Prison-industrial complex

The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. The U.S. incarceration rate on December 31, 2008 was 754 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents, or 0.75%. The USA also has the highest total documented prison and jail population in the world.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS): “In 2008, over 7.3 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at year-end — 3.2% of all U.S. adult residents or 1 in every 31 adults.”

Federal Prison of Sounds, by The Vision Beautiful

2,304,115 were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails in 2008. In addition, according to a December 2009 BJS report, there were 92,854 held in juvenile facilities as of the 2006 Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement (CJRP), conducted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Incarceration in the United States, Wikipedia (footnotes omitted)

Certainly prisoners should take personal responsibility for their own actions and their own rehabilitation. But with smart programs, many more should be finishing their sentences and coming home to be taxpaying citizens, not lifelong drains on the state’s coffers.

Why are so many failing to rehabilitate themselves? One way to ask that question is this: Where are the financial incentives for prisons to properly perform their rehabilitative function? If anything, the captains of the incarceration industry have a perverse incentive to rehabilitate as few people as possible and keep business booming.

I am not saying that jailers do this consciously or purposefully. But the system is so broken that the very people we entrust to rehabilitate prisoners actually profit from prolonged prisoner stays and quick prisoner returns.

Take, for instance, the correctional officers union in California [CCPOA]. This union has become one of the state’s top political contributors. It has pushed not just for higher wages but for tougher laws and longer sentences.

Con Game, by Van Jones, Forbes, April 24, 2006

It had been an interesting experience, from which I developed a much greater practical knowledge than I had ever had before of those who had drawn a short straw from the system; of the realities of street level American race relations; of the pathology of incorrigible criminals; and of the wasted opportunities for the reintegration of many of these people into society. I saw at close range the failure of the U.S. War on Drugs, with absurd sentences, (including 20 years for marijuana offences, although 42% of Americans have used marijuana and it is the greatest cash crop in California.) A trillion dollars have been spent, a million easily replaceable small fry are in prison, and the targeted substances are more available and of better quality than ever, while producing countries such as Colombia and Mexico are in a state of civil war.

I had seen at close range the injustice of sentences one hundred times more severe for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine, a straight act of discrimination against African-Americans, that even the first black president and attorney general have only ameliorated with tepid support for a measure, still being debated, to reduce the disparity of sentence from 100 to one to 18 to one.

Pocket Constitution from TheCapitol.Net

And I had heard the vehement allegations of many fellow residents of the fraudulence of the public defender system, where court-appointed lawyers, it is universally and plausibly alleged, are more often than not stooges of the prosecutors. They are paid for the number of clients they represent rather than for their level of success, and they do usually plead their clients to prison. They provide a thin veneer for the fable of the poor citizen’s day in court to receive impartial justice through due process.

And I had the opportunity to see why the United States has six to twelve times as many incarcerated people as other prosperous democracies, (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom), how the prison industry grew, and successfully sought more prisoners, longer sentences, and maximal possibilities of probation violations and a swift return to custody.

Before I got into the maw of the U.S. legal system, I did not realize the country has 47 million people with a criminal record, (most for relatively trivial offenses,) or that prosecutors won more than 90% of their cases. There, at Coleman, I had seen the courage of self-help, the pathos of broken men, the drawn faces of the hopeless, the glazed expression of the heavily medicated, (90% of Americans judged to require confinement for psychiatric reasons are in the prison system), and the nonchalance of those who find prison a comfortable welfare system compared to the skid row that was their former milieu. America’s 2.4 million prisoners, and millions more awaiting trial or on supervised release, are an ostracized, voiceless legion of the walking dead; they are no one’s constituency.

Conrad Black: My prison education, The National Post, July 31, 2010

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Image: Federal Prison of Sounds by The Vision Beautiful, used under Creative Commons license.