I felt a surge of American pride last week that had nothing to do with Michael Phelps. America now has more people incarcerated per capita than any other nation on Earth. U-S-A! U-S-A! War on Drugs! War on Drugs!

The Pew Center, as reported in the excellent industry sheet Correctional News, have announced the results of a study on incarceration, finding that a staggering 1.01% of the American population (1 in 99.1 adults) is in jail or prison. The annual cost to state governments: $49 billion dollars in 2007, up from $11 billion in 1987. That's a 400-plus percent increase in two decades in an era in which state budgets are in shambles.

Money well spent, though, right? You feel safer, right? This is working, right? Of course it isn't working, because there is no longer any "it" to work. There is no goal. We abandoned rehabilitative incarceration with the rest of the New Deal era in 1980, replacing it with the War on Drugs backed by draconian sentences in a purely punitive environment. The purpose isn't to rehabilitate, it is simply to take the (usually poor, brown) people declared unnecessary by the majestic wisdom of Thomas Friedman capitalism and put them somewhere out of sight. Just get rid of them. Send them to overcrowded gladiator academies like Stateville or Corcoran where, if they weren't already gang-affiliated, twitching balls of muscle ready to kill, they will be when they get out. Then act really shocked when they violate parole.

Pictured: Stateville's "Roundhouse"
Not pictured: a point

Costs have exploded, (mandatory minimum) sentences have doubled or tripled in length, and recidivism rates haven't gone down a bit (it's still 50% within 36 months). And lest you delude yourself about who is bearing the brunt of this: 1 in 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are in prison right now. One of three are either on parole or in prison. A black male born today has a 30% chance of serving time in state or federal prison in his lifetime.

In rural areas – and prisons are always located in desperate, economically-dying rural communities like Crescent City, CA – half of the observed population growth since 1980 is a direct result of overwhelmingly-black urban convicts being shipped to rural prisons. For example, tiny Brown County, Illinois had 1 black resident in the 1980 Census. In 2000, 1265 (18%) of the county's 6,000 residents were black. Why? Western Illinois Correctional Center opened in Sterling, IL in 1989.

Politicians love to get "tough on crime" because proposing three-strikes or mandatory minimums is a great way for a bunch of candy-assed white guys to look tough. As naive is it might be to expect logic to intervene in this idiotic, delusional orgy of machismo, I have to wonder when Reagan's America will turn Rush Limbaugh down long enough to realize that these people taken "off the streets" do not cease to exist when the judge pounds the gavel. They have to be housed, and there are limits to how many can be jammed into a given space. Longer sentences and more prisons are proving to be a financial nightmare at $27,000 per head per year. We can't expect suburban America to care about the pointlessness or moral bankruptcy of this entire process, but as usual the bitching begins when they're asked to pay for it.

24 thoughts on “AMERICAN PRIDE”

  • I would love to see drugs (or at least weed) legalized for this very reason. I support long, in some cases life, sentences for those who actually do something to deserve it. It just pisses me off when a rapist gets out of prison for "good behavior" after six months and then rapes another woman/teenage girl within months of getting out, while a guy who sold weed is in jail for up to 50 years (not hyperbole; both of these stories happened in Utah in the last few months).

  • The high prison population in the US points out the government's repressiveness in one, key area: protecting the upper class. In a society increasingly bled dry by the rich (i.e., nearly everybody's worth and wages are driven down to fill the coffers of the very small group of rich and ultra-rich leaches that populate our upper classes), it has become much more important to project the upper class' power through the coercive arm of the state: the police and the military. Poor people steal when they're hungry and desperate. Poor people fight for better conditions when forced by circumstance. Poor people also turn to drugs for escape. Poor people often sell drugs because it's one of the few jobs it's easy to make good money at. The rich see all of these things as a threat to their sanitized and isolated ideas of reality and therefore pay for laws and lawmakers to punish such behavior…through whatever means necessary.

    Yes, the rich engage in roughly the same types of behaviors as the poor (stealing, fighting for resources, doing drugs, dealing drugs) but the important difference is that their behavior is much less likely to be punished. Sometimes such behavior is condoned! (Paris Hilton is a prime example.)

    I am aware that my opinions reflect a Marxist interpretation of the US, but I assure you, my issue is not with Capitalism per se, it is with the greed and malice of our rulers. I don't particularly care what economic system we use so long as it is equitable in practice. And our system ain't equitable. Nor is it just. Our ridiculous rate of incarceration is a product of that system. It's not just bad policy, it's the sickening condition of the poor and middle class as of late that is, in my opinion, to blame for that policy.

