Prisoners of ideology
America's draconian approach to
criminal justice is beginning to unravel
by Phil Gaspar
International Socialist Review,
For the past thirty years, the United
States has been on an imprisonment binge unprecedented in world
history. In 1980, the total number of people incarcerated in the
U.S. was 500,000. Today the number stands at 2.2 million, with
a further 4.8 million on probation or parole. The total U.S. prison
budget increased from $9 billion in 1980 to $61 billion by 2003.
While the U.S. has less than 5 percent
of the world's population, it now has 25 percent of the world's
prisoners. In other words, the country that often proclaims itself
the freest in the world, imprisons its population at a rate over
six times higher than the rest of the planet. The U.S. incarceration
rate stands at 737 per 100,000, over five times higher than Great
Britain and over twelve times higher than Norway. The statistics
for minority populations are even more shocking. For Latinos,
the imprisonment rate is twice the national average. For Blacks
it is four times the national average, with over one million African-American
men in prison or jail. In 2002, 10.4 percent of all Black males
between the ages of 25 and 29 were imprisoned, and the numbers
have not improved since then.
In a report presented to Congress last
year, the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's
Prisons concluded, "We should be astonished by the size of
the prisoner population, troubled by the disproportionate incarceration
of African-Americans and Latinos, and saddened by the waste of
human potential." The report found medical and mental health
care in prisons to be grossly inadequate, and noted a "desperate
need for the kind of productive activities that discourage violence
and make rehabilitation possible."
Another report, issued in February by
the Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts,
predicted that the prison population alone (not including jails,
juvenile institutions, and other detention facilities) will rise
by 13 percent, or another 192,000 people, over the next five years,
at an increased cost of $27.5 billion. The report identified long
mandatory minimum prison sentences, reduced use of parole, and
harsh parole and probation rules, which often send people to prison
for minor violations, as mainly responsible for the increase.
"Every additional dollar spent on prisons," it pointed
out, "is one dollar less that can go for preparing for the
next Hurricane Katrina, educating young people, providing health
care to the elderly or repairing roads and bridges."
Nowhere is the crisis worse than in California.
In 1977, the state had fewer than 20,000 prisoners. Thirty years
later the number stands at 173,000. In its first 130 years as
a state, California built twelve prisons. Between 1980 and 2005
it added another twenty-one, at enormous cost. Today, California
spends $35,000 a year for every prisoner, compared to $7,000 for
K-12 students and only $4,500 in support for college and university
Yet despite billions spent on new facilities,
California's prisons and jails are bursting at the seams, with
many crammed to twice their intended capacity. In nearly every
state prison, the gym and every other available space is packed
with triple bunk beds, squeezing out opportunities for recreation,
education, and rehabilitation. Most California prisons are in
a permanent state of lockdown, which confines prisoners to their
cramped cells for all but an hour or two a day, while essential
services are in a state of collapse. In 2005, a federal court
put the California prison health care system under outside control
because of its shocking level of deterioration.
While some states have experimented successfully
with drug rehabilitation and parole diversion programs, California
has failed to reform its parole system and has the highest recidivism
rate in the country, with 70 percent returning to prison within
three years, often for minor violations such as missing a court
appearance. This revolving door costs the state $1.5 billion a
year and makes the overcrowding problem even worse.
The situation is so bad, that last October
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in
the prisons, and began making arrangements to move thousands of
inmates to private prisons in Arizona, Tennessee, and elsewhere.
Prison wardens are screening a video trying to persuade prisoners
to transfer voluntarily, although so far only a few hundred have
agreed. The film includes interviews with prisoners who have already
been moved. "They talk to us like humans [here]," says
one, "not like animals." In reality, the private prisons
have their own long record of brutality and abuse.
The predictable result of massive overcrowding
has been frequent violence and rioting, with Black and Latino
prison gangs frequently pitted against each other. In 2006, for
example, the Los Angeles County jails were rocked by a series
of riots. "There's no question this city has turned its back
on incarcerated youth and turned our jails into a byproduct of
such neglect," said Lita Herron, director of Mothers on the
March. "Now we've seen the consequences of what happens if
we continue to do nothing about it."
But the situation is similar in many other
states. "The explosions of violence we are seeing in Los
Angeles are systemic nationwide," Terry Jungel, past president
of the National Sheriffs Association told the media at the time.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, Jungel blamed "Years
of get-tough-on-crime policies [that] have emphasized rhetoric
over funding, and strict confinement instead of programs to address
prisoner problems or conditions."
"Truth in sentencing, three strikes
and you're out-it looks great on paper, but try to make it work,"
Connecticut state Representative Michael Lawlor, a former prosecutor,
told the Associated Press.
The huge expansion of the U.S. prison
population has little to do with the level of crime. According
to the most reliable data, U.S. crime rates have been stable or
in decline since the mid-1970s. With the notable exception of
homicide, crime rates in the U.S. are comparable to those of other
developed countries that imprison their inhabitants at a much
lower rate. Moreover, public concern about crime is not closely
correlated with the actual crime rate, but shifts in relation
to the amount of attention given to crime in the media and to
the level of political rhetoric.
