The Incarceration Craze

The girth of the American prison system continues to expand, with no end in sight.

Last week the Justice Department reported that by the end of 2001, one in every 37 adults in the U.S. had either done prison time in their lives or were currently incarcerated in a state or federal prison. After two years of sluggish prison growth figures, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported in late July that the inmate population jumped up by 2.6 percent, for a total of 2,166,260 prisoners in 2002. Many state budgets have been bled dry by the rapid expansion of the prison industry, with an attendant negative impact on the communities hit hardest by budget cuts and the imprisonment of their residents.

This year, more than 625,000 men and women will be released from jail or prison this year with a dearth of resources to help them transition back to their communities. Herein lies the real danger. Incarceration can seriously exacerbate mental illnesses, worsen or create drug and alcohol problems, and contribute to the spread of serious infectious diseases like hepatitis C, HIV and tuberculosis.

There's also an ugly racial dimension to our incarceration craze. Prison yards from coast to coast look like a sea of black and brown skin, and the new BJS statistics bear this out. As of Dec. 31, 2002, 10.4 percent of African American men between the ages of 25 to 29 were in prison, compared with just 1.2 percent of white men in the same age group. Rounding out that mix are the poor, the illiterate, the drug addicted, the mentally ill, and immigrants.

Ex-offenders often return to their communities to find that their criminal records severely hamper efforts to reintegrate into society. In addition to social stigma and shame associated with incarceration, ex-offenders with drug convictions quickly find out about federal bans on eligibility for welfare, food stamps and public housing.

Small wonder that 67 percent of former inmates across the nation are rearrested for serious new crimes within three years after their release. In California alone, 56 percent of felons paroled in 2000 were recommitted within two years of their release.

Crime-equals-incarceration is a simple equation, and political rhetoric had Americans believing in this equation for a good portion of the '80s and '90s. But that argument is increasingly difficult to make. From 1995-2001, for instance, the federal prison population jumped up by 69 percent while the nation's overall crime rates declined by 14.5 percent. Today, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is larger than any state prison system, operating 33 percent over capacity.

Look to the war on drugs for the underlying cause. Today, many dozens of non-violent marijuana offenders are serving life sentences in federal and state penitentiaries with no hope of parole. Tens of thousands more are doing decades behind bars for small possession and dealing charges, while child molesters, rapists and repeat violent offenders can easily end up serving only four- eight- and 15-year sentences.

With drastic changes to federal and state sentencing guidelines instituted over the past 15 years, judges have had their hands tied. Thanks to the triple-whammy of the Crime Control Act of 1984, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Amendment Act of 1988, mandatory minimum sentencing became the operative concept, stripping power from judges and handing a veritable carte blanche to local, state and federal prosecutors.

Thankfully, increasing numbers of judges and state legislators (including many conservatives) are now recognizing the drug war for the senseless and costly crusade that it is.

Mindful of shifting public opinion and record-breaking budgetary deficits, many states including Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Washington and Texas have taken steps to reduce prison populations by pursuing parole and incarceration reforms, and even by abolishing mandatory sentences for some drug offenders. The savings have been quantifiable in every state. California's own Prop. 36, for instance, saved at least $275 million in taxpayer money during its first year of enforcement.

As the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) conducted its annual convention in San Francisco recently, over a dozen states announced that they had made cuts to corrections to balance their budgets. But upon closer examination, many of the states had done so by cutting food, health, educational and vocational services to inmates. Worse yet, the NCSL reported that average state spending on corrections would be expected to grow 1.1 percent in FY 2004, while state expenditure on higher education is projected to decrease by another 2.3 percent.

California is no stranger to this kind of logic. Since 1985, general fund expenditure on education has dropped by about $1 billion, while corrections allocations have increased by roughly $3 billion. As Governor Davis signed the most recent $100 billion budget, prisons were spared any heavy cuts ($223 million), while K-12 took another heavy blow: a cut of $2 billion, leading to an estimated loss of 3,000 teacher positions.

Mass incarceration represents a historical and political crisis of the highest order. No amount of tough-on-crime rhetoric should gloss over the reality that crime control and rehabilitation has little, if anything, to do with prison expansion from coast to coast. What mass incarceration has more to do with is profit, in the context of a phenomenon that social historian Mike Davis aptly termed the "prison industrial complex" nearly a decade ago. That industry now generates at least $30 billion annually.

It's time that we admit a distressingly high level of comfort with locking the nation's "undesirables" out of sight and out of mind. Our abilities to think critically and constructively about how easily we allow our government to strip fellow human beings of their rights and liberties has the potential to turn this destructive imprisonment trend around.

There are no easy answers for how to deal with perpetrators who actually do threaten the safety of our communities. Violent criminals and sexual predators do exist in our midst, but they do not represent the reason our incarceration figures have reached sky-high proportions. Humane, enlightened approaches to punishment and rehabilitation have a place in a functioning democracy, but our incarceration craze should end for the sake of our society, our safety and our collective sanity.

Silja J.A. Talvi is a journalist and essayist whose work appears in Prison Nation (Routledge: 2003).

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