Land of the Free?
The Criminalization Industry and its Costs
An article in my local paper last July caught my attention. It was about the building of an extension at the Chesapeake Jail which was done without proper permits. Several articles focusing on that followed but the real issue shouldn't have been the permitting error. The bigger issue is that the Chesapeake Jail, built to house 543 inmates is now averaging 1,150. Chesapeake is not alone in having to deal with this problem. Virginia Beach expanded its jail several years ago and remains overcrowded as do all city jails and prisons in our region. An Urban Institute report states, “Virginia’s incarceration and reentry trends are similar to those observed at the national level. Between 1980 and 2003, the Virginia prison population more than quadrupled, increasing from 8,521 to 35,429 people. The per capita rate of imprisonment in Virginia rose from 159 to 471 per 100,000 residents in the state between 1980 and 2002, an increase of almost 200 percent.” As the report indicates, this is part of a national trend.
Today the United States has approximately 1.8 million people behind bars: about 100,000 in federal custody, 1.1 million in state custody, and 600,000 in local jails. Prisons hold inmates convicted of federal or state crimes; jails hold people awaiting trial or serving short sentences. The United States now imprisons more people than any other country in the world, even more than China, a much larger and more populous nation not known for civil liberties.
Our national prison population remained relatively stable throughout most of the last century. In the mid-1970s the rate began to climb, doubling in the 1980s and then again in the 1990s. The rate is now 445 per 100,000; among adult men it is about 1,100 per 100,000. During the past two decades roughly a thousand new prisons and jails have been built in the United States. Nevertheless, America's prisons are more overcrowded now than when the building spree began, and the inmate population continues to increase by 50,000 to 80,000 people a year. I have to wonder why this is. Have we become a nation of criminals? What Gives?
In looking at this issue I've found some troubling trends. Most of the people locked away in our penal institutions are not violent criminals. Most are poor. The majority are are black and brown, in fact, our population of black and brown prisoners alone is greater than the entire prison population of China. About 70% are illiterate and roughly 200,000 suffer from mental illness. More troubling is the growing industry of private prisons and peripheral industries that profit from high inmate populations.
Much money is made by the building and contracting of private prisons and the many peripheral industries feed at that trough, from builders and those that supply guards to food service and telephone companies that grossly overprice inmate telephone services. As bad as abuses are in state prisons like Virginia's Red Onion Supermax, plagued by scandals of abuse, torture and overuse of solitary confinement, private prisons are even worse for lack of oversight and cost cutting for profits.
How did we get here? Tough on crime legislation which makes better political sense than it does policy is partly to blame. The recently exposed American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a consortium of business interests that influence legislation, plays a major role. ALEC helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today, like mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, “three strikes” laws, tougher immigration policy and “truth in sentencing” laws.
In 1995 alone, ALEC’s “Truth in Sentencing Act” eliminating time off for good behavior was signed into law in twenty-five states including our own. (Then State Rep. Scott Walker was an ALEC member when he sponsored Wisconsin's truth-in-sentencing laws and, according to PR Watch, used its statistics to make the case for the law.)
The use of cheap prison labor for industry used to be illegal in the US to avoid unfair competition but ALEC changed that with its “Prison Industries Act,” and a little-known federal program known as PIE or the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification which, under the guise of vocational rehabilitation, allows the use of prison labor to contracting corporations like Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises, Inc. that make products from office furniture to eyeglass frames and clothes to missile parts, paying captive inmate workers only 14 cents an hour. Hard to compete with that on the open market! Vocational rehabilitation or, job training, is a good thing but it already existed in the prison system without the use of inmates as cheap labor. My stepson learned welding and plumbing in prison and has benefited as a hard-working taxpaying plumber ever since. Publicly funded skills training is a good and much needed investment but one shouldn't have to go to prison to get it and one shouldn't have to compete with prison labor to use it. Free labor cannot compete with slave labor.
The Prison Industrial system that has developed over the last few decades results from and is fed by the “War on Drugs” which keeps our prison population up. This failed policy disproportionately affects African Americans. Over the past 40 years, the War on Drugs has cost more than $1 trillion and accounted for more than 45 million arrests. Since 1994, the disparity between white and non-white prisoners as a percentage of the total prison population has widened dramatically. Although whites account for 69% of drug offenses, state prison incarceration rates for African Americans for drug law violations are almost 20 times those of whites and more than double those of Hispanics. From 1990 to 1994, incarceration for drug offenses accounted for 60% of the increase in the black population in state prisons and 91% of the increase in Federal prisons. In 2009 nearly 1.7 million people were arrested in the U.S. for nonviolent drug charges – more than half of those arrests were for marijuana possession alone.
Though many people in law enforcement are opposed to the continuing war on drugs, police departments have a financial incentive to continue it. When someone is found guilty of selling drugs in any quantity, police departments are authorized to seize and auction off all their property, keeping the money made. Though police departments can always use the money, it sets up a conflict of interest that encourages abuse. The cost of this failed policy has been devastating to those serving years of their lives in our penitentiaries for even minor drug infractions as well as to their families and to our communities. As we saw in the Ryan Frederick case in Chesapeake, unreliable snitches are often used to justify raids and prosecute offenses and lives are needlessly lost. Many innocent people have been locked away for years on the flimsiest of evidence. Many otherwise law abiding people using marijuana for medical reasons are criminalized as well.
As Marc Mauer, the author of the book The Race to Incarcerate says, "We have embarked on a great social experiment . . . No other society in human history has ever imprisoned so many of its own citizens for the purpose of crime control." It seems we are becoming a prison nation. I note that many of our most loudly patriotic citizens are often the most vociferous in voicing tough on crime attitudes, ready to condemn and lock others away – often using the term “thug” with racist overtones. It has become part of our mindset and culture. I have to wonder, is this nation we want to be?
What are the alternatives? How can we turn this around? It seems to me that the privatization of prisons and the incentive of property seizures and slave-cheap prison labor must end. The failed and costly mass criminalization resulting from bad immigration policy and the war on drugs must end.
Nobody wants dangerous criminals running free but is imprisonment really the best and only consequence for non-violent offenders?
Historically, jail is where the condemned awaited punishment, whether hanging or lashing or the public degradation of the stocks. I don't know that we want to return to public lashings though I would prefer a painful beating to a decade in prison. Public lashings were banned in the early 19th century as cruel and unusual but is seems to me that taking years of someones life is far crueler and often worse than the offense being punished. The only people we should lock away are those violent criminals who otherwise would be a danger to others. I think that for many minor and non-violent infractions, fines, public service of some kind, public degradation, home monitoring and sentences served on weekends are better alternatives. Efforts to standardize sentencing guidelines, though well intentioned, have limited judicial discretion and can prove an obstacle to real reform. That this is the kind of subject opportunist politicians avoid fearing the repercussions of being labeled “soft on crime” reflects another problem in itself. Given the growing number of us behind bars and the incentive to capitalize off incarceration in an otherwise tough economy, this is something we need to talk about and reconsider. I believe the time is now.