According to Smith and Hattery, there are currently more than 2.6 million Americans serving prison sentences in State and Federal prisons, and one million — or 43% of all prisoners (including both, men and women) — are African American. If we examine the statistics by gender, then African American men represent about two thirds (62%) of the male prison population. African American men comprise only 13% of the total U.S. male population (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 6). This seems a clear indication that something about American culture — a combination of its socioeconomic, legislative and judicial systems — is causing a significant disproportion in our prison population.
Spear observes that the United States incarcerates a disproportionately large number of poor and uneducated Americans; thus, nearly all of the prisoners are from poor and uneducated backgrounds, and many of them are African Americans. Citing statistics from the nonprofit organization The Sentencing Project, the author notes that “black males born today have a one in three chance of going to prison during their lifetime — as compared to a one in 17 chance for white males.” The author also observes that the “mentally disturbed, lacking support in the community, gravitate toward the prison system, where they will find little help” (Spear, 2006, p. 22). Clear observes that people who go to prison “come disproportionately from a handful of neighborhoods, impoverished places where schools are bad, the labor market weak, and housing inadequate.” The author then concludes that the social effects of incarceration are hyperconcentrated among young, poor, black men and urban black communities (Clear, 2007, p. 615).
Smith and Hattery offer another interesting statistic and comparison. They point out that, as of their writing in 2006, 450,000 of the more than 2 million inmates are serving sentences in state and federal prisons for non-violent drug offenses. The authors also point out that this number (450,000) represents more prisoners than the European Union has in prison for all crimes combined — and the EU has a larger population than the U.S. by 100 million people (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 6). Smith and Hattery note that African American males represented only 9% of the prison population in the 1970s, but after harsher drug law sentencing came into effect, the population climbed to its current 62% representation (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 22).
Over the last decade, the U.S. jail and prison population has continued to rise sharply. Spear and other researchers concur that a “get-tough” legal approach to the distribution and use of illicit drugs is the primary cause for the increase. Spear notes that many of the prisoners who are there for drug offenses actually have no record of violent offenses; the author also observes that there are other expanding groups in the prison population. The rise of “tough-on-crime” laws has allowed far more juveniles to be tried in an adult court at much younger ages than previously, and according to The Sentencing Project, these adult sentences that are imposed on children are “unduly severe”. As we shall see, the conditions in juvenile prisons are also unduly severe. Spear notes that the women prison population has also increased significantly, and the author comments that this situation usually leaves their children either with a family member or the children end up as wards of the state. This of course weakens or perhaps destroys the family structure of the imprisoned (Spear, 2006, p. 23). To summarize, the prison population is mostly poor and uneducated, predominantly African American, increasingly women, children, and the mentally disturbed, and the biggest cause of this increase are the changes in drug laws.
Prison Past, Present and Future
President Richard Nixon began a “War on Drugs” during his presidency with a formal announcement. Ronald Reagan first developed harsh drug policies at the state level as Governor of California, after which he became U.S. President and significantly expanded Nixon’s “War on Drugs” as a federal policy. Smith and Hattery point out that the U.S. Government’s “War on Drugs” instituted four major policy changes that directly increased the prison population:
(1) longer sentences; (2) mandatory minimums; (3) some drug offenses were moved from the misdemeanor category to the felony category; and (4) the institution of the “Three Strikes You’re Out” policy (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 5).
California governors of the 1980s and 1990s strongly encouraged more prison construction, and helped set a national trend, while the California legislature enacted more than 400 pieces of legislation that increased criminal penalties, and thereby ensured that the state would need even more prisons (Simon, 2007, p. 494). To date, California has continued its trend for increasing the number of prisons. Saska reports that the present governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, recently called for the issuance of $8.7 billion of lease revenue bonds to expand the capacity of California’s overfilled prison system. Saska also reports that the governor expects California lawmakers to comply because there are several lawsuits pending over poor conditions in the overcrowded prison system, and federal judges are close to intervening (Saska, 2006, p. 1). The $8.7 billion of lease revenue bonds will increase California’s prison capacity by creating “16,238 new beds at existing sites, 5,000 to 7,000 beds in new secure re-entry facilities designed to help acclimatize prisoners who are close to release, and a modernized death row” (Saska, 2006, p. 40).
California is not alone in expanding the prison system. Albanese reports that Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst intends to add 5,000 new beds to its prison system. Dewhurst argues that Texas has not added any significant number of beds to its prison system since the 1990s when it issued about $1 billion of bonds for prisons. Since that time, the prison population has boomed, with Texas prisons currently holding 160,000 inmates. Dewhurst says having the extra prison capacity will benefit the state in the long run (Albanese, 2007, p. 9), which indicates his expectation for the number of incarcerated to increase.
