Throwing Away the Key

by Salim Muwakkil

In These Times magazine, May 2003


The Department of Homeland Security, the new cabinet post with the Teutonic inflection, was created last January to assuage Americans' fears of future terrorist attacks. But while we focus our attention on external threats, we're ignoring homegrown forces that imperil our nation's security much more profoundly than suicidal Islamic cults. These forces are being generated by an incarceration epidemic that has earned this country the dubious title of the world's largest jailer.

Figures released last month by the Justice Department revealed that as of June 30,2002, the number of inmates in American prisons and jails had exceeded 2 million for the first time in history. There were 1.35 million prisoners in state and federal prisons and an additional 665,000 in local jails, the report noted. The United States not only imprisons more people than any other nation, our incarceration rate of 702 inmates per 100,000 residents is also the highest in the world. "We have 25 percent of the world's prisoners, but we're only 5 percent of the world's population," says Kara Gotsch of the ACLU's National Prison Project.

The most destructive feature of this skyrocketing incarceration rate is its dramatic racial disparity. Among black males 25 to 29, 12.9 percent were in prison or jail; only 1.6 percent of white men in the same age group are incarcerated. The report calculates that at least 29 percent of all black men will have spent some time behind bars over the course of a lifetime. And although the number of black women inmates is much lower than black men, there are five times as many black women inmates than their white counterparts.

According to the Sentencing Project, a research group that advocates alternatives to prison, these rates of incarceration have increased despite sharp drops in violent crime rates since 1994. The relentless increase in inmates "can best be explained as the legacy of an entrenched infrastructure of punishment that has been embedded in the criminal justice system over the last 30 years," says Malcolm C. Young, the project's executive director. Drug offenses account for nearly 60 percent of the federal prison population, the group noted.

Our nation's penal system is a grotesque charade that has abandoned all pretense of penitence or any notion of rehabilitation. It has become instead an apartheid system used to warehouse "surplus" populations that society has forsaken.

The other side of this incarceration epidemic, of course, is that these inmates one day will come home. They already are returning in record numbers. In 2001, state and federal prisons released 630,000 inmates, about four times the figure 20 years ago. Since prisons are little interested in rehabilitation or education, most of these ex-inmates are unskilled and unqualified for living-wage jobs. They return to mostly poor communities that desperately lack resources and post-prison services.

Their records pretty much disqualify them from anything but a job in the underground economy. In Illinois, for example, citizens convicted of felonies are barred from 57 occupations, including hospital workers, barbers, beauticians, nail technicians and many other jobs that don't require the high school diplomas most inmates never received.

A new study released in April found that 52 percent of the 30,068 inmates released from Illinois prisons in 2001 came back to Chicago, and 34 percent of those ended up in six poor, high-crime neighborhoods-adding to the woes of the communities and the inmates. The study, sponsored by the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, found that ex-inmates have few options for employment, housing or rehabilitation.

The Urban Institute study is just one of many released in recent years that detail the destructive machinery of a criminal justice system that is stripping the African-American community of precious human resources. It's part of a larger social dynamic that tracks growing numbers of African-American (and to a lesser extent, Latino) youth into economic marginality, to the underground economy and ultimately to the criminal justice system, where recidivism becomes a chronic problem.

A report released last year by the Justice Policy Institute titled "Cellblocks or Classrooms" found that in the past two decades the population of black male inmates grew three times as fast as the number of black men enrolled in higher education. The study made clear that society's investment priorities produced commensurate results. During the '80s and '90s. it noted, state and local spending on corrections grew at six times the rate of such spending on higher education.

Another noteworthy new text on this subject is Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, a collection of essays published last year by the Sentencing Project. The collection presents a wide-ranging investigation of our corrosive corrections system from a variety of perspectives. The structural pressures that have transformed the corrections system into a "prison-industrial complex" become glaringly apparent after reading this book.

But despite the studies damning the racial biases and self-defeating consequences of the U.S. prison-industrial complex, policy-makers seem largely oblivious. That will change when this social dynamite explodes in our faces- and that will happen one day soon.

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