Conservative politicians first began making
crime a major political issue as part of a strategy to roll back
the reforms won by social activists in the 1960s. The civil rights
movement made it no longer respectable to make openly racist arguments,
so political figures declared a war on crime to send a coded racial
message to the voters. One of the first was Richard Nixon. In
notes taken at an Oval Office meeting shortly after Nixon's election,
H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, wrote, "[the President]
emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem
is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes
this while not appearing to." Ronald Reagan pushed these
policies further in the 1980s. At a time when social spending
was being slashed and inequality and poverty were increasing,
conservatives blamed bad individuals rather than underlying social
conditions for crime.
The policies that created the current
crisis were pushed not just by Republicans, but by many Democrats
too. In California, it was Democratic Governor Jerry Brown who
in 1977 eliminated indeterminate sentencing laws, which had allowed
parole boards the option of releasing prisoners after serving
relatively short sentences. Soon afterwards, the Democratic-controlled
legislature eliminated rehabilitation and treatment as goals of
the prison system, and passed legislation defining its purpose
as only punishment.
During the 1980s, the Democratic legislature
in California passed over 1,000 laws increasing the length of
mandatory prison terms. According to a study by the Stanford Criminal
Justice Center, many of these changes were "enacted as knee-jerk
responses by lawmakers to horrific, high-profile and frequently
isolated crimes." They laid the ground for the 1994 passage
of Proposition 184, the most draconian "three strikes"
law in the country, which mandates life sentences for offenders
with two prior serious convictions. Hundreds of people in the
state are now serving life sentences for offenses such as petty
theft or filing a false DMV application.
The American ruling class is well aware
that it needs to solve its major prison crisis, but it finds itself
unable to abandon the ideological framework that it has relied
on for over thirty years. Once again, California provides a clear
example. When Schwarzenegger assumed office in late 2003, he set
a goal of reducing California's prison population by 15,000, renamed
the state's correction department the California Department of
Corrections and Rehabilitation, and set up a prison review panel
headed by former Republican Governor George Deukmejian. "The
key to reforming the system," the panel concluded, "lies
in reducing the numbers."
Within a few months, however, the new
governor began to reverse himself. In 2004 he played a crucial
role in defeating Proposition 66, which would have reformed California's
"three strikes" law to make the third strike a serious
or violent crime. Last year, Schwarzenegger also backed Proposition
83, which increases sentences for sex offenders. Rehabilitation
programs have been scaled back and as a result, instead of declining,
the California prison population has risen by another 12,000._When
progressive reforms have been passed, they have not been given
the funds to succeed fully. In 2000, California voters approved
Proposition 36, which requires probation and treatment for first-time
drug offenders, rather than prison. Researchers say that the law
has saved hundreds of millions in incarceration costs since it
was enacted, but lack of money means demand far outruns availability,
increasing the likelihood that participants will suffer a relapse
while waiting for treatment.
Two-thirds of California's prisoners read
below a ninth-grade level, and over half are functionally illiterate.
Despite the fact that education is one of the best ways of reducing
recidivism, only 6 percent of prisoners are in academic classes
and 5 percent in vocational training. Moreover, many of the work
programs are a joke. According to the Washington Post, "they
often consist of having an inmate sweep or mop a small section
of a hall over and over and over, for six hours."
In the first half of 2006, two successive
secretaries of the corrections department appointed by Schwarzenegger
resigned, saying that their attempts to introduce changes had
been blocked. One of them, Jeanne Woodford (the former warden
of San Quentin), testifying recently in federal court before a
judge who is considering whether to put the whole system into
receivership, said that her proposals for parole and sentencing
reform were derailed by Schwarzenegger's aides, who told him,
"Governor, it's an election year." By the end of last
year, Schwarzenegger was proposing to borrow almost $11 billion
to build two new prisons and expand the capacity of California's
prisons and jails by 80,000. The Governor has proposed a commission
to reexamine the state's sentencing laws, but he also declared
that he will oppose any changes to California's "three strikes"
But in February, Schwarzenegger started
swinging back in the opposite direction. The San Francisco Chronicle
reported that the had "quietly dropped a call he made last
year to build new prisons in the same style the state had built
in the past," and backed a plan to move thousands of prisoners
to smaller facilities closer to the big cities, with increased
resources to help them reenter society on their release. Whether
these new plans will come to fruition, and whether they will be
adequately funded, remains highly doubtful. More likely, in the
next few months Schwarzenegger will again begin to feel the pull
of the "tough on crime" ideology on which politicians
in both major parties have come to rely.
Meanwhile, the human cost of these policies
continues to mount. "It's always prison, prison, prison.
It just corrupts you more," Rodolfo Salcido, a drug addict
who has been in and out of jail for years, told the Los Angeles
Times last Christmas. "We need help. We're sick. It shouldn't
just be back to prison."
Phil Gasper teaches at Notre Dame de Namur
University in California. He is editor of The Communist Manifesto:
A Roadmap to History's Most Important Political Document (Haymarket
Books, 2005), a contributor to The Struggle for Palestine (Haymarket
Books, 2002), and The Encyclopedia of the Israeli-Palestinian
Conflict (Lynne Reinner, forthcoming).