Throwing Away the Key
by Salim Muwakkil
In These Times magazine,
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
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.