Prison Insustrial Complex: 1 in 150 in USA jails FWD

Tom Boland (
Thu, 11 Mar 1999 09:08:37 -0800 (PST)

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Since the criminalization of poverty puts many homeless people behind bars,
I forward the following article for your review and comments:

FWD  March 7, 1999, New York Times, Week in Review



Later this month, the U.S. government will release new figures showing how
many Americans are behind bars, and the numbers will reveal that the bull
market for prisons is still charging ahead. Nearly 1 of every 150 people in
the United States is in prison or jail, the Justice Department will announce,
a figure that no other democracy comes close to matching.

Soon, the total number of people locked up in federal and state prisons and
local jails will likely reach the 2 million mark, almost double the number a
decade ago, as the ranks of prisoners grow enough each year -- to fill Yankee
Stadium and then some. For an American born this year, the chance of living
some part of life in a correction facility is 1 in 20; for black Americans, it
is 1 in 4.

Most experts failed to predict that the inmate population would triple from
1980, and now nobody seems to know how to stop the buildup. By all logic,
prisons should be experiencing a few vacancies, and the cost of arresting,
prosecuting and putting away an army of criminals should be at ebb. After all,
the economy could hardly be better, and crime has fallen steeply six years in
a row. But a prison peace dividend is nowhere in sight.

Instead, the guessing game now is: At what point does the world's largest
penal system hit a plateau -- 2.5 million inmates, 3 million? Surely, if crime
continues to fall, the number of new prisoners must also fall.

Not quite. No matter how much crime plummets, the United States will still
have to add the equivalent of a new 1,000-bed jail or prison every week -- for
perhaps another decade, federal officials say. Some even believe the prison
boom could be permanent, at least for another generation.

A big reason is that so many of the new inmates are drug offenders. In the
federal system, nearly 60 percent of all people behind bars are doing time for
drug violations; in state prisons and local jails, the figure is 22 percent.
These numbers are triple the rate of 15 years ago.

Americans do not use more drugs, on average, than people in other nations; but
the United States, virtually alone among Western democracies, has chosen a
path of incarceration for drug offenders. More than 400,000 people are behind
bars for drug crimes -- and nearly a third of them are locked up for simply
possessing an illicit drug.

"America's internal gulag," is what Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the nation's drug
czar, calls the expanding mass of drug inmates. Many of those have committed
any number of crimes. But a growing number of them have broken no laws other
than the ones on drug use.

In the 1980s, Congress and the states passed drug laws that required judges to
put people in prison -- even first-time offenders, or those caught with small
amounts of an illicit substance. Mandatory minimum sentences, as they are
called, leave no room for a judge to consider special circumstances, or
options such as treatment instead of jail.

The idea was that more arrests would lead to more convictions, which would put
more people in jail, and the crime rate would fall. That did happen.

Another dividend was supposed to be a drop in drug use, but that has not
happened. Arrests of people who use drugs just hit an all-time high, the FBI
reported. At the same time, drug use has gone up among the young, and for
drugs like heroin or methamphetamines. Over all, drug use has not budged for
10 years. For virtually all other crimes, of course, the figures are stunning
-- with huge drops in murder, robbery and assault. Whether this is because the
United States will soon have 2 million people locked up is subject to much

But many of the authorities who argue that the prison boom has taken the worst
criminals out of circulation -- and has thus been the biggest factor in
reducing crime -- are at a loss to explain the drug-use figures.

"I am in favor of the federal government ceasing and desisting the war on
drugs," said Dr. Morgan Reynolds, director of the Criminal Justice Center at
the Dallas branch of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a free-market
think tank.

He described himself as being on the conservative side of the debate over
prisons and crime; he says the crime drop can be directly attributed to the
prison boom.

But he is less sure that the federal government's war on drugs has an effect
on crime rates and drug use.

For liberals and libertarians who have long claimed incarceration has failed
to do anything but run up the bill in the drug war, conservative cover is
welcome. Last week, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., introduced a bill to restore
discretion for judges in sentencing low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

"We may be getting to the point of diminishing returns -- the more you expand
the prison system, the more small fry you put in there," said Marc Mauer,
assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that has been
critical of the prison buildup.

Even some of the architects of punitive drug policies now argue that stuffing
the prisons with ever more drug offenders is not a wise investment. Edwin
Meese, who was attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, when most of
the drug laws were rewritten, has started to look favorably on treatment for
low-level offenders rather than jail.

"I think mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders ought to be reviewed,"
said Meese in an interview. "We have to see who has been incarcerated and what
has come from it."

Beyond the laws that send drug offenders to prison with reflexive certainty,
there are now institutional incentives to keep locking up more people -- a
trend that some people call the prison industrial complex.

The stock price of the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's
largest private jailer, has increased tenfold since 1994. The company's stock
is now privately held. But Corrections Corp. has created a popular real-estate
investment fund to get a return on all those new prisons being built at the
rate of one a week.

Unions representing prison guards are the fastest-growing public employee
associations in many states. In California last year, the union was given a
raise of 12 percent, which brought the salary for a seasoned prison guard up
to $51,000.

It is the rare rural community that rejects a new prison in its backyard, with
the prospect of permanent, high-paying, benefit-rich government jobs.

The prisons in California, as in virtually every other state, are near
capacity, even though the state has built 21 new institutions in the last 15
years. Soon, it will cost nearly $4 billion a year to run the state's prison
system. Should the Legislature propose some change in the law that might bring
down the growth in prisons, they are likely to hear howls of outrage from the
union that has most benefited from the growth in prisons.

"Once you have a society committed to building new prisons and keeping them,
it's very difficult to close them down," said Mauer. "Particularly in rural
areas that come to depend on them. It's like trying to close a military base."

The states also have an incentive to keep people in jail a long time. A
federal law passed in 1994 provides matching funds to states to keep violent
criminals in prison longer by denying parole. This act and other so-called
truth-in-sentencing laws are reasons why the ranks of prisoners will not soon
drop, even as crime levels off.

"We've got crime going in one direction, and social policy going in the
other," said Dr. Allen Beck, the Justice Department's lead statistician on
criminal justice trends.

The one thing that may finally slow prison growth, said Beck, are budget
concerns. It costs taxpayers $20,000 a year to house and feed every new inmate
-- and that does not include the cost of building new prisons and jails. The
states are spending nearly $30 billion to keep people in jail -- about double
the rate of 10 years ago.

Some states are starting to balk. California legislative leaders say they will
build no new prisons in coming years, but they have not said what they will do
with excess prisoners. In Washington state, a bill that would abolish
mandatory minimum prison terms for drug offenders has gained support from
judges, prosecutors and tough-on-crime Republicans.

Washington was a pioneer state in enacting laws requiring long lockups, with
no chance of early release or leeway for judges to consider other options. But
prisons now are the state's fastest-growing part of the budget -- even as
crime has nearly bottomed out.

But it will be difficult to change the pattern, with new prisons rising in
depressed rural areas. Cleaning up after a crusade, some lawmakers said, has
proven much harder than they anticipated.

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