Politics

America's Prison Industry
#1 in World, #2 in U.S.Business!

According to statistical graph provided below, US jail population is experiencing a "geometric progression," doubling itself every several years. In 1980 the US jail pop was 500K. Then by 1987 or so, it doubled to 1M. By 2000 it has surpassed 2M. At this rate, given a rough estimate of 300 million people living in the USA, *EVERYONE* will be incarcerated by the year 2057. Of course, the COST of all this will cause society to collapse well before that date...

"An explosion in inmate numbers in recent years means that although the US makes up 5% of the total global population, it now accounts for 25% of the world's prisoners."

Guardian (London) - February 15, 2000

Anger grows as US jails its two millionth inmate. (The land of the free is now home to 25% of the world's prison population.) Duncan Campbell - Los Angeles

Vigils are being mounted today in more than 30 major cities in the United States to draw attention to the arrival of the two millionth inmate in American jails. The US comprises 5% of the global population yet it is responsible for 25% of the world's prisoners. It has a higher proportion of its citizens in jail than any other country in history, according to the November Coalition, an alliance of civil rights campaigners, justice policy workers and drug law reformers.

The coalition is co-ordinating protests across the US to draw attention to what they feel is a trend for locking up ever more offenders, most of them non-violent "Incarceration should be the last resort of a civilized society, not the first," said Michael Gelacak, a former vice-chairman of the US sentencing commission. "We have it backwards and it's time we realized that."

"Two million is too many," said Nora Callahan of the coalition, which is calling for alternatives to prison for the country's 500,000 non-violent drug offenders. "We are calling on state and federal governments to stop breaking up families and destroying our communities. Prison is not the solution to every social problem," she said. In New York City, the Prison Moratorium Project will focus on the fact that one in three black youths is either in custody or on parole. Kevin Pranis, of the project, said: "New York state is diverting millions of dollars from colleges and universities to pay for prisons we can't afford."

Criminal justice is already a campaign issue in the presidential race. The Republican front-runner George W. Bush, governor of Texas, is a staunch supporter of both the death penalty and stiffer sentencing for drug offences. Since he took over in Texas, the prison population there is up from 41,000 to 150,000, much of this as a result of locking up people for drug possession. This is one of the reasons that commentators have pressed Bush to be more open about his own alleged drug use in the past.

Second biggest employer of those held in federal rather than state prisons, 60% are drug offenders with no history of violence. Aminah Muhammad, who is organizing the Los Angeles vigil, said: "My husband is doing 23 years for just being present in a house where drugs were found, so my 10-year-old son doesn't have his father."

The vigil also coincides with the publication of Lockdown America, a book by Christian Parenti analyzing the US criminal justice system. He notes the expansion of the private prison sector - dubbed by one investment firm the "theme stock for the nineties" - which now runs more than 100 facilities in 27 states, holding more than 100,000 inmates.

A total of 18 private firms are involved in the running of local jails, private prisons and immigration detention centers. It is estimated that firms such as Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch write between $2-3 billion in prison constructions bonds every year. This has led some commentators to suggest that the United States is effectively creating a prison-industrial complex in much the same way as the military-industrial complex operates.

Critics of the system suggest that so much money is invested in incarceration that politicians would find it difficult to reverse the trends against the wishes of their financial backers and lobbyists. In his study Christian Parenti suggests: "In many ways the incarceration binge is simply the policy byproduct of rightwing electoral rhetoric." With the economic restructuring of America, politicians found it necessary to address domestic anxieties, Parenti suggests and this "required scapegoats, a role usually filled by new immigrants, the poor and people of color". The cost of building jails has averaged $7 billion per year for the last decade and the annual bill for incarcerating prisoners is up to $35 billion annually. The prison industry employs more than 523,000 people, making it the country's biggest employer after General Motors. Some 5% of the population growth in rural areas between 1980 and 1990 was as a result of prisoners being moved into new rural jails

The national convention of the American Bar Association, held in Dallas, Texas last weekend, was told there was growing momentum for a moratorium on the death penalty. This follows the recent announcement by the Illinois governor, George Ryan, that the state will suspend executions pending an investigation into the number of death row inmates who turn out to have been wrongly convicted.

There are 3,600 people awaiting execution in the US - 463 of them in Texas alone. Today's vigils are being held near jails, courthouses and prisons and span the US from Spokane in Washington state to Gainesville in Florida, from Austin in Texas to Newhaven in Connecticut.

In 1985, the then Chief Justice Warren Burger said: "What business enterprise could conceivably succeed with the rate of recall of its products that we see in the 'products' of our prisons?" The demonstrators today are hoping to make the same point count, if not with the politicians, then at least with the voters who will be called in to endorse such penal policies in the coming months. Rome did not create a great empire by having meetings, they did it by jailing and killing all those who opposed them.

"..it does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds.."

--Samuel Adams


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