The US has always been one of the main contributors to global incarceration statistics. That is nothing new, as the US, China, and Russia are all quite large countries. It makes sense that the three of us would comprise a hefty portion of that number.
But around 1980, something drastically changed. Suddenly the US, which was always prone to jail its citizens, began to do so with increasing vigor. And by 2013, the US surpassed all other countries for our rate of incarceration. By that time, in spite of the fact that the US population accounted for a mere 4.4% of the world population, we accounted for a full 22% of the global incarcerated population. That’s a grand total of over 2 million people. But what could account for such a huge increase?
Was it simply because people had developed a way to make money off of prisoners?
This did happen, in multiple ways, including prison labor, state funding for private prison facilities, and running prisons like a business. When you cut corners at an office supply outlet, the employees and customers always feel it. But when you cut corners at a prison, people die from lack of care, let alone concern. When the result is a few pennies in profit for the shareholders, is it worth it in either instance, much less the latter?
Second, when someone does something society deems as wrong, and must be punished according to the country-specific rule of law, does that give jailers the right to force the jailed to work for free? Before you answer ‘yes’ to this, please consider that any punishment which benefits a third party, whether financially or otherwise, has the potential to be exploited, unless the beneficiary is society as a whole. Innocent people are likely to fall into the system, to fuel this money-making machine. Is that still a case of the ‘punishment fitting the crime’?
And was the private prison industry responsible for the spike in our prison population?
In spite of the fact that the number of incarcerated jumped at about the same time when private prisons came onto the scene, and in spite of the increase in privately housed inmates, that number is still dwarfed by the number in public prisons. However, the number of private facilities is rising. Even though the private prison industry itself is not the root cause of the spike in US prison population, it is a parasite which is profiting off of it. Its influence is unwelcome and detrimental and is undermining the US prison system as a whole. And the trend seems to be going toward privatizing the entire prison system. Some whole states, like Georgia, have been entirely privatized already. Although the Federal policy on private prisons is trying to reject them at that level, states are taking the matter into their own hands.
Let’s look at the increase in US prison population over the last 30 years. If you’re asking yourself what could have possibly happened to account for such a drastic increase, consider that as soon as big business got involved, the game changed. Along with that change, came changes to the rules of the game. Not least of which was Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, but history is showing us that that was merely intended to continue trends that were already in place.
It’s not so much an argument between ‘private vs. public control of prisons’, but ‘private vs. public control of our own government’. To add to the already confusing issue, public facilities ‘hire out’ prison labor, and negotiate lucrative deals to private contractees, who generally make money off of the US prison system in a multitude of ways. The fact is, the US prison system is a booming industry, whether the individual facilities which enable it are private or not.
The evidence points back to origins in the early 70’s, and its effect nearly quadrupled in the subsequent 40 years. A 2-year study by the National Research Council concluded that the increase in the ratio of incarcerated to unincarcerated in the US was unprecedented, far outpacing that of any other place on Earth, and disproportionately affecting Black and Latino communities much more heavily.
The findings of that study also cited policies enacted by officials at all levels, that expanded and legitimized the idea that incarceration can be used to thwart rising crime rates. “In the 1970s, the numbers of arrests and court caseloads increased, and prosecutors and judges became harsher in their charging and sentencing,” the study concludes. “In the 1980s, convicted defendants became more likely to serve prison time.”
However, there is mounting evidence which refutes the idea that incarceration is the cure to the crime problem. A 2015 Brennan Center for Justice study found that “Incarceration has been declining in effectiveness as a crime control tactic since before 1980. Since 2000, the effect of increasing incarceration on the crime rate has been essentially zero.” Their findings were corroborated by the previously mentioned NRC study.
So if findings are showing that incarceration rates, as high as they are, have little to no effect on crime rates, then what is the real cause of skyrocketing crime rates, and why is mass incarceration still regarded as a viable solution to the problem?
There are those who will say that the answer is complicated, and has multiple parts. First, who is in jail, why are they in jail, where are they in jail, are they actually in ‘jail’ or ‘prison’? Is it a state or Federal facility?
