The All Mighty Bars and Stars: The Prisonization of the US

By request I'm posting what I read on this week's podcast. It's a research paper I did in my social problems class my last year at Soka University of America. It was first published in volume one of my "Selected Writings From Soka University of America." And it was just released in my hard copy "Collected Writings From Soka University of America."

You can listen to me read it here:

The All Mighty Bars and Stars: The Prisonization of the US

The flag of the US, once called the “Stars and Stripes,” is now gaining the infamous title, the “Bars and Stars.” The US is quickly becoming a prison nation. The incredible growth of prisons and prisonization is causing more social problems than it is alleviating. As a new form of slavery, prisons are warehousing prisoners for the private profit of corporations. Minorities, as the greatest victims of incarceration, are having their communities torn apart by the mass incarceration of their fellow citizens. Instead of alleviating crime, prisons are creating new criminals

With over 2 million people now in prisons in the US (and growing exponentially), this country has surpassed all other countries in incarceration. There has been a 10-fold increase in prisonization in the US since the 1970s (Dhondt). As investigative journalist, Joel Dyer writes, “This unprecedented rise in the number of prisoners in the U.S. prison system reflects the largest prison expansion the world has ever known (2000: 1-2).” If this trend were to continue at the same exponential rate for the next 30 years, we would have well over 20 million people in prisons by the year 2030. This would be a scary reality.

There are many questions that need to be asked. Are we becoming a safer nation, because of the growth of incarceration? Are we locking up all people equally? Are prisons being used to reform people? Do they cause more social problems than they solve? These are just some of the questions we must ask.

Anyone who cares about making the world a safer, more humane place would want to pay attention to this growing crisis in the US. It is important for us to know the real costs of prisons. We must also know the politics and economics behind them. What are the statistics of whom the prison system is incarcerating, and what are the tremendous consequences this prisonization causes to society?

As President Eisenhower once warned against the consequences of a marriage between industry and the military, into what he called a “military industrial complex,” now we see the same thing occurring with a marriage between industry and the “criminal justice system.” In this marriage, we have a growing “prison industrial complex,” or as Dyer calls it, a “perpetual prisoner machine (2000).” It is fair to say that prison construction in the US is growing out of control. In fact, “Ours is the biggest penal complex in the world (Christianson 1998: ix).”

Once public institutions, now prisons are increasingly run for private profit. Consequently, this has made prison construction one of the largest growth industries in the US. Some companies, like American Express, make billions of dollars each year in prison lease payments. Other companies, like AT&T, make millions of dollars each year off prisoners trying to call home to their families, with no choice of long distance carriers and with prices twice as high as any other local resident would pay. These companies and others have lobbied state and local governments for exclusive monopoly rights, often giving profit kickbacks to prison wardens and local legislators.

The prisonization of the US has changed the landscape of many small towns. Some cities in the US now have almost as many prisoners as they have residents (Hallinan 2001: 4). Currently, sixteen states have lower population than the number of people incarcerated in the nation’s correctional facilities (Espejo 2002: 14).

Similar to how some towns in the past became known as college towns, when their economies began to center on the schools that sustained them, income from prison services and prison construction have now created and sustained many small towns. As investigative journalist, Joseph Hallinan writes about these new prison towns, “They are trying, as…other American towns [are], to turn their community into a prison hub, becoming roughly what Pittsburgh is to steel or Detroit is to cars (2001: 4).” Furthermore, the prison industry in some states, like Texas, has almost entirely sustained the state’s economy.

"…Texas is to the prison culture of the 1990s what California was to the youth culture of the 1960s: it’s where it’s happening. Texas has more prisons than any state in the country and imprisons more of its people, per capita, than any state except Louisiana. Instead of Berkeley, Texas has Beeville (Hallinan 2001: xii)."

In addition, prison guard’s unions are now one of the largest special interest lobbies. Consequently, prison guards get more pay today than most teachers do. However, we must again ask, are these financial priorities leading us to becoming a safer country?

Many people would welcome this amazing growth of prisons, if prisons were solving social problems. However, this is often not the case. Prisons, instead of solving social problems, are in most cases, causing new social problems and/or increasing old ones. As former state criminal justice official, Scott Christianson writes, “…most criminologists contend that incarceration does not reduce crime (1998: ix).”