The end result of our change to a punitive approach to crime — and particularly our severe laws on nonviolent crimes such as drug sales or use — is that the U.S. far outstrips every other country in the world in per capita incarcerations. The U.S. currently incarcerates a much higher proportion of its population than Russia or even China, a country that Smith and Hattery note has incarceration practices that are “frequently the target of investigations and reports by human rights watch groups such as Amnesty International” (Smith and Hattery, 2007, p. 275).
California and Texas demonstrate a national trend that is about to cause America to even further outstrip all other countries for incarcerations. Johnson reports that the most recent analysis of the Pew Charitable Trusts (the Pew report) predicts the number of inmates in U.S. prisons will probably rise an additional 13% during the next five years, and will cost states approximately $27.5 billion in new operating and construction expenses (Johnson, 2007, ¶ 1). Frederickson observes that “the costs of the American penal system are astonishing,” and notes that, in the past 20 years, “state prison costs have jumped from about $12 billion to just under $50 billion.” The author also notes that these costs are estimated to grow to $75 billion by 2011 (Frederickson, 2008, p. 11). Thus, we can expect much more tax money to go into our burgeoning prison system.
Since our prison population has been rapidly increasing in the last few decades, it seems logical that the cause would be an increase in the number of violent crimes, but there has not been an increase in violent crimes. In fact, there has been a significant decrease. According to Smith and Hattery, “since 1991 the rate of violent crime in the US has fallen by about 20%, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50%” (Smith and Hattery, 2007, p. 274). Clear gives us yet more specific information about the nonexistent relationship between incarceration figures and crime rates:
…a 500 percent generation-long growth in imprisonment has had little impact on crime. Broadly speaking, crime rates today are about what they were in 1973, though they have fluctuated dramatically over the 33-year time span since then. Beginning in 1973, crime rates went up into the early 1980s, went down for a few years at the end of that decade, went back up again, and then experienced a lengthy downward trend starting in the late 1990s. Prison populations, on the other hand, have risen every year since 1990 (Clear, 2007, p. 613).
As noted above, one of the biggest reasons for the increase is our harsh approach to nonviolent crimes — especially our punitive laws on drug distribution, sales and use. The Pew analysts have determined that the phenomenal growth “is being fueled by mandatory minimum sentences that have stretched prison terms for many criminals, declines in inmates granted parole and other policies that states have passed in recent years to crack down on crime” (Johnson, 2007, ¶ 2). The Pew report specifically cites harsher drug laws as one of the main factors in increasing the nation’s prison population (Johnson, 2007, ¶ 14), and the report also confirms that the number of incarcerated women is expected to increase even more than men. Pew analysts predict that “the number of female inmates will rise at a faster rate (16%) than males (12%)” (Johnson, 2007, ¶ 10). Also, by 2011, Florida’s prison system will join California and Texas by becoming the third state system to surpass 100,000 inmates (Johnson, 2007, ¶ 11).
The private business sector benefits in various ways from increased incarcerations, and this should be examined more closely. Smith and Hattery note that many Fortune 500 companies have been taking advantage of the cheap labor resources available through prison populations. The use of prison labor allows corporations to save significantly on labor costs and thereby increase their profits “much like plantations, ship builders, and other industries did during the 200 plus years of slavery in the United States” (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 11). Though the comparison to slavery seems extreme, the authors argue a very convincing case, as we shall see. Smith and Hattery use a term that seems appropriate, and will probably come into common use when discussing the U.S. prison system. The authors refer to it as the “Prison Industrial Complex (PIC)”, and they argue that the capitalist economy and the prison system that characterizes the PIC create a symbiotic system. The authors observe that prisons only make money when the prison beds are occupied, and that “the more prisons provide labor for corporations, the more prisons will be built”. Their conclusion is alarming. They propose that “the PIC and its attendant industries contribute to the increased rates of incarceration in the US and the continued exploitation of labor, primarily African American labor” (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 11). The authors point out that it makes basic economic sense that, when there are empty prison cells, the prison loses money, and “prisons beds” — as industry insiders refer to their economic units — need full capacity for optimal profit. The authors argue that the PIC is a self-perpetuating system:
“We must impose harsher and longer sentences and we must continue to funnel inmates into prisons… and this funnel is not being filled with white collar offenders such as Bernie Ebbs (WorldCom), Ken Lay (Enron), or Martha Stewart, but rather by vulnerable, unempowered populations, primarily young, poor, African American men” (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 13).
