"From the hour of my first imprisonment in a filthy county jail I recognized the fact that the prison was essentially an institution for the punishment of the poor, and this is one of many reasons why I abhor the prison, and why I recognize it to be my duty to do all in my power to humanize it as far as possible while it exists, and at the same time to put forth all my efforts to abolish the social system which makes the prison necessary by creating the victims who rot behind its ghastly walls."
— Eugene V. Debs, from the essay, "Walls and Bars", 1926.
Statement by the Committees of Correspondence(CCDS) Midwest Region, June 30, 2001
The statistics on the expanding prison system in this country are staggering. Many of us are familiar with these numbers. Sometime in the year 2000, the number of US citizens behind bars broke the 2 million mark, giving the US the crown for the nation with the highest number of its citizenry incarcerated. The US incarceration rate is from 6 to 10 times greater than those of Canada and Europe.
The racism inherent in the prison system resulted in another barrier being broken in 2000 – the number of African Americans behind bars reached the 1 million mark. Thirty percent of African American men aged 20 – 29 are under some sort of correctional supervision. Seven percent of African American children have an incarcerated parent.
The National Council on Crime and Delinquency statistics published in 2000 indicated that at every stage from arrest to trial to conviction, African Americans have a higher probability of going into the prison system than whites for the exact same crime. In most states, the number of minorities in the prison system is greater than the number in higher education, and the dollars spent by state governments to support corrections and education show parallel trends.
During the Clinton administration, over 600,000 people were sentenced to prison or jail time. This represented the highest rate of incarceration of any presidency. While it might be difficult for these rates to grow worse, we certainly cannot expect them to lessen with the present administration.
Given all these statistics, one might assume that they result from increasing crime rates. However, since 1975, crime rates have generally remained constant or actually decreased. In that same time, there has been a quadrupling of the US incarceration rate.
In 46 states, people lose their voting rights while serving felony conviction. In 32 states, people are denied the right to vote for a felony conviction until post-parole. In 10 states, convicted felons lose their right to vote for life. These numbers mean, for example, that 13 percent of African Americans of voting age in this country currently have lost the right to vote.
Given generally reduced crime rates over the last 20-30 years, why do we see soaring prison populations? According to most writers on the subject, there appear to be two main reasons. For some writers, "Crime" in this country is to the 1990s what "Communism" was to the 1950s – a dangerous threat lurking around every corner in every neighborhood that must be fought against, no matter the cost. Christian Parenti documents in his 1999 book, "Lockdown America," how the US since Nixon has increasingly become a police state, with the exploding prison system one front in a larger movement against "Crime". For these writers, the military industrial complex is rapidly being replaced by a prison industrial complex.
For other writers, the emphasis is on the money being made by corporations involved in the prison system. This is seen most clearly by the rise in the private prison system. Corporations such as American Correctional Association and Wackenhut have an eye firmly on Wall Street rather than on any notion of rehabilitation for their charges. Private prisons have control over 100,000 prisoners in just the 20 years of their existence, and generate a $40 to $50 billion per year market.
Prison labor is recognized by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the US as a legal form of slavery in this country. Prison laborers cannot form unions. Any grievances can be met with harsh consequences. There is no choice for many prisoners but to work, to make whatever small amount of money they can if they or their families are poor, or if they wish to avoid the mind-numbing drudgery of hours in a cell with nothing but the television to keep one company.
What is to be done?
It has been said by various writers that the rich get richer and the poor get prison. We need to work to improve the treatment of prisoners in Control Unit prisons. We need to fight against moneys being diverted by state and local governments from education to the building of new prisons. We need to fight to stop the racist and classist death penalty. We need to work with grassroots organizations involved in communities across the country to aid ex-inmates in succeeding on the outside, through education and technical training.
* Get involved. Go to meetings of a local chapter working against the death penalty – from anti-death penalty organizations to the ACLU to Amnesty International.
* Volunteer at a jail or prison near you to teach inmates in classes ranging from GED preparation to college courses to vocational training.
* Join Critical Resistance, a new group currently with chapters in California and the Northeast to organize against the Prison Industrial Complex with a "No New Prisons" campaign [www.criticalresistance.org]
* Get involved with organizations like TechTrain in Chicago, that provide technology and computer skills training to ex-inmates [www.net4dem.org/techtrain]
* Support Prison Legal News with a subscription, and learn more about the issues against which prisoners struggle on a daily basis [www.prisonlegalnews.org]
* Raise the issues of the exploding prison population and the death penalty in the community and church groups to which you belong.
In keeping with dialogue begun in the Midwest Region of CC-DS, a public panel on the Prison/Industrial Complex will be organized as part of the next Midwest Regional meeting in Chicago. The panel, open to the public, will occur on the evening Friday, September 21, 2001. For information about exact time and place call Harry Targ at 765 743-0416 or write to Targ@polsci.Purdue.edu
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