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 arrest.

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 laws.

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 offenders.

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 11-year-old daughter.

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 to me."


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 2005.

In theory, prisons are supposed to be places where prisoners are rehabilitated--but they are far more likely to serve as human warehouses.

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 and alienation.

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.'"

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