The recent change in inmate labor regulations has created a system wherein inmate labor is increasingly subcontracted for a variety of business sectors. Subcontracting companies act as “middle-men” for many of the largest companies in the United States, such as McDonald’s, Sprint, Compaq, Toys R Us, Revlon, IBM, Motorola, Texas Industries, Honeywell, Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret, and Pierre Cardin. The “middlemen” subcontracting companies that are hired by America’s largest companies use prison labor for telemarketing, call service, manufacturing, packaging, and distributing their products, though in some cases there is no middleman and the companies directly outsource to prison labor. Smith and Hattery note that, although Americans are unaware of it, every day they are the beneficiary of the work done by ten to 15 prison laborers (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 17), and Americans use about 30 products daily that were produced, packaged, or sold out of a prison. The authors also make an astute observation on the ultimate reach of this economic system by observing “prison industries have truly infiltrated the global market” (Smith and Hattery, 2007, p. 283).
We should also be aware of other aspects to the prison labor system. Corporations pay prisoners a sub-minimum wage (often less than $1 per hour), and are making enormous profits on prison labor (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 13). Additional advantages to the use of prison labor, besides the obvious advantage of paying very low wages, are that companies who use prison labor don’t have to provide health insurance or vacation benefits, and they need not be concerned about severance pay or lay-offs (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 14). They can conveniently increase the number of prison workers during peak sales periods, and send them back to their cells whenever sales decline (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 19).
Although big companies pay prison workers much less than they pay for workers on the outside, they aren’t actually reducing the markup to the consumer and instead pocket the increased profits (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 19). The system thus benefits the wealthier citizens who might own stock in these companies, but it does not help the average American worker or consumer. In fact, evidence suggests that, if anything, the system creates negative effects for the average American worker. Smith and Hattery note that the exploitation of inmate labor can cause higher unemployment and lower wages in local communities (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 17).
Corporations and Prisons
Another benefit to the private sector is the outsourcing of both, the construction of prisons and the operation and management of those prisons. For example, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which builds and staffs prisons, currently manages “67,000 beds (approximately 62,000 inmates) in 63 facilities — from California to Oklahoma to Montana to the District of Columbia — and have plans to build more”. CCA trades on the New York Stock Exchange and employs approximately 15,000 personnel (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 12). Private corporations such as CCA not only make high profits on building and operating prisons, they also profit on many outsourcing services, such as food service or other services, and they profit on “leasing” prisoner labor to the multinational corporations in the above-described scenario (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 21). In short, the Prison Industrial Complex is booming in spite of the 20% decrease in violent crime over the last few decades.
After recently loosening the laws that prohibited the direct competition between prisons and free enterprise, some prisons have also begun directly producing their own goods for the mainstream market. For example, an Oregan prison that started out making denim uniforms for all the inmates in the entire Oregon State Prison system has successfully marketed its own denim clothing line. The Prison Blues Garment Factory operates behind barbed wire, and Americans are now ordering the prison factory’s “Prison Blues”® clothing through the internet (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 16). Supporters of the PIC argue that “this is a positive movement in the evolution of prisons because it provides work, it teaches job skills that are transportable, and it allows inmates to earn some money while they are on the inside.” Although these arguments are founded in a rehabilitative mentality, we should ask whether the system is actually based on a rehabilitative philosophy, or whether it is entirely based on convenient exploitation of prisoners to maximize corporate profits (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 18).
Corporate exploitation of prisoners can also occur from the customer end. For example, prisoners pay much higher fees for making collect calls to speak with their families. According to the New York Times, prisons all over the country have been “gouging inmates and their families when telephone companies started paying legalized kickbacks — called ‘commissions’ — to the state prison systems for monopoly on the service.” The state of New York recently set a national precedent by forcing its corrections department to change its long-standing policy of charging prison inmates and their families more than six times the going rate for collect calls made from prison. As the article observes, “these schemes place a huge financial burden on inmate families, who tend to be among the poorest in the nation, and who must often choose between paying phone bills and putting food on the table” (A Good Call in New York, 2007, abstract of New York Times).
