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: http://www.garageband.com/mp3cat/.UZCMbC6B4qqv/01_The_All_Mighty_Ba...
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.”
Christianson, Scott, 1998. With Liberty For Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America. Pennsylvania: Northeastern University Press.
Dhondt, Geert (CPE Staff Economist) (http://www.fguide.org/Bulletin/warehouse.htm
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.