Overcrowded Prisons in California

PrisonerI recently read a study on prisons by the former UCLA graduate and now professor at Princeton, Devah Pager, entitled Marked: Race Crime and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration. This is must reading for Californians involved in our prison system.

Pager’s study conclusively proves that re-entry into society for ex-convicts has apparently been given very little consideration by the penal corrections industry/community. Apparently, they’ve been oblivious to how extremely hard it is for a person who has paid their debt to society, to get a job so they can move on with their life in society. This study came out before the great unemployment crisis we are now facing, so it is even more desperate a situation.

Pager sent people to job interviews posing as ex-prisoners and non prisoners and found that the chance of getting a job callback were slim to none for someone who had served time. Even when the employer was desperate for help , ex-convicts were rarely called.

Over the past few decades we have become the country with the highest prisoner per capita of any country in the world, by a wide margin. Russia is a distant second; most European countries have one prison per 5.4 U.S. prisons, per capita. Starting with Nixon, we have increased our prison population by 600 percent. And a very disproportionate percentage of the inmates are Black. It’s not surprising that Nixon and many other conservatives had a hidden racist conservative agenda. Senior Nixon advisor H.R. Halderman wrote in his diary that “[President Nixon] emphasized that you had to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” To many conservatives, the whole problem was the Voting Rights Act — voting rights , equality and democracy. A key strategy became the “tough on crime” mantra, a mantra which emerged out of a bankrupt Republican ideology especially in urban areas.

The prison boom also took place at a time when the United States was de-industrializing and casting its corporate fate globally, mostly in poorer countries. A significantly higher percentage of the Black population worked in manufacturing jobs than other races. Manufacturing is also arguably the most productive sector in the country. When we reminisce about how the United States was a country that made things, a high percentage of what was made was made by the toiling of Black labor. During what some economists claim was the “Golden Age of Capitalism (1950 to 1970),” a significant percent of the workforce were industrious African Americans.

European intellectuals — including the late Andrew Glenn — believe that the U.S. prison boom was a “quick fix” for de-industrialization. While Europe grappled with how to retrain and reeducate workers who were left behind by global outsourcing, we adopted a “get tough on crime” attitude, especially with drugs of “intoxication.” In many cases, these were what was once considered private, self-inflicted abuses.

Drug use is nothing to admire but not by any stretch what we traditionally locked people up for, which had previously been serious, horrendous crimes. The highly respected Justice Louis Brandies once wrote “the right to be alone — the most comprehensive of rights and the most valued by civilized men.” The notion that we could lock people up while we got our deindustrialization act together has been an epic tragedy for those baring the brunt of the “tough on intoxication “ mentality. Pager concludes that it has been a significant step back from the victories of the Civil Rights movement.

Damaged for life and very hard pressed are the people who have paid their debt to society. They unfortunately get the verdict that keeps on punishing. They are also very unlikely to get married, often living alone in a life of quiet desperation. It also keeps punishing families and neighborhoods and the taxpayer in general. Pager sites California studies that reveal that a high percentage of recidivism is due to violations that were caused by parole technicalities, in some ways a surrender to hopeless job prospects.


With a prison population as large as the one in the state of California, Marked should be required reading for anyone in the “tough on crime” community, especially elected officials who are fiscal conservatives.  Besides the damage caused by high incarceration to families, children and neighborhoods, the annual cost of  incarceration which is currently $46,000 per inmate makes  tough on crime ultimately very tough on taxpayers and society in general.
Craig Williams

Developing Democracy

Published by the LA Progressive on December 11, 2009
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