Human Rights

Prison Shocker: U.S. Imprisons Three Times as Many Black People as South Africa During Apartheid

Even Congressional Republicans were a bit disturbed by that stat.

The United States imprisons almost three times as many Black people than were jailed in South Africa during Apartheid, Rep. Spencer Bachus said Thursday during a subcommittee oversight hearing on the Federal Bureau of Prisons. While games of comparison are rarely productive, the American prison industrial complex has seen cries of racism for years now. And for once, both Democrats and Republicans are up in arms over the shocking state of affairs and say they are in favor of overhauling a system that many say is broken and biased. 

Bachus reported that the U.S. prison population hovered around 24,000 for most of the 1900s until suddenly, in the 1980s, the country saw a staggering rise in the inmate population to nearly a quarter million. The main causes? the War on Drugs that began in the 1980s under then-President Ronald Reagan, mandatory sentencing and three-strikes laws, all of which, most agree, disproportionately affect minorities.

The rise in prison population may have another less publicized cause: gradual privatization of the prison industry, with its profits over justice motives. If the beds aren't filled, states are required to pay the prison companies for the empty space, which means taxpayers are largely left to deal with the bill that might come from lower crime  and imprisonment rates. Most privately built prisons mandate 90%-occupancy rates,  according to the new report by In The Public Interest. The incentive to do so is big. When the state of Arizona recently failed to meet its 97% quota, the state paid the prison company Management & Training Corporation $3 million, the Huffington Post reports

Of all the contracts that the advocacy group assessed, nearly two-thirds of the quotas were met. The prisons in question then were found to use the profits to expand their reach, pulling a variety of strings in an effort to make lawmakers increase incarceration stats through new laws. The US currently leads the world in incarcerating its residents, with one in every 100 adults behind bars, making it a $6 billion annual industry. Over the past 30 years, the prison population has more than quadrupled, mostly due to the very same drug offenses that disproportionately African Americans. 

"There has to be an effort to reduce the population," BOP Director Charles Samuels Jr. told the subcommittee. Soon after. Rep. Bobby Scott, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee joined forces with Bachus and Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz to sponsor a House reform bill, signaling a rare moment of bi-partisan agreement. 

Other subcommittee members pressed Samuels on other issues, including prison staff safety, the cost of making a phone call, which is .23 a minute for domestic calls, and various other costs that come from taxpayer money. Though Samuels was unable to provide requested statistics, both parties agreed that the bloated prison population creates a dangerous environment for both inmates and staff, creating an open floodgate for a ride in public safety concerns, making reform a rare cross-party imperative. 

Rod Bastanmehr is a freelance writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @rodb.

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