There is no other society in the history of humanity that has imprisoned more people than the United States. With only five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. houses twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. That is more than the top thirty-five European countries combined. As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan . Moreover, sixty percent of that correctional population is black or latino.
Our obsession with locking people up in America doesn’t come cheap. States spend more than fifty billion dollars a year on their correctional systems. This does not include the tens of billions of dollars spent by the federal government to police, prosecute, and imprison individuals. Last year, the Department of Justice’s budget was nearly thirty billion dollars with six billion dollars going to the federal bureau of prisons. Our tax dollars support a vast network of prisons, jails, immigration detention centers, and associated personnel that maintain over seven million people under state and federal supervision. By comparison, in 1965 there were 780,000 adults under correctional authority of any type.
The so-called “War on Drugs” has been one of the largest forces behind the explosion of our prison population. This War has failed to curb the use of illegal drugs in our country and has instead succeeded in creating a new racial caste system in the U.S. that legal scholar Michelle Alexander has termed “the New Jim Crow.” Black people are arrested, prosecuted, charged and imprisoned at higher rates than White people for drug offenses. In Los Angeles County, with nearly ten million residents, blacks are arrested at over triple the rate of whites. Blacks are less than 10 percent of L.A. County’s population, but they are 30 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession. While representing only thirteen percent of the U.S. population, and only thirteen percent of drug users, Blacks constitute seventy-four percent of drug offenders sent to prison.
Women are particularly ensnared by the so-called “War on Drugs.” More women, and mothers, are behind bars than at any other point in U.S. history. Since the mid-1980s the number of women in prison has risen by 400%. There were 115,779 women incarcerated in either state or federal prisons at midyear 2008. Overwhelmingly convicted of non-violent crimes, women are the fastest growing group in prison, increasing at nearly double the rate of men. And African American women are four times more likely than white women to be locked up.
The United States manufactures criminals. The billions of dollars that power the prison industrial complex are mostly deployed in the service of racialized surveillance. For example, despite being less than 44 percent of the total population of New York City, black and Latino males composed 85 percent of the pool chosen for stop-and-frisk searches in 2010. With NYPD officers stopping 601,055 people, it means a full 511,000 of those people were men of color (as a point of reference, the population of the entire state of Wyoming is 544,000) . In addition, as already mentioned, although racial minorities constitute around thirty percent of the population, they make up more than sixty percent of our nation’s prisoners.
Yet it is also critical to link immigration and military practices to the carceral state. From Abu Ghraib to the Cook County Jail to the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration, military and prisons form an interlocking system to naturalize violence and punishment as a response to conflict. With the merger of the Immigration and Naturalization Services into the Department of Homeland Security in 2001, there was a corresponding shift from immigration as a service to an agency concerned with enforcement. A network of 400-plus private and public detention centers was established across the United States, making the undocumented an integral and expanding component of the criminalized class. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (the largest U.S. enforcement agency) has a workforce of over 17,000. Its 2008 budget topped five billion dollars. The agency deported 977 non-citizens every day in 2008, a 23.5% increase over 2007. As of June 2007, the agency acknowledged that 62 immigrants died in administrative custody since 2004. The Washington Post recently calculated that "with roughly 1.6 million immigrants in some stage of immigration proceedings, the government holds more detainees a night than Clarion Hotels have guests, operates nearly as many vehicles as Greyhound has buses, and flies more people each day than do many small U.S. airlines."
The impacts extend beyond imprisonment. According to the Bureau of Justice, 95% of those incarcerated in state prisons - our brothers, sisters, lovers, parents, daughters, and neighbors - will be released, but the punishment does not stop when the time is done. 5.3 million Americans, or one in 41 adults, have currently or permanently lost their voting rights as a result of a felony conviction. In 1996, Congress passed the “welfare reform” act, and Section 115 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), created a federal lifetime ban on accessing entitlements for anyone convicted of a drug related crime. Many states have modified this restriction, but as of 2010, thirty-eight states impose some restrictions on accessing benefits for those convicted of a drug related crime. In 26 states, according to the national advocacy organization, Legal Action Center, employers and occupational licensing agencies – from cosmetology to real estate - can deny applicants a job or professional licensure because of their criminal record. In a whopping 38 states, asking a job candidate about her arrests that did not lead to conviction, is also legal.
The poverty-stricken, the homeless, the young, queer people, people of color, those gender non-conforming, the mentally ill, the undocumented, addicts, and increasingly women: these are the faces of our prison population. Despite repeated findings that there is no real correlation between incarceration and the country’s crime rate, we insist on imprisonment as our first, and really our only, response to all kinds of harm.
By creating laws that specifically target these groups, our government essentially establishes a carceral nation. Instead of spending money on drug treatment programs, meaningful employment initiatives, affordable housing and public education, our tax dollars funnel the most vulnerable populations into the prison system so that they may languish with little-to-no access to needed resources. Between 1984 and 2000, across all states and the District of Columbia, state spending on prisons was six times the increase of spending on higher education. States build new prisons and detention centers, but there are shrinking resources for new, already existing, public post-secondary institutions. When the top three institutions in the world that house people with designated mental health issues are the jails in LA, New York, and Chicago (Rikers Island County Jail, Cook County Jail, and LA County Jails), our nation's mental health system has more than failed. These budgetary priorities and corresponding public initiatives are not economically sound. Research suggests that just one more year of high school would significantly reduce incarceration (and crime) rates. Raising the male high school graduation rate simply by one percent would result in the nation saving, by one estimate, $1.4 billion.
This is not justice.
This is not humane.
This must change.
I invite everyone interested in addressing this injustice to review a brand new zine that was released last week by the Chicago PIC Teaching Collective. You can download the zine here. Please share this resource with others.