For Justice and Against Prison

The Manchester Guardian of February 15 includes an article by a Duncan
Campbell of Los Angeles. Here we borrow from his research and from prior
Z essays by Christian Parenti, George Wright, and Stephen Shalom.

U.S. citizens constitute 5 percent of the global population. U.S. inmates
constitute 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The U.S. has a higher proportion
of its citizens jailed than any other country in history. When George W.
Bush, presidential candidate and Governor of Texas began his tenure in
Texas, 41,000 were in prison there. Now there are 150,000. In federal prisons,
60 percent are drug offenders with no history of violence. It is not unusual
that inmates are doing 20 years and more for just being present in a house
where drugs were found and 3,600 people currently await execution in the
U.S. More than 90 percent of those on death row are poor.

Close to 70 percent of America’s prisoners are people of color. In New
York City, one in three black youths is either in custody or on parole.
By the mid 1990s more black men were in prison, jail, or on probation than
in four-year colleges; 80 percent of all new federal convictions were for
non-violent drug crimes; and the prison budget in California eclipsed state
spending on educatio

In 1986, 342 out of every 100,000 blacks were admitted to state or federal
prison—a more than three-fold increase over 1926. Moreover, in 1986 blacks
made up 44 percent of the new prison admissions, though less than an eighth
of the population. Over the next decade, the black share of the prison
population increased to nearly half. Out of every 100,000 African Americans
at year-end 1996, 1,571 were serving at least a year in federal or state
prisons; for Latinos, the figure was a still enormous 688 per 100,000;
for non-Hispanic whites, it was 193 per 100,000.

In 1995, 3,250 out of every 100,000 black males were imprisoned (compared
to 851 per 100,000 for black males in South Africa at the end of the apartheid
regime). A black male has a greater than one in four lifetime chance of
serving a prison sentence. In many U.S. states not only can’t those in
prison vote, but neither can those on probation, and in some states, you
can’t vote even if you have served your time and are out of the system
entirely. As a result, over one out of eight black males in the United
States can’t vote. In Alabama and Florida, almost one out of three black
males can’t vote.

New jails cost an average of $7 billion per year over the last decade.
The annual cost for incarcerating U.S. prisoners is up to $35 billion.
The prison industry employs more than 523,000 people and is the country’s
biggest employer after General Motors.

The private prison sector now administers more than 100 facilities in 27
states, holding more than 100,000 inmates. Eighteen private firms run local
jails, private prisons, and immigration detention centers. Firms such as
Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch are estimated to write between $2-3 billion
in prison construction bonds every year. In 1995, in response to agitation
against harsh mandatory sentencing for drug crimes, the Federal Sentencing
Commission recommended to Congress a reduction in crack sentences. Congress
rejected the commission’s proposal 332 to 83. In over 500 Commission recommendations,
this was the first to be rejected. The desires of financial backers and
lobbyists are so great they now overwhelm whatever little sense might sometimes
surface in the mind of an honest and caring politician.