Incarcerating people does not reform them. “According to the U.S Bureau of Justice Statistics, as many as 60 to 70 percent of inmates return to a life of crime after release (Oliver 1997: 9-10).” In fact, prisons often do just the opposite of reforming prisoners. Our penal system is not only making new prisons, but it is also creating new criminals. The US now locks up more people for nonviolent, petty crime and drug use than it does for violent crimes. “The percentage of state prisoners serving a drug sentence more than tripled from 1980 to 1993 (Oliver 1997: 8-9).” Unfortunately, once released, the barbaric treatment these nonviolent criminals often receive in prisons often turns them into violent criminals.

The growing abuse of prison inmates has caused major increases in psychological problems among inmates, as well. One such abuse is the use of Administrative Segregation, otherwise know as “Ad Seg.” This is a growing practice, where prisons hold prisoners in solitary confinement for sometimes up to 23 hours a day, with often no contact with other people. “In 1999, a federal judge found the ad seg units in Texas to be “virtual incubators of psychoses… They inflicted such cruel and unusual punishment, he held, that confinement in them violated the Constitution (Hallinan 2001: 5).”

In addition, prisons in most cases add to the social conditions that make crime more prevalent. Like a parasite, the prison industrial complex is draining resources from many other institutions, which its proponents claim they have designed it to protect. Consequently, by siphoning money and other resources from badly needed services, such as health care, family planning, job development, infrastructural development and education, prisons destroy the institutions that help keep people away from lives of crime. For example, at the same time that “…the Texas House of Representatives voted to save $206 million by cutting the funds for pre-kindergarten programs, the House also voted to spend an additional $400 million to build new prisons (Warburton 1993: 9).”

These cuts in pre-kindergarten programs will assure us that more kids will turn to the streets for their education. In the US, for the last 30 years, national and local governments have built more prisons than they have built schools. However, in most cases, imprisoning someone costs more than it would cost to send that same person to college. “In 1996, Americans spent $24.5 billion on prisons-an average of $55 per inmate per day (Hallinan 2001: 4).”

"Because much of the funding for corrections is now coming at the expense of social programs that have been shown to deter people from criminal behavior in the first place,…it is entirely accurate to say that the more prisoners whose incarceration we pay for through this diversion of funds, the more future prisoners we create (Dyer 2000: 6)."

The breaking apart of minority families, when the “justice system” throws fathers in jail for petty drug possession charges, increases the likelihood that fatherless children will turn to lives of crime. Fatherless communities are often the breading grounds for gangs and violence, because fatherless children often look to older gang members as their only father figures.

At the same time that corporations are profiting from prison construction and prison leasing, prison labor is also on the rise. Many critics see the prison system as just another form of slavery. “As David Brion Davis points out: ‘We seldom think of black slavery as a penal institution. Yet throughout history enslavement has been used as a form of punishment, while some penal systems have acquired many of the characteristics of chattel slavery (Christianson 1998: xii).’”

Just as the old form of slavery caused many social problems, so too does this new form. Like the old plantations of the south,

"Most new prisons are built not in black communities but in white ones, usually rural white ones….Today most inmates are black (49 percent) or Hispanic (18 percent). Typically, they come from the cities. Sticking them in the boondocks, where family members have a hard time visiting, where guards have likely never encountered anyone like them, almost always leads to problems, often violent ones (Hallinan 2001: xiii)."

With all this information, one can see that prisons are a real problem in the US. However, we must ask, who is to blame for this growing problem? If we take a “person blame” approach, we would have to prove that crime is growing exponentially. However, studies have shown that the exact opposite is occurring. Crime has been leveling off or has been steadily dropping since the 70s (Dyer 2000: 2).

If we took this approach, we would also have to prove that individuals are solely responsible for their criminal behavior and we would have to show that prisons did something to improve people. However, as Warburton writes, “…prisons will never solve the crime problem. To do that, we must attack the root causes of much crime: poverty, inequality, lack of education, lack of jobs and job skills, the collapse of family and community, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness (Warburton 1993: 9).”

This leaves us then with a “systems blame” approach. Many critics believe that the US “justice” system is to blame for the growth of prisons and the problems they cause. As one critic explains, “…the media, our elected officials, and the corporations that compose the prison industry each developed a unique method for turning crime into some form of capital (Dyer 2000: 3).”

"James Fox…suggests that the prison crisis [in New York] has been caused by tougher sentences, by racism throughout the criminal justice system, coercion and intimidation on the inside and the increasingly desperate plight of New York’s underclass. All these factors he sees as stemming from, or being exacerbated by, the ascendancy of the New Right (Ryan Ward 1989: 9)."

