The US imprisons more people than the rest of the world. Roughly, 3.5 million - that’s half a million more than China, despite the huge population differential between the two nations. According to Marc Mauer, author of “Race to Incarcerate”, no other society in history has ever imprisoned so many of its citizens for the purpose of crime control. And the rate of incarceration is growing every year (currently, it’s about 50-80,000 new inmates per year).
The reason for this rapid growth isn’t due to an increase in violent crime. Violent crime has actually fallen by 20% since 1991, while prison populations have doubled. Instead, more sentences are being handed out to nonviolent offenders for crimes that in other countries would lead to community service, fines, or drug treatment. Locking people up, however, is the most expensive form of punishment. Prisons became over-crowded and increasingly violent.
Along came private prisons to take advantage of the situation.
Private prisons target States struggling to balance their budgets by promising to deliver better outcomes at a lower cost. How these outcomes are measured would be interesting given that so many of the private facilities have run afoul of the law by endangering the lives of their inmates, inciting riots, allowing sexual abuse and refusing basic medical care. Re-offending rates are up since privatisation.
According to a federal report in 2011, over 40% of juvenile delinquents are committed to private prisons, up 30% from the previous decade. This is equivalent to condemning the youth to a life of violence. Just do a search on Slattery and YSI, two of the larger juvenile prison providers, and read all the tawdry political shenanigans these firms have been involved in.
Running a private prison is big business. Contracts in the hundreds of millions of dollars are not uncommon with over $35b spent on corrections each year. Those contracts are assured by powerful lobbyists in Congress, kickbacks to local authorities and handsome political donations to key supporters.
Even though the War on Drugs (signed into law in 1986 by Ronald Reagan) has made no impact on drug trafficking, it has been very lucrative for private prisons when it comes to people trafficking. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of people put in jail for nonviolent drug offences increased from 50,000 to half a million. The law has resulted in more than 45 million arrests, 2 million new prisoners, and $1 trillion in government spending. Nevertheless, drugs are cheaper and more prevalent than ever.
The War on Drugs also has disproportionately affected African-American youth, even though their use of drugs is no greater than Whites. African-Americans make up 13% of the US population and 13% of the users of crack, whereas over 90% of the crack defendants are African-American. An African-American male is five times more likely to be arrested for a drug offence than a White male. Locking up so many African-American men, rather than offering drug treatment and education, has guaranteed a culture of single-parent families and contributed a great deal of unnecessary hardship and stress to many communities.
Prison conveniently accommodates other failures of the system. It is estimated that roughly 200,000 inmates have serious mental illnesses and would be better off treated by mental health agencies.
The prison-industrial complex, as it has come to be called, is a quick fix for larger social issues. And, as is often the case, out of sight is out of mind.
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