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Per capita, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any industrialized nation in the world. Over 2.3 million Americans are living behind bars. According to a report in the New Yorker Magazine, six million people are under correctional supervision in the U.S.—more than were in Stalin’s gulags. Without a historical perspective we don't have a sense of the extraordinary nature of this phenomenon... But, get this, until recently we were like other countries.

Even though crime rates have continued to fall over the past 30 years,incarceration rates in the United States have grown -- and today, funding to build prisons exceeds funding to build schools something that was unheard of just 10 years ago.

We incarcerate 1 in 8 American men of all races and 1 in 3 African-American men.

Is this truly the land of the free?

For most of its history, the United States has had an incarcerate rate that was pretty much inline with other similarly situated countries. In other words, up until about 30 years ago the U.S. incarcerated about the same percentage of its citizens as the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Spain, and a half dozen other countries. Then, suddenly -- for reasons that are rarely discussed in mainstream media, things began to change and our rate of incarceration skyrocketed.

What explains this? Was there a sudden fever of lawlessness that broke out across the nation? Did Americans suddenly decide, en masse, to through caution to the wind and just start breaking the law in numbers that exceed anything we've seen in human history? Or is it that Americans are just different from the rest of the world?  If we are, why is it that we just became different 30 years ago? Could it be that policies were adopted that would guarantee a market for the private prison industry?  What caused the sudden and dramatic change?

The social and financial ramifications of operating a prison system of the magnitude seen in the U.S. is weighing heavily on the country. And it is high time that we ask what's causing this dramatic growth. And even more important -- Do we want or need to lock up so many people?

According to Michelle Alexander, acclaimed author of the New York Times bestseller The New Jim Crow, the unprecedented expansion of the American criminal justice system has been fueled almost entirely by the so called "War on Drugs".  Alexander asserts that the vast majority of arrests during this 30 year period of unheralded growth have been of non-violent offenders who are, for the most part, low level drug users and not drug kingpins as many would assume.

Sociologist Lisa Wade recently reported that between 1990 and 2009, the inmate population of private prisons grew by 1,664%. In a piece published by PolicyMic, Wade, who is also a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, wrote:

"In 2010, annual revenues for two of the largest companies — Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group — were nearly $3 billion. Companies that house prisoners for profit have a perverse incentive to increase the prison population by passing more laws, policing more heavily, sentencing more harshly, and denying parole. Likewise, there’s no motivation to rehabilitate prisoners; doing so is expensive, cuts into their profits, and decreases the likelihood that any individual will be back in the prison system."

According to Michelle Alexander, two-thirds of the arrests in the past 30 years have been offenders with no history of violence or significant selling history and marijuana arrests account for 80% of the increase in collars.

Alexander adds another factor that might explain how this so called "War on Drugs" was waged without having the masses up in arms. According to Alexander, the war on drugs was waged almost exclusively in neighborhoods of color particularly against - black and brown men.

She says,

    Drug war waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color
    People of color no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites
    Drug market is highly segregated by race
    Drug dealing happens across racial boundaries
    In some states African-Americans account for 80-90% of all drug convictions

Michelle Alexander, author of, "The New Jim Crow" will be speaking on Oct 20th and Ethan Nadelmann, founder and director of the Drug Policy Alliance will be speaking on October 21st at a documentary film screening of six films at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.  Tickets for the two-day event range from $10 - $25. More information about the festival and tickets can be purchased directly at

Originally posted to LA Progressive on Sat Oct 12, 2013 at 08:24 PM PDT.

Also republished by Prison Watch.

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