…At least, that’s what people who defend mass incarceration would have us believe. These are the same people who defend the 1994 Crime Bill, usually pointing to statistical oversight, like only including inmates at state facilities rather than federal ones, or vice-versa. It’s indeed is a complex issue, but when all sectors are showing growth, it makes little difference which you include. The issue is much bigger than ‘state versus Federal’, or even ‘public versus private’. All that aside, a large portion of our inmates in the US are there for drug-related crimes. If drug offenders were treated like the medically needy, rather than the scourge of society, a lot of our prison statistics in the US would go down, immediately.
The fact is, the answer to skyrocketing crime is not mass incarceration. The US has more of both than anywhere else in the world, by quite a staggering margin. The answer to solving those problems lies in understanding one of the main sources of crime, and that is a state of constant survival mode brought on by rampant, abject poverty. Where you have more poverty, you have more crime. That’s really not rocket science. Where people are struggling just to survive, they are more likely to act rashly, out of desperation. When you ask more of people than society at large is willing to provide for them, what do you think is going to happen?
When you also stop to consider that the US is not economically constrained by anything, why in the world are we forcing millions to suffer needlessly under the constraints of poverty? When these people become desperate enough to turn to crime, why do we blame them for trying to stay alive? What are we telling them about their worth, as human beings in society? We are telling them they are worth more to American society as inmates than they are as free men and women (and children). So when people defend the use of incarceration as a punishment for most crimes, we can remind them that what they are often being punished for is for being hungry, and falling for a well-baited trap. If that doesn’t work, we can remind them that mass incarceration doesn’t work either, unless what you’re wanting to achieve is not only the control of large groups of people but racially-profiled groups of people, for the same reason.
Maybe this is happening simply for financial reasons, but it’s beginning to look a bit more insidious than garden-variety economic exploitation when money is being generated for a select few, in spite of the utterly staggering costs of housing and maintaining prisoners, even on such a basic level. It seems to be yet another facet of the old “Privatize the profits and socialize the costs” con job. There is also the glaring issue of racial injustice inherent in this mass incarceration scheme. The forces which perpetuate the proper environment for crime, are the same people who benefit from its increase. This same class of people does the same thing to perpetuate war for many of the same reasons, so let’s not be too surprised. The US is at war with its own population, and the only reason why the crimes against it aren’t considered war crimes is that they are happening right here on US soil. Unfortunately, they aren’t considered crimes at all. They are considered ‘austerity’.
The ultimate moral stance on the issue, which is inescapable no matter how much you debate it into the ground, is that it is morally reprehensible for anyone to have a vested interest in anyone else’s incarceration. It is morally bankrupt to devote an entire profit-driven industry to exploiting incarceration, especially in light of how many private prison contracts have inmate population requirements. They are basically mandating not only crime but punishment. And while we debate over whether the problem is public prisons vs. private prisons, we overlook a much greater issue, and that is of prisoner’s basic human rights, which are on the decline across the board. Private prisons are even less safe than public ones. In no way are private prisons a good thing, but the point is that public ones are not much better.
We need to focus on economic literacy, criminal reform, and eliminating poverty for everyone through a Federal job guarantee, and a livable minimum wage. Yes, crime will still happen, as it happens all over the world, but the catastrophic rates of incarceration will drop, as people are given more freedom to rule their own lives, without having to dedicate all of their energy and resources toward survival. Money budgeted for US prisons can encompass all need, without having to resort to corporate, for-profit control or influence. Do not believe the lie that this need exists. We don’t need corporate help for our education, healthcare or police, and we don’t need it for our prison system. Your body might think it needs cigarettes. It’s a lie.
We could be like Iceland, and jail 7 bankers rather than the millions of desperate people they create, but then we wouldn’t be able to join in on the scheme and profit off of it ourselves.
It really is that simple.
If you want to see the effectiveness of strategically jailing the RIGHT people, look at Iceland’s crime rate.