There are also many cases of corruption and scandal from corporations operating our prisons. For example the GEO Group, a publicly traded company that runs private prison facilities across the country, is once again facing accusations of human rights abuses against inmates in its facilities (Dahl, 2008, ¶ 1). In 2000 the same company was known as Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, and they were sued for “excessive abuse and neglect” of inmates at the Jena Juvenile Justice Center in Jena, Louisiana (Dahl, 2008, ¶ 5). A scandal involving the same company also occurred in Texas, where 11 juvenile girls successfully sued the Wackenhut prison, and two Wackenhut employees pled guilty to criminal charges of sexual assault. According to one of the girls, every night a guard raped her. Unfortunately, the girl committed suicide on the day of the legal settlement (Locked inside a nightmare, 2000, ¶ 10). Apparently, the company used the strategy of changing its name to escape the bad press, and is now facing new accusations in Oregon. Dahl observes that, despite this, “California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently granted GEO a five-year, multi-million contract extension with the state” (Dahl, 2008, ¶ 8).
Politics and the Prison System
Echoing the previous argument of Smith and Hattery, Simon notes that “our current program of mass incarceration threatens to recreate the worst features of post-slavery America while escaping most of the protections provided by the Reconstruction constitutional amendments and the civil rights legacy they produced.” The author points out young men, and increasingly women, are being “shunted into a system whose not so unintended effect is to cast them into a permanently diminished citizenship.” Additionally, our prison system strips the social capital from minority communities by the removal and degradation of their human capital. Simon writes, “it is not difficult to reach the bleak conclusion that the prison has become an engine of social war against some of America’s most vulnerable communities” (Simon, 2007, p. 499).
In other words, the “War On Drugs” is in reality a politically-based “War on the Poor and Uneducated.” Smith and Hattery note that harsh sentencing guidelines have filled America’s prisons with a surprisingly large number of young Black and Hispanic men who are guilty of little more than untreated drug addictions (Smith and Hattery, 2006, p. 21). It should be added that socioeconomic status highly influences whether harsh sentencing guidelines are applied to a person’s drug addiction. This becomes quite clear if we consider that, with money and connections, an affluent cocaine user will end up in an expensive private “rehab” center rather than in the prison system. For example, in 2002 Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, entered his daughter Noelle Bush into a drug treatment program after she was arrested trying to use a counterfeit drug prescription at a pharmacy. While in the treatment center, she was caught in possession of “a small white rock substance” (crack cocaine), that the police lab-tested as positive for cocaine, but no charges were filed and she remained in the center (Police investigate Jeb Bush’s daughter, 2002, ¶ 2-3). In Florida, there are much harsher laws for possession of crack cocaine than powder cocaine. The poor and uneducated do not receive the same patient and compassionate rehabilitative system when they are caught in possession; rather, they face a quick and very punitive legal and judicial system.
A good question to ask is “to what extent has crime been politicized?” Blumstein writes that, concurrent to the growth period of the prison system, “being ‘tough on crime’ and especially being able to label one’s opponent as ‘soft on crime’ provided great political advantage in a nation that was becoming increasingly concerned about the crime problem” (Blumstein, p. 4). The author then reminds us of the classic political TV advertisement of the period, which was “a 30-second ‘sound bite’ showing the candidate vigorously slamming shut a cell door and then proclaiming his toughness on crime.” Blumstein observes that this particular form of advertising became so popular that it bordered on cliché, but he reasons that this kind of political ad campaign was effective since it was simple enough to fit the typical 30-second TV advertising format. The author argues that politicians saw great political advantage in demonstrating their toughness on crime, and because of this the U.S. experienced a wide variety of legislative changes that directly contributed to increasing our prison population (Blumstein, p. 5). The author also makes an important distinction between the growth of crime, and the growth of punitiveness, which essentially explains how violent crimes could go down even while the number of incarcerated doubled. It is not that violent crimes have increased, but that laws have become much more punitive for nonviolent crimes — and these harsh laws were probably enacted for essentially political reasons.
Jones brings up another angle to the politicization of crime, and that is the role of lobbying from the Prison Industrial Complex. The author notes that the correctional officers union in California has become one of the state’s top political contributors, and that their lobbying efforts push for tougher laws and longer sentences” (Jones, 2006, ¶ 6), presumably to ensure steady if not increased employment of corrections officers. Jones also notes that “private firms quickly get addicted to the government cash. They, too, have poor rehabilitation rates and spend their time lobbying state legislatures for tougher laws and longer sentences” (Jones, 2006, ¶ 8).