The “new right” he refers to, is the “tough on crime” candidates that across the country have pushed for increased prison construction, increased privatization of prisons and harder sentencing guidelines for drug offenders and offenders of other petty crimes, often victimless crimes.

For example, “In 1996 three-strikes laws were on the books in twenty-four states (Oliver 1997: 10).” Many third offenses, which gains a person a sentence of 25 years to life, have been for things such as stealing a loaf of bread or using an innocuous, though illegal substance, such as marijuana.

How has the “new right” been able to get away with this insane prison growth? First, they have tried to convince the public that crime is on the rise-which it defiantly is not. Right wing, talk show hosts constantly scare people with over concentration on exaggerated crime reports. Corporate, “news,” media stations focus much of their news coverage on the hype of crime and violence in the streets, as Jim Hightower would say, “while avoiding crime in the suites.”

Despite this hype, prison construction referendums have failed repeatedly to win voters’ approval. However, this has not stopped the “new right.” When “tough on crime” politicians have failed to convince the public, they have instead contracted private companies to build prisons anyway. They then have used funds earmarked for other social programs to pay for the leasing of private prisons. For example,

"[In]…Jefferson County, Colorado….in 1983, after local voters had twice rejected sales tax proposals to raise new funds [for prisons], E.F. Hutton arranged a 30.2 million dollar lease purchase agreement for the county. The new prison for around 400 inmates was opened in 1985 and [was] leased until 1995… (Ryan et al. 1989: 10-11)."

Prisons, however, do not lock up all criminals equally. It is true that laws have become stricter for the average blue-collar, street crime. However, we have not seen stricter laws for white-collar crimes, which are on the rise. The US “justice” system seldom prosecutes rich, white males for their crimes. Drug addicts like Rush Limbaugh do not find their selves in prison. Where as, Chinese actors, such as Tommy Chong from the famous “Cheech and Chong” movies, are put in jail for 9 months, not for using or selling drugs, but for simply selling pipes online that could possibly be used for smoking marijuana (1).

Robber barrens, who steal billion from citizens, like the CEO of Enron, Ken Lay and his cohorts (who stole billions from the taxpayer of California) are usually not among the 2 million prison inmates. Rich, white, federal espionage criminals, such as Oliver North, instead of spending their lives in San Quinton Prison, instead host radio talk shows on right wing radio stations. Federal election criminals, such as Katherine Harris (Florida Chair of the George Bush, Jr. For President Campaign), who in 2002 purged tens of thousands of African-Americans from the voting roles, are not put in jail, but are instead elected to congress (2).

Prisoners in the US are not locked up for their crimes, they are locked up because they are poor and powerless; most are minorities. For example:

"In December 1993, nearly two thirds of all sentenced prison inmates were black, Asian, Native American, or Hispanic. Many of these individuals are poor….lawbreakers who are wealthy can buy a better defense and are less likely to end up in prison to serve long sentences than are those who are poor (Oliver 1997: 12).?

Therefore, it is no wonder that many critics contend that the “new right” does not build prisons in the US to fight crime. Critics instead claim that the “new right” builds prisons as instruments of social control, as Ralph Nader calls it a “war on the poor.”

As many critics would have it, the “new right” uses prisons to keep the majority of poor, jobless, common people (which is a growing majority in the US) from rising up against the unjust minority of corrupt, rich, white males who are stealing massive amounts of wealth from those common people. As CPE staff economist asks, “…could it be that prisons are functioning to control the impoverished, the ‘collateral damage’ of the modern capitalist system (Dhondt)?”

Unfortunately, even though prisons are growing exponentially in the US, the victims of economic injustice are growing much faster. However, there are no prisons being built to lock up CEOs who bankroll millions by laying off thousands of people. Over the last two decades, businesses have been closing up at record numbers to move to other countries, where they can more easily exploit the labor force and destroy foreign environments with impunity. People are being laid off in the tens of thousands all across this country. Many of these people will find that it is only possible to survive by turning to a life of crime.

The prison industry will never be able to lock up all the victims of this corrupt system. However, if we locked up the criminals on the top (those who are becoming richer at the expense of the majority), we would reduce many of the social problems that cause crime.

As Michael Moore claims in his new book, Dude, Where’s My Country, we live in a time in the US, where a dinosaur is slowly dieing. The rich, white males who have controlled this country and the world for too long are gradually becoming the minority. They are holding on desperately to a dieing idea that they must have all the wealth of this world, while those with darker colored skins must provide all the backbreaking labor. It is their greed that has been destroying that wealth, and that wealth is slowly being expended in a dieing attempt for them to hold on to the reigns of a kingdom of inequality, which they have cruelly erected.

