One in 100 American adults is behind bars. That’s 2.3 million people total. America imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world. China runs a close second, but of course, China has four times as many people as the U.S and is also a Communist dictatorship. America’s incarceration rate is higher than every country in Europe combined. In fact, the prison population in the U.S. is equivalent to five Luxembourgs.
American prisons offer a grim portrait of our country’s underclass. 1 in 36 Hispanic adults are currently incarcerated, as is one in nine black men aged 20 to 34. One in three black men will be imprisoned in his lifetime. Although illegal drug use is equally prevalent among white and black males, a black man is five times more likely to be arrested. A higher percentage of the black population is currently imprisoned in America than in South Africa at the height of apartheid.
When one percent of your population is housed, clothed, fed and supervised by the state, there’s going to be an inevitably hefty price tag. It costs an average of $23,876 to imprison someone for a year in the United States. In Rhode Island it costs $45,000, the same as a year’s worth of tuition, room and board at Brown University. Our own state of Connecticut spends as much money on its prisons as it does on higher education. In twenty years, average state spending on corrections has nearly quintupled to $49 billion. Although crime rates are dropping, this number continues to climb.
And it isn’t paying off. America has the highest homicide rate out of all industrialized nations. In the world ranking, Iraq is only three places ahead. The idea that the prison system makes us safer is based on two principles. The first is that the threat of incarceration deters crime in the first place. The second is that criminals are isolated from society and rehabilitated, so that on release they won’t offend again. But the current prison system has failed to fulfill either of these postulates. Since the 80s, crimes rates have fallen as incarceration rates have climbed. It is not the threat of arrest that has affected crime rates, but rather the economy, the rate of unemployment and drug use. In the 1990s, the states with the least rapidly rising incarceration rates actually experienced the most dramatic drops in crime.
Prisons also typically fail to rehabilitate. In fact, they actively do the opposite. Inmates are exploited for cheap labor and endure overcrowding, brutality and poor services. They don’t cure criminal minds, but perpetuate violence. The United States increasingly builds its prisons as giant Supermax facilities — concrete and steel and stark efficiency. Inmates are often kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and, thanks to new technology, have almost no interpersonal interactions. Advocates have long criticized these units as responsible for mental degeneration and derangement. The United Nations has denounced them as inhumane. A recent spat of lawsuits have claimed that Supermaxes violate the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Although American prisons are financially and ethically grievous, the incarceration rate continues to skyrocket with hardly a peep from politicians. This may be because the prison system impacts our society’s most disempowered. Once you’re convicted of a felony, you are stripped of your rights as a citizen. (In seven states, a quarter of the entire black male population is permanently ineligible to vote.) The fact that the prison system acts as an often-privatized, productive growth industry for the country (the third largest) offers tangible economic benefits that keep politicians tight-lipped. After all, prisons need to be built, prisoners clothed, supervised and provided for. Looking for access to a 35 billion dollar industry, corporations, defense giants and investment banks are eager providers.
And so the prison-industrial complex is born: a conglomeration of special interests that encourages more and more spending. The prison-industrial complex demands constant and ever-increasing growth, even though this translates into more human lives in cages, more racist policing and more Supermax units. The same corporations that fuel the prison industry also fund politicians, to the tune of $33 million in 44 states in the 2002 and 2004 elections. It is therefore not so surprising then that the prison system has never been the top of the agenda for any liberal or conservative politician.
It is often difficult for people to garner much sympathy for the victims of our prison system. In the popular imagination these people are vicious murderers, rapists and pedophiles. However, perpetrators of violent crime make up a vast minority of inmates and even the worst criminals are human beings, the majority of which have grown up in poverty and abusive households. The prison system is the way our society deals with the poor, drug-addicted, homeless and mentally ill. Sixty percent of inmates are illiterate. 60 to 80 percent have a history of substance abuse. Two-hundred-thousand suffer serious mental illness. In a Colorado Supermax, a quarter of the inmates are on anti-psychotic medication. When released, these people will experience restricted employment opportunities, often prohibited from getting federal loans or public housing. In this way, our prison system disenfranchises the already destitute.
The prison system needs to stop expanding in numbers; prisons needs to de-politicize parole, courts need to repeal the three strikes policy and their draconian drug laws and our resources need to be concentrated on those already behind bars. At the moment, drug treatment is available to only one in ten inmates who need it, half the number it was in 1993. Prisons need to provide counseling, treatment programs, education, job training, expanded visiting rooms, family support and extended healthcare. Prisoners may have broken the law, but our prisons, as they exist right now, are committing crimes against humanity.
Claire Gordon is a sophomore in Saybrook College.