Once the tougher laws get pushed through, state governors further benefit the private sector from tax dollars by increasing the prison system budget. Frederickson notes that growth in spending for our prison system has pushed aside other priorities. The author gives the example that, for the past 20 years state spending on higher education has increased by 21 percent, but the spending for our prison system has increased 127 percent (Frederickson, 2008, p. 11). Politics has changed government into a system of governing through politicized crime in society, and Frederickson asks what the end result of governing through crime has done to government. The author argues:
Whether one values American democracy for its liberty or its equality-enhancing features, governing through crime has been bad. First, the vast reorienting of fiscal and administrative resources toward the criminal justice system at both the federal and state levels has resulted in a shift aptly described as transformation from the ‘welfare state’ to the ‘penal state.’ The result has not been less government, but a more authoritarian executive, a more passive legislature, and a more defensive judiciary than even the welfare state itself was accused of producing (Frederickson, 2008, p. 11).
Blumstein writes that because the politicization of crime has been occurring for some time, and is likely to accelerate, it is all the more urgent to intercept it (Blumstein, p. 14). Jones points out the biggest problem with the Prison Industrial Complex by asking a central question and providing the answer: “Where are the financial incentives for prisons to properly perform their rehabilitative function? If anything, the captains of the incarceration industry have a perverse incentive to rehabilitate as few people as possible and keep business booming” (Jones, 2006, ¶ 4). Gonnerman and Brown point out that the punitive philosophy reigning within the Prison Industrial Complex makes the odds of rehabilitation far less. The authors observe that Americas prisons are filled with illiterate men and women who never graduated from high school (75 percent of state inmates), and who will have a very difficult time finding employment. The punitive measures continue once a prisoner is released from the prison system: “Once freed, they become second-class citizens. Depending on the state, they may be denied public housing, student loans, a driver’s license, welfare benefits, and a wide range of jobs.” The authors point out that this may be the reason that, within three years of being released, half of the ex-convicts will be convicted of a new crime (Gonnerman and Brown, 2008, ¶7).
Solution to Prison Growth
The most fundamental solution to the unnecessary growth of our prisons lies within Gonnerman and Brown’s final analysis: “We’ve become a two-tier society in which millions of ostensibly free people are prohibited from enjoying the rights and privileges accorded to everyone else — and we continue to be defined by our desire for punishment and revenge, rather than by our belief in the power of redemption” (Gonnerman and Brown, 2008, ¶ 8).
The most basic change that needs to occur is a change in our belief as to what function prisons should serve for our society, and also in our perception of what constitutes crime worthy of lengthy incarceration. Spear suggests that a good starting place for reform is to change the mandatory-minimum drug laws that keep low-level drug offenders incarcerated for decades. The author also believes citizens should urge lawmakers to change drug law sentencing to treatment rather than to prison. Spear and other researchers of the prison system believe that the goal of criminal justice should not be simply to punish, but to prepare prisoners for re-entry into the communities to which they will eventually return (Spear, 2006, p. 23), meaning rehabilitation.
From a rehabilitative perspective, education in prisons is of primary importance. According to Bracey, research into the impact of education on recidivism finds positive effects, whether the program provides basic secondary education, vocational education, or college education. The author cites research into the efficacy of education in reducing recidivism, and writes that “participation in prison education programs reduced recidivism by about 29% overall, recidivism being defined as re-arrest, re-conviction, or re-incarceration.” However, education in prisons has significantly diminished since America has taken its punitive approach (Bracey, 2006, p. 253). Gonnerman and Brown observe that congress eliminated Pell grants for prisoners, “a move that effectively abolished virtually all of the 350 prison college programs across the country” (Gonnerman and Brown, 2008, ¶6). Thus, the most powerful tool to prevent recidivism has been significantly reduced, and is at this time under siege.
Jones suggests we begin holding the prison system accountable for reducing recidivism, and that we look at any other creative alternatives, such as community-based programs, that seem to hold promise. “If a community-based program can do a better job at keeping people out of prison with dimes than incarcerators have been doing with dollars, let’s reallocate those funds,” suggests Jones, and he gives the example that YouthBuild USA helps unemployed 16- to 24-year-olds prepare for a high school diploma while they learn job skills. The author suggests we increase funding into such programs (Jones, 2006, ¶ 13). The current policy of “zero tolerance” does not work and feeds a perverse prison market system that is counterproductive to American society in many ways. The change will not be easy since the current philosophy and sentencing policies are deeply rooted. As Simon observes, “the carceral state is not likely to disappear any time soon. Behind the surface of political rhetoric about crime is a vast and interwoven circuitry of knowledge and power, one that links politicians and media celebrities to security experts and law enforcement, to parents and employers” (Simon, 2007, p. 503). The first step, however, is to recognize the damage and social injustice that the current system propagates.
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