In the past, the power structure created systems of colonialism and slavery to keep their unfair power afloat. Fortunately, these two systems were for the most part destroyed. Now in their desperation, the wealthy have created two new systems to maintain their unfair power and wealth. They have created a massive military industrial complex and a massive prison industrial complex to hold on desperately to their dieing power. The military keeps the people abroad from rising up, while the prison industrial complex keeps the people at home from rising up. However, these two systems are costing too much to maintain, are too unjust, and they will cause their whole power structure to implode.

We are seeing this implosion throughout the US now. These two systems, along with the whole power structure that maintains them, is dieing in the same way the dinosaurs did. Those who are holding on desperately to this dieing unequal system are attempting to take everyone down with them. We are seeing this occur now in the US, as it is also happening throughout the world.

Before they drag us all down with them, we must change this system. If we continue at our current incarceration rate, “such an expansion would eventually consume nearly every dollar of every state budget in the union. There would be no public education, no infrastructure, no anything except for prisons (Dyer 2000: 7).”
Alternatives to prisons have worked much better. New laws have been enacted in Arizona and California to allow drug felons to go to drug rehabilitation as opposed to prison (Espejo 2002: 15).

"Although residential treatment for a drug addict can cost up to $7,000 a year, the annual cost of incarceration starts at $25,000. Advocates also assert that diverting drug offenders from the prison system will enhance public safety in two ways. First, it will make more prison space available to incapacitate violent offenders and career criminals. Second, because many drug addicts commit crimes such as theft and prostitution in order to pay for their drug habits, ending drug offenders’ addictions can lower the crime rate. A State of Connecticut report claims that alternatives to incarceration are two to five times more effective than prison in lowering drug crimes (Espejo 2002: 15-16)."

These laws will hopefully pass throughout the country. It is time for people to start voting for sane alternatives to prisonization. We need to educated people of the incredible cost of incarceration and how it destroys other services. As people become educated about this growing problem, they will start demanding change, the way people demanded an end to slavery. The time has now come for a true “justice system.”

End Notes




Christianson, Scott, 1998. With Liberty For Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America. Pennsylvania: Northeastern University Press.

Dhondt, Geert (CPE Staff Economist) (

Dyer, Joel, 2000. The Perpetual Prisoner Machine. Colorado: Westview Press.

Ed. Espejo, Roman, 2002. America’s Prisons: Opposing Viewpoint. California: Greenhaven Press, Inc.

Hallinan, Joseph T., 2001. Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation. New York: Random House.

Mauer, Marc, 1999. Race to Incarcerate. New York: The New Press.

Oliver, Marilyn Tower, 1997. Prisons: Today’s Debate. New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, Inc.

Ryan, Mick and Tony Ward, 1989. Privatization and the Penal System: The American Experience and the Debate in Britain. New York: St Martin’s Press.

Warburton, Lois, 1993. Prisons. California: Lucent Books, Inc.

