Why the U.S. locks up more people
than any other country
by Nicole Colson
www.zmag.org, March 17, 2007
We are often told that the U.S. is the
"freest" nation on the planet. But to judge from the
U.S. prison system, the exact opposite is the case. The U.S. incarcerates
more of its people than any other country on the planet--not just
proportionally, but in absolute terms.
A Justice Department report released in
December revealed that a record 7 million people--one in every
32 adults in the U.S.--was either behind bars, on probation or
on parole at the end of 2005.
Though the U.S. has just 5 percent of the world's population,
it has an incredible 25 percent of the world's prison population--2.2
million people. Since 1970, the U.S. incarceration rate has increased
by 700 percent, and that number is still rising.
"After a 700 percent increase in the U.S. prison population
between 1970 and 2005, you'd think the nation would finally have
run out of lawbreakers to put behind bars," states a February
report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Evidently not.
Who winds up in prison? The answer is
African Americans and Latinos, most of all. They are fully 60
percent of the U.S. prison population today.
If current trends continue, one out of
every three Black men and one of every six Latino men born in
the U.S. today will go to prison at some point in their lifetime.
Overall, in 2005, African Americans were 40 percent of all inmates--three
times larger than their proportion in the U.S. population.
As sociologist Loïc Wacquant wrote in a 2001 article, "The
rate of incarceration for African Americans has soared to astronomical
levels unknown in any other society, not even the Soviet Union
at the zenith of the Gulag or South Africa during the acme of
the violent struggles over apartheid."
Immigrants and women are also increasingly ending up behind bars
in the U.S. According to statistics released by the Justice Department
last year, between 1995 and 2003, convictions for immigration
offenses rose by 394 percent. Between 1980 and 2005, the number
of women in state and federal prisons jumped by 873 percent--from
12,300 to 107,500.
Poverty has always been the defining feature of who is imprisoned
in the richest country on earth. Today is no exception. As of
2005, approximately 37 percent of women and 28 percent of men
in prison had monthly incomes of less than $600 prior to their
The dramatic rise in the U.S. prison population over the past
several decades can be attributed to several factors--in particular,
the "war on drugs" and mandatory-minimum sentencing
While politicians claim long prison sentences are reserved for
the "worst of the worst," the reality is that a huge
number of people in prison today are nonviolent drug offenders.
In 1980, there were 40,000 drug offenders in prison or jail. Today,
that number stands at half a million.
"Most of the drug offenders in prison are not the 'kingpins'
of the drug trade," states Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project.
"Indeed, the low-level sellers who are incarcerated are rapidly
replaced on the streets by others seeking economic gain."
In addition, inflexible sentencing laws--like California's "three-strikes"
law, which mandates life in prison for three felony convictions,
and so-called "truth-in-sentencing" laws that are designed
to keep people behind bars for the full length of their sentences--have
resulted in terrible punishments.
According to the Sentencing Project, one in every 11 people in
prison is now serving a life sentence--a quarter of them without
parole. A number of these sentences are for nonviolent drug crimes,
minor robberies or thefts, or unwittingly aiding more serious
Santos Reyes, for example, has spent more than six years in California's
Folsom State prison after he received a sentence of 26 years to
life for a third strike offense--the "crime" of taking
a drivers' license test under a false identity for his cousin,
who could not speak English.
Gladys Wilson was a victim of truth-in-sentencing laws. In 1978,
she pled guilty to aiding and abetting an armed robbery in Michigan,
her first offense. She was 31 years old, and the mother of an
According to the Sentencing Project, "Gladys had no prior
criminal record...[She] was sentenced to life in prison with the
assumption by everyone involved in the case that she would serve
no more than 10 years." Instead, "action by the parole
board was delayed until 1992, by which time a newly adopted policy
of 'life means life' resulted in denial of parole." Gladys
wasn't released until 2005--when she was 58 years old.
Children are also affected. According to Human Rights Watch, as
of 2005, at least 2,225 people who were under 18 at the time of
their alleged crimes were serving life without parole sentences
in U.S prisons.
"Troy L.," was 15 when he murdered his abusive father.
He was sentenced to life without parole. In a letter to Human
Rights Watch, he revealed the depth of his despair: "I would
go to the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan or Israel, or jump
on the first manned mission to Mars...[I]f the state were to offer
me some opportunity to end my life doing some good, rather than
a slow-wasting plague to the world, it would be a great mercy
The prison industry may be bad for people, but it's certainly
good for business.
Private prison companies operate in about three-quarters of U.S.
states. According to a recent CorpWatch report by Deepa Fernandes,
the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA),
America's largest private-prison operator, announced that revenues
had increased to almost $300 million for the second quarter of
In theory, prisons are supposed to be places where prisoners are
rehabilitated--but they are far more likely to serve as human
For example, in 2001, Canyon Thixton, then 17 years old, endured
58 days in Wisconsin's "Supermax" high-security prison
without a working toilet. Thixton was given toothpaste only twice
a week. He had no clothing other than a gown, no soap, pillow,
mattress or blanket. He was strapped to his cell for hours at
a time and beaten by guards.
Tragically, such conditions are not unusual. A 2003 Human Rights
Watch report estimates that between 200,000 and 300,000 prisoners
in the U.S. suffer from mental disorders, including schizophrenia,
bipolar disorder and major depression. Approximately 70,000 are
psychotic on any given day, the report says.
"Yet across the nation, many prison mental health services
are woefully deficient, crippled by understaffing, insufficient
facilities, and limited programs," it adds. "In the
most extreme cases," says the report, "conditions are
truly horrific: mentally ill prisoners locked in segregation with
no treatment at all; confined in filthy and beastly hot cells;
left for days covered in feces they have smeared over their bodies;
taunted, abused or ignored by prison staff; given so little water
during summer heat waves that they drink from their toilet bowls."
Few prisons have adequate treatment to deal with prisoners' drug
or alcohol addictions. And according to Phil Gasper's article
"Prisoners of Ideology" in the International Socialist
Review, despite the fact that two-thirds of California prisoners
read below a ninth-grade level and more than half are functionally
illiterate, just 6 percent of the state's prisoners are in academic
classes, and only 5 percent are in vocational training.
Former inmates are punished even after they are released. "Laws
deny welfare payments, veterans benefits and food stamps to anyone
in detention for more than 60 days," writes Loïc Wacquant.
"The Work Opportunity and Personal Responsibility Act of
1996 further banishes most ex-convicts from Medicaid, public housing,
Section 8 vouchers and related forms of assistance.
Bill Clinton, in particular, "proudly launched 'unprecedented
federal, state, and local co-operation as well as new, innovative
incentive programs'...to weed out any inmate who still received
benefits," writes Wacquant.
In a different kind of society--a socialist
society based on meeting people's needs, instead of making profits--whole
categories of "crimes" would simply cease to exist.
Immigration violations, for example, would no longer land people
in prison in a society that recognized that no human being is
illegal. Likewise, drug use would no longer be considered a crime.
The money and resources currently spent to incarcerate those suffering
from addiction could be put to use providing free treatment instead.
More generally, a society that made its priority meeting people's
needs would attack the roots of much crime by working to end poverty
Of course, crime would not be magically end overnight. "The
point," however, as Paul D'Amato writes in The Meaning of
Marxism, "is that, under socialism, society's surplus wealth
would be collectively used to enhance the welfare of all, rather
than that of a small group. Why would I steal what was freely
available? Such a society may seem too utopian. But as [American
socialist James] Cannon said: 'What's absurd is to think that
this madhouse is permanent and for all time.'"