointed lawyer, because he had almost no interaction with her. On two occasions, his lawyer missed court hearings, sending a substitute instead. Even while Romero’s school administrators wished to speak against his incarceration, his legal council failed to call them forth to testify on his behalf. “Because there was no competent defense, the judge dropped the axe,” Watson explained, adding that this type of situation is commonplace.

The US Department of Justice reported that at current levels of incarceration, newborn black males have more than a 1 in 4 chance of going to prison during their lifetimes while white males have a 1 in 23 chance of serving time.

While the race demographics within prisons are often times the mirror image of the demographics within the general public – 67% of state and federal inmates are minorities but account for only 28% of the general population – opponents refute the statistics and analogies with the assertion that minority populations are simply committing more crimes – or more serious crimes. However, several studies reveal a double standard even when similar types of crimes are compared.

A report by the Youth Law Center says that minority youth that commit crimes are more likely than white youth who commit comparable crimes to be referred to juvenile court, detained, charged as an adult, and serve time in adult facilities. Other studies by the U.S. Department of Justice show that among persons convicted of drug felonies in state courts, African Americans were more likely to be sent to prison than whites, with 46% of convicted African American defendants receiving prison sentences, compared to 32% of convicted white defendants.

This discrepancy worries many critics who are concerned that those already disadvantaged by the system are then vulnerable to the economic exploitation of their captivity – which reinforces the corruption of justice by providing a financial incentive for expanding the number of people in prison.

Somebody is making a lot of money as a result of this huge imprisoned population: that somebody is, ‘Corporations’.

Angela Davis reports that, “Corporations provide the goods and services. They develop the prison design plans. They construct the prisons. [They] produce almost anything you can imagine that are connected with this prison industrial complex.”

“And then you have those corporations that use prison labor directly or indirectly,” says Davis.

The public had a rude awakening recently to the practice of employing prisoners as telemarketers to sell anything from G-rated movies to vacation get-aways, when an inmate was caught having a correspondence with a teen-age girl who had been originally contacted while on the job. But prison officials defend work programs in general. “Inmates that are idle are more restless and violent natured,” while jobs keep them busy and easier to manage, says Jack Ford, Utah Department of Corrections Spokesperson.

Most critics would agree, and support the work ethic which inmates acquire as a result. Work opportunities connected to the private sector are considered “premier” jobs because they pay significantly higher than standard prison work such as license plate manufacturing. However, they are generally occupations which are considered undesirable in the public job market, such as roofing, waste management, and asbestos removal.

In addition, the private sector jobs rarely pay substantially higher than the federal minimum wage, which they are required to pay to inmates, and up to 80% of an inmate’s wages can be deducted for victim restitution and state reimbursement for costs of work supervision and general incarceration. The end result is a “catch 22” with inmates who participate in the work programs getting very little for what they put into it, while those who do nothing may be eligible for “indigent” status that provides them a small stipend for a minimal prison life.

Many states are also experimenting with the private prison industry in order to alleviate the costs of imprisonment and manage the chronic overcrowding of government prisons. Private prisons are corporations owned and operated for profit, which use investor money to build the prisons and then charge the government a per capita, per day fee for housing prisoners. Two government studies, however, by the General Accounting Office and the U.S. Attorney General report that there is too little reliable data to conclude that private prisons actually save taxpayers money.

Critics go further, saying that costs are inevitably cut in order to turn a profit by underpaying and undertraining employees, which may have undue consequences on the safety of prisoners and the public.

The many jagged and twisted jigsaw pieces involved in the race to incarcerate has intensely sinister implications to many when considered as a whole. Not only are corporations benefiting from a prison population which is predominantly of color, but felons in 12 states lose their right to vote permanently. At any given time in the U.S., 1 in 7 black men can not vote, and in Alabama, the number is as high as 1 in 3.

“400,000 black men in Florida could not vote, either because they are in prison or because they have been in prison? If those guys alone had been able to vote, the outcome [of the presidential elections] would not have been so murky,” says Davis, referring to the fact that African Americans voted overwhelmingly for former Vice-President Al Gore. Davis notes that, “prison is the quintessential anti-democratic institution, because [it] deprives you precisely of those rights that democracy gives to you.”

When considering the predominance of minority inmates behind bars and the resulting withdrawal of their democratic rights – sometimes even after they serve their time – combined with the profiteering of the private sector – from not only prison labor but from the mere incarceration of bodies in private prisons – the appearance of a modern defacto-slavery is difficult to deny.

“[Prison expansion] is driven by race and is an inherently evil and deliberate system every bit as evil as the slavery imposed on southern states,” claims Watson.

“We take prisons for granted: we assume they have always been here, and are the only way you can address issues of crime.” Davis says. However, “The prison was a historical invention,” she offers, referring to the Quaker origins of the penitentiary in the 18th century as an alternative form of punishment. “And if it was invented historically, we can also think about other forms of punishment – other ways of addressing these issues,” she continues.

“Education for me is the major alternative,” she said, mentioning that in her home state of California, “a black man is five times more likely to be found in a prison than in a classroom.” Foremost, she advised the nation to shift the financial resources away from incarceration and into schools at every level of the education system.

As a self-declared “abolitionist,” a label applying to both the death penalty and the prison system, Davis would not naively “open up all the prison cells and let all the criminals out,” she says. “It’s about envisioning other kinds of institutions,” and thinking about other ways of addressing the problems that lead people to prison. She notes the de-industrialization of the economy and the resulting job losses as forming a relationship with the emergence of “illegal economies” that “many people become involved in because there aren’t opportunities for jobs anywhere else.”

Davis supports the establishment of a network of social structures to deal with different varieties of crimes, such as treatment centers for drug related crimes. “There are all these trajectories that end up in prison. Why can’t some of these trajectories end up in a place that is more productive?” she asks, adding, “I’m not suggesting that there aren’t some people that need to be separated from society, but that separation should not be used to deal with every issue that is deemed a crime.” She goes further to suggest strategies of de-carceration within the law itself. “We could very easily reduce the prison population by decriminalization of drugs,” she mentions.

Others suggest models of punishment which empower those who have committed crimes through meaningful work such as service to the community. Restorative justice is such a model, which has gained some mainstream acceptance recently, that allows a certain degree of community control over minor crimes in order to facilitate healing between the offender and victim.

Ultimately, we have to change the way we think about prison issues, Davis maintains. “Prison expansion affects us – it’s not just about those who are unfortunate enough to be caught in this web of profitable punishment. We cannot consider the future of democracy without recognizing the threat that is posed by the prison industrial complex,” she warns.

Davis, and others, want us to consider history within the context of our present moment – that the way we deal with issues of criminal justice today, will tell something to those looking back about the way we collectively valued our humanity. “There will come a time,” says Davis, “when your grandchildren will ask, ‘Back then there were 2 million people in prison – How could you just allow that to happen?”

“The way that you will be able to answer those questions 20 or 30 years down the line will be dependent on the decisions you make now as to whether you’re going to try to make a difference in the world,” she concludes.

Author: Giles Larsen and Andy Jones

News Service: Utah IMC


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