Per capita, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any industrialized nation in the world. 2.3 million Americans are living behind bars. And if you think that number is staggering, consider this – according to a report in the New Yorker Magazine,when you factor in the people who are on parole, probation, juvenile detention and other forms of state control, the United States is keeping six million people under some form of correctional supervision—more than were in Stalin’s gulags.
Without a historical perspective we don’t have a sense of the extraordinary nature of this phenomenon… Because, get this, until recently the United States incarcerated at about the same rate as other industrialized nations.
Even though crime rates have continued to fall over the past 30 years,incarceration rates have grown — and today, funding to build prisons exceeds funding to build schools something that was unheard of just 10 years ago.
We incarcerate 1 in 8 American men of all races and 1 in 3 African-American men.
Is this truly the land of the free?
For most of its history, the United States has reported an incarcerate rate that was pretty much inline with other similarly situated countries. In other words, up until about 30 years ago the U.S. incarcerated about the same percentage of its citizens as the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Spain, and a half dozen other countries. Then, for reasons that are rarely discussed in mainstream media, things began to change and our rate of incarceration skyrocketed.
What explains this? Was there a sudden fever of lawlessness that broke out across the nation? Did Americans suddenly decide, en masse, to throw caution to the wind and just start breaking the law in numbers that exceed anything we’ve seen in human history? Or is it that Americans are just different from the rest of the world? If we are, why is it that we just became different 30 years ago? Could it be that policies were adopted that would guarantee a market for the private prison industry? What caused the sudden and dramatic change?
The social and financial ramifications of operating a prison system of the magnitude seen in the U.S. weighs heavily on the country. The International Centre for Prison Studies conducted out of King’s College in London recently reported, “The number of prisoners held in 218 independent countries and dependent territories is reported. Over 10.1 million people are incarcerated, with 23% held in the Unites States. The U.S. has the highest prison population rate of 743 per 100,000 of its national population followed by Rwanda (595 per 100,000). Rates below 150 per 100,000 are experienced by 54% of the countries reviewed.” Isn’t it high time we ask what’s causing this dramatic growth and then determine if we, as a society, want or need to lock up so many people?
According to Michelle Alexander, acclaimed author of the New York Times bestseller The New Jim Crow, the unprecedented expansion of the American criminal justice system has been fueled almost entirely by the so called “War on Drugs”. Alexander asserts that the vast majority of arrests during this 30 year period of unheralded growth have been of non-violent offenders who are, for the most part, low level drug users and not drug kingpins as many would assume.
Sociologist Lisa Wade recently reported that between 1990 and 2009, the inmate population of private prisons grew by 1,664%. In a piece published by PolicyMic Wade, who is also a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, wrote:
In 2010, annual revenues for two of the largest companies — Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group — were nearly $3 billion. Companies that house prisoners for profit have a perverse incentive to increase the prison population by passing more laws, policing more heavily, sentencing more harshly, and denying parole. Likewise, there’s no motivation to rehabilitate prisoners; doing so is expensive, cuts into their profits, and decreases the likelihood that any individual will be back in the prison system.
According to Michelle Alexander, two-thirds of the arrests in the past 30 years have been offenders with no history of violence or significant selling history and marijuana arrests account for 80% of the increase in collars.
Over the past 30 years
- Crime rates down – have fluctuated over 30 yrs
- War on Drugs – single most important cause 2/3 of the rise do to drug war
- Not kingpins or violent offenders – 4 out of 5 for possession — 1 out of 5 for sale – drug convictions 1000% increase
- Most people no history of violence or significant selling history – marijuana 80% of the increase
Alexander adds another factor that might explain how this so called “War on Drugs” was waged without having the masses up in arms. According to Alexander, the war on drugs was waged almost entirely on people of color particularly against – black and brown men.
- Drug war waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color
- People of color no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites
- Drug market is highly segregated by race
- Drug dealing happens across racial boundaries
- In some states African-Americans account for 80-90% of all drug convictions
Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow will be speaking on Oct 20th and Ethan Nadelmann, founder and director of the Drug Policy Alliance will be speaking on October 21st at the upcoming Justice on Trial Film Festival. Tickets for the two-day event range from $10 – $25 and can be purchased directly on this page by scrolling just below the next paragraph or by clicking here.
You can learn more about the unprecedented growth of America’s prison system by reading Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow . You are also invited to attend the Justice on Trial Film Festival where Michelle Alexander and Ethan Nadelmann will both deliver powerful keynote addresses (purchase your ticket just below this paragraph). To see clips of the films being featured during the two-day festival, click here.