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Comment by Tim Janakos on March 15, 2009 at 11:13pm
Today's show on KPFA was about women organizing in Prison: You can listen to the archive here:
Comment by Tim Janakos on March 13, 2009 at 1:48am
I tried to email it to you through this site but it's too long, so send me your email address to
Comment by Jeanne Phoenix on March 12, 2009 at 9:54am
I would certainly read your article if you want to email it to me. It is true that many women working as secretaries, nurses, officers, librarians and teachers in male institutions tend to fall in love with a prisoner, much to their own distress, and in this state of a prisoner is caught having sex with a female employee, the female can be sent to jail for three years because of it being a felony. And they DO enforce those laws. I think that is the ultimate cruelty, they have to go to court, probation, etc, etc, these are otherwise good people, hardly a criminal. When I found that out I was shocked, because it is so easy to get caught up in that type of thing in prisons, and has become routine to punish the employees just like the inmates simply for being human. Thanks. This is the first time I've talked about this stuff publicly since I worked at that place, and I am so thankful I got out of that job when I did. The only reason I took a job in the prison was because it was all that was available in a small rural town where the prisons are the only income for othewise poor individuals. It is exactly as stated in the article.
Comment by Tim Janakos on March 12, 2009 at 6:14am
Thank you for sharing your story Jeanne. Wow that seems pretty brutal that someone starting to have feeling for someone they are working with (which is a natural human tendency) could put someone in jail. I understand that it should be discouraged, but making it illegal seems inhuman. You might be interested in one of my articles in the SUA student newspaper, about my criticism of the enforcement of SUA policy for no Student-Teacher/Staff relationships at SUA. All school have a policy which is understandable, but I don't think it needs to be enforced harshly, especially at a peace institute, which should be about increase human relationships. I made the article a kind of satirical article called, "It's a Damn Good Think Linus Pauling Didn't Teach at Soka University of America." I argue that had he taught at SUA and had his wife been a student, which she was his freshmen student when they met, he wouldn't have been able to have a relationship with her and he would have never become the Linus Pauling we all know, because his wife (former student) was so influential on his life. Though I published the article in my 3rd volume of selected writings from SUA, I don't think I would want to publish the article on the internet, because some people may not understand my sarcasm. But for your own pleasure if any of you would be interested in reading the article I wouldn't mind emailing it to you.
Comment by Jeanne Phoenix on March 12, 2009 at 4:01am
I have an African-American friend who recently got out of jail after three months, and while he was in there he chanted daily in his cell, he was in there for a couple of charges, such as not having a legal driver's license, and some other thing, but I noticed when he got out how he said the chanting helped him appreciate his relationship with me so much more and how he had been unappreciative, etc., but what I noticed is although he has some drug problems of his own, he had decided through his chanting that he was through with the drugs, and he seemed so much more clear-headed than I had ever known him to be that it built so much more trust up in me in his common sense to overcome something he had been doing for sixteen years. I do believe that if we taught incarcerated felons to chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo it would help them immensely to get their insight into their drug addictions, etc., and would become extremely encouraging to them to change their the behaviors that got them there in the first place.
Also, I agree with just about everything in the article. I worked in a prison as an inmate grievance coordinator in Florida, and it is amazing how the correctional officers from the warden on down have an attitude that is racist beyond belief, and it was so hard for me to work there knowing that 90% of the inmates wouldn't be there if they had had a decent education and a good chance at jobs, etc., not to mention family backgrounds that doomed them from birth due to their race and financial status. It is so true that the government and society as a whole, speaking of the "new right" have set up this class structure as a win/lose situation with them being in control of the government and they seem to have "0" compassion for the people they had put in the prisons, with no kind of human understanding of the facts about why these people committed the crimes they did. It was sickening to me to work there, and became increasingly depressing to me, so after 13 months in that position I resigned and got out of that "system". The officers work hard at putting their own employees into prison by watching them like hawks to see if they break the rules, especially women in male prisons being incarcerated for three years for having a sexual relationship with the inmates which has become illegal to the point that there is no compassion for these people that break the rules such as those, as they do not feel that prisoners have "feelings" and are incapable of caring about the people who work there and are unable to develop any kind of affection for their keepers. Although there are good reasons for women not to "fall in love" with an inmate, which are obvious, the thing is if a woman, or male employee crosses that proverbial line, he/she has the chance of become another inmate as well, as fast as the blink of an eye.
Comment by Tim Janakos on March 10, 2009 at 4:54pm
I was encouraged to address this issue in my podcast this week, by listening to my friends great podcast on about one of the SGI leaders who's son's in prison and he is now a Buddhist "pastor" in a prison and he is doing shakubuku there. I just watched the trailer to looks great. I also watch a video about another Buddhist guy teaching in prison. He has many books, one's called Dharma Punx. If I were in the US, I think I would try to become a Buddhist "pastor" in a prison. I don't think I could find any English speakers or translators though in Japan's prisons.
Comment by cosmiclocksmith on March 10, 2009 at 1:23pm
Thank you, really provocative stuff, one of the subjects still to be effectively dealt with in modern US society (among others). I think I've shared this before, but check out this link:

moving stuff

Comment by Dan on March 10, 2009 at 10:54am
Listened to an SGI member from Washington, D.C., who is a lawyer (many years ago during a discussion presentation at the D.C. SGI-USA community center). He said that most of our judicial system in the U.S. is 'tapped' into the business of drugs & drug abuse. The courts, law enforcement, drug interdiction, lawyers, courts & the prison system seem 'parasitic' in nature. They don't really address or make an effort to 'solve' the problem of drugs, drub abuse & the laws against drugs. They 'thrive' from the business of the evils of drug. Our prisons' populations would be depleted if we truly addressed the problems of drug abuse.
Comment by Mimi the Snapdiva on March 10, 2009 at 8:39am
EXCELLENT paper.. hope this stimulates discussion on the website!

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