  • There is a middle ground between mandatory minimums and legalization: probation. Properly empowered, probation departments can require offenders to participate in drug treatment programs, help them find and keep regular employment, and help them in a lot of other areas as well – chiefly, getting them into state-subsidized therapy, counseling, etc., if that would be helpful.

    The result for the probationers is that they do not go to prison, so their record stays cleaner and they don't lose contact with the world, and in many ways they gain new life prospects, with a regular job and (hopefully) leveled-out relationships. The result for society is one less person to house in prison, one more person who remains a productive and engaged member of society instead of becoming a more hard-core criminal.

    But as you say, Ed, this kind of plan is hard to present to those whose only thought is "do the crime, do the time".

  • The vast majority of a society wiling to believe whatever it's told and fat on reality TV seems intent on believing that they could never find themselves in the same position as do an increasing number of incarcerated people. Even the most minor of issues now have multiple similar charges stacked one upon the other in an effort to not only ensure conviction, but to increase the punishment. On top of this, the same society mentioned above remains uninterested in second chances, regardless of the circumstances of someone's criminal record. We're a country of saints who refuse to even acknowledge the sinners.

  • I really understand and agree with the point of this blog.
    Unfortunately, your average neo-con looks at the exact same information and says, "this is exactly why we need to expand the death penalty."
    Never mind that the dumbass thinking this most likely has a kid who has tried marijuana and would thereby be eligible for the death sentence they so love, the point is, until it's personal, there's nothing wrong with executing a few black people to prove my point and keep me feeling safe in my gated community.

  • Of course, the criminal justice system often uses probation on drug offenses and only a fraction of offenders can meet the requirements of probation. Once they break probation for the Xth time (sometimes as many as 12 "dirty tests") they must be dealt with and that is usually when jail time comes. Many of these people going through our "drug courts" are junkies and many also have criminal histories that involve robbery, burglary, prostitution, rape, and even murder. There have been studies showing that often excessive drug use goes hand-and-hand with these other crimes. It's a hard to face this but I think the "solution" has to involve something other than "let's just decriminalize or legalize drugs." This is pervasive problem affecting not only Americans but people worldwide and it does not affect every race, ethnicity, and culture equally either. Instead of ignoring the obvious detrimental affects of drugs on communities through legalization, why not search for real solutions to empower these communities and find out how to help them make the best choices for themselves, their families and their communities?

  • It's been fairly obvious to me for some time where this is leading. A combination of increasingly "acceptable" eliminationist rhetoric in the right-wing noise machine, a growing perception that 'these people' are a 'drag on society' (as you point out, it's really only a problem when they're asked to pay for it) and the increasing acceptance of wholesale, willy-nilly executions (people in the state of Texas, for instance, like to boast of their 'express lane' death penalty for those who are convicted of cop killing) would seem to be leading towards some kind of, you know…'final solution' for this problem.

    I'm not suggesting we'll be seeing Dachau-style gas chambers springing up anytime soon, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility of a uniquely American spin on this. After all, we already toss people into secret prisons and torture them.

  • This is a great post that touches on the fundamental *weakness* of our nominally macho culture of incarceration. It's precisely because of the fear of (predominantly white) citizens that we have to lock up those who are different. It's because we are afraid of the hard work of living alongside some of our fellow Americans, and dare I say that the fear is partially based in guilt? We've been torturing inmates for so long that we are now afraid of reprisal should they be freed, and when they do walk we no longer recognize them, so complete has been their indoctrination as outcasts.

    Smells a lot like Gitmo all of a sudden, doesn't it?

  • If you want to see an example of social sciences getting it entirely wrong, the first 5 pages here:

    summarizes the sociology/social science research of the late 60s through the 70s, where the big question was what would we do when prisons were gone, replaced with less oppressive measures, etc. What would unionized prisoners look like? They missed the mark, and the rise of the neocons, by a wide, wide margin.

    It also has the disturbing factum that, when you include probation and parole, half of inner-city black men are under some sort of government carceral supervision.

  • The argument that prisons are an economic drain may end up being the best lever for reform. If it's working in Texas . . .

    The courts have been so successful that even the tough-on-crime, Republican-dominated Texas Legislature approves.

    Rep. Jerry Madden (R-Plano), chairman of the corrections committee, says that instead of worrying about the expanding outflow from prison, he wants to choke off the inflow with DIVERT-type courts.

    "We have 157,000 people in the prisons of Texas — that's a lot," he says.

    The expanding prison population is a financial red stain spreading across the state's books like the Andromeda Strain, he says. Each new maximum security prison costs Texas taxpayers $300 million to build and $40 million a year to operate.

  • "It also has the disturbing factum that, when you include probation and parole, half of inner-city black men are under some sort of government carceral supervision"

    Yes, it does affect the black community much more than other racial/ethnic groups. Do you think that decriminalizing/legalizing drugs will serve the African-American (and Hispanic) communities well ultimately? As someone who grew up with a drug addict as a parent, I can tell you that those years were Hell. Domestic violence, divorce, an unstable environment for children to be brought up often go hand-and-hand with drugs. These issues will still inflict a substantial proportion of the African-American (and Hispanic) communities. How shall we deal with the roots of addiction and the detrimental affect it produces to families and communities?

  • "while there is a lower class, I am in it: while there is a criminal element, I am of it: while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

    The Marxist perspective, as Adam expressed above, gives the fullest explanation of the current situation & best program for moving forward.

  • Jess be careful – when you say "Yes, it does affect the black community much more " is it (a) drug use or (b) the policing of drug use?

    I find there to be a contradiction when you say that the solution is to "empower these communities" and that that action can take place with the current WOD framework. Taking a large percent of black males in their prime years, removing their right to vote and removing them from their communities is no way to start community organization, much less take on the police unions. In fact, you could argue that the WOD is designed to maximize the exact opposite result.

    I do find your unspoken insistent that there are the Bad People who deal in the drug trade and the Good People who persevere aside from them to be a bad division though; I think they are all the same community trying to negotiate their existence in a post-industrial landscape of menial, transient jobs, and that the line between those two things blurs quite often (especially when the rent is due). I'd recommend Venkatesh's excellent "Off The Books" for more on that.

  • Wow, first time I've been here, and I love your site! I've always been frustrated arguing with conservatives: it's like stopping someone trying to commit suicide who gets angry at you for wrestling the gun from their hands. Perhaps gin and tacos are the answer. I love….well, I love vodka, that's close, right? And I adore tacos. With vodka and tacos, I could be happy.

    We had the hemp fest here in Seattle this weekend. I didn't go (alas, I inherited an allergy to hemp. Made my college years oddly lucid) but I understand the confusion as to why marijuana is illegal. Certainly, cigarettes and alcohol are more addictive and cause more health issues. And I feel for the local medicinal marijuana users in the area who had their supply of medicine confiscated because they are allowed to own marijuana but not buy or grow it (oddly, they were not caught growing or buying it, but were arrested anyways. No clue how that happened). If a citizen who has allergic reactions to marijuana smoke can support the legalization of marijuana, surely we can see eye to eye in this.

    Of course, I also support legalization and control of prostitution and I have a vagina, so it may just be that I'm more open (pun intended) to these things….

  • Eric Schlosser's two-part series for The Atlantic years back on "Reefer Madness" (later a book) focused a great deal on the problems with mandatory minimum sentences and three strikes laws, because prisons were flooded with low level drug users, and in some states this meant prisoners sentenced for violent crimes were paroled earlier to make room. There's a strong argument to be made for a treatment-based versus punitive approach for (serious) drug use, in addition to decriminalization measures for some drugs. But there's also a problem with effectively taking sentencing discretion away from judges and to prosecutors. And as you point out, there are serious problems to a punitive approach that allows officials to swagger about how "tough" they are, yet ignores actual results. It's really the domestic version of the militant nationalism so beloved of our idiot neocons.

  • "Western Illinois Correctional Center opened in Sterling, IL in 1989."

    The prison you refer to is located in Mt. Sterling Illinois.

    I live in Steling, Illinois and I can assure you that we do not have a prison here.

    Good article though. :)

  • With all due respect, I think you are reading things into my post that simply are not there and setting up a strawman argument, Mike. I did not endorse the WOD. I simply feel like there has to be something else that we can do–a middle ground between legalizing/decriminalizing drugs and WOD. These things are not going to be solved within the criminal justice system

  • We can’t build our way out of the crime problem, For me it’s the failure of the Family, we really don’t have a true definition of a Family. I know some are going to be offended but we have folks living like animals not committed buy marriage and I think this is a key element. Something strange has happened in this country where we don’t think people can change so we avoid the use of Probation and other alternatives, in many state it has become a joke and lost favor with the public, but remember if the Legislators don’t fund it these alternative will be nothing, I am beginning to think that many legislators want these operation to fail in order to build more prisons. I read about a year ago that if we keep locking up people at the current rate by 2065 we will have more folks in prison than on the street. I fought the War on Poverty, several Wars on Crime and the War on Drugs..I ton’t think we ever won one.

  • whoa! holy just-happen-to-be-reading-a-highly-topical-book-at-the-moment!

    Mike Gray's "Drug Crazy: How We Got Here & How We Can Get Out". It's about ten years old now, but is still terrifying reading.

    check it out.

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