Friday, February 03, 2012

caged america

The US has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, with 743 people incarcerated for every 100,000 Americans. America’s prison population has grown from fewer than 800,000 in 1980 to more than 2.5 million by 2008 (over 25 percent of the globe's incarcerated population) , with the majority being nonviolent prisoners. One of every 150 Americans is cut off from society as a prison inmate. No other nation even comes close to these figures. To put that number in perspective, in second place, China imprisons 1.5 million of its citizens. Russia is a distant third at 840,000 people. More than 2 million U.S. children have a parent in jail. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” (prison, probation, or parole) in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. Fact is, Americans aren't committing more crime.

Every day, at least 50,000 are in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” Last October, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez called on all countries worldwide to ban the use of solitary confinement of inmates as punishment and/or an extortion technique, except in very exceptional circumstances. Mendez cited scientific studies establishing the mental and medical damage arising from prolonged isolation.

40 per cent of the US prison population is African-American, despite the fact that blacks make up only 12 per cent of the national population. A black male is seven times more likely to be imprisoned than a white male. For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that interweaves through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. There are more black men in the grip of the criminal justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery in 1850.

According to a report published by advocacy group the Women’s Prison Association in 2009, the number of women in prison had risen by a stunning 823 percent since 1977, compared to a relative increase of about half that much in men. The reasons for incarceration were largely non-violent, with drug offenses and minor property crimes accounting for about two-thirds of all female infractions. As with men, women of color were disproportionately represented in prison, and roughly two-thirds of all incarcerated women were mothers. The Illinois-based newspaper the Herald-Review reported the state’s female-only institutions are looking to recruit more female guards due to complaints from inmates of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior at the hands of male supervisors. A report by a prison watchdog group notes that “a great number of inmates expressed distress over lack of privacy and the feeling that their bodies were thoroughly exposed and on display to observation and surveillance by male officers in the housing units.”

But it is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes US prison policy. Some prisoners are locked up for life - literally - and many receive harsh sentences for non-violent crime. Texas alone has sentenced more than four hundred teen-agers to life imprisonment. These long sentences are leading to an ageing prison population - with eight per cent of prisoners 55 (124,400 inmates) now over the age of 55 compared to 3 percent in 1995. This, in turn, is increasing the burden of providing healthcare and geriatric services. It’s estimated that a third of the nation’s prison population will be over 50 by 2030
“Prisons were never designed to be geriatric facilities,” said Jamie Fellner, a Human Rights Watch special adviser who wrote the report. “Yet U.S. corrections officials now operate old age homes behind bars.”

Mental health issues and drug addiction are also common and, in California alone, it is believed that around 50 per cent of inmates need mental health treatment. the prison population here and nationwide is beset with chronic conditions, including HIV and hepatitis. Many also grew up poor, meaning they never got appropriate preventive treatments. As a result, their care will likely be much more than someone who's never run afoul of the law. Prison rape is endemic more than seventy thousand prisoners raped each year.

"There is an old saying among the prisoners in Texas that you're guilty until proven rich, and that's true. Many people of colour will end up with a court-appointed attorney, and so you're able to, in a sense, buy your way out of the system if you are in the majority, and that is being a white person." said Charlie Sullivan, the co-director of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants

“It's unacceptable to be investing in prisoners and treating them like their commodities and profiting off of people,” Chris Hennecke, board chairman of Portland-based Central America Solidarity Committee, said criticizing U.S. financial institutions and big banks for investing in and profiting from private prison industry in America.

A growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. Private prisons and immigraton detention centres are growing businesses within the Prison Industrial Complex. Businesses that are churning out profits off human bondage.Roughly one out of twelve state and federal prisoners is currently in a for-profit. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible. The biggest of these firms, the Corrections Corporation of America cautions its investors:
"The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them." Private prison companies prefer large numbers of prisoners to support profits.
Cody Mason
, author of The Sentencing Project's report points out that the major operators also spend millions each year lobbying lawmakers for contracts and legislation that will help to keep their prisons full; their "dependence on ensuring a large prison population to maintain profits provides inappropriate incentives to lobby government officials for policies that will place more people in prison." The same companies grossing billions from the capture and incarceration of Americans (mostly poor, black and Latino) are the same brokers who donate millions to state senators, school boards, mayors and police chiefs. It's no secret that private firms such as The GEO Group possess direct appeal to federal legislation like "3 Strikes" and Mandatory Minimum Sentencing. Common sense says such merging complexities spell corruption.
A capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery.

In response to Florida's proposed privatization of 30 jails Roberts, a guard says that people working in prisons “are already upset.”
“If they take my wages down, I wouldn’t make my rent,” he says. “I would be homeless. I have three kids. … I would starve. We have lost our will to work”

Bob Dylan sings “Sometimes I think this whole world is one big prison yard, / Some of us are prisoners, some of us are guards,” and while it may not be strictly factual, it contains a truth: the guards are doing time, too. Workers who are poised to have the prisons they work for privatized say they are concerned they will either lose their jobs or face pay cuts and understaffing and fear for their futures. Someone starting out at a public prison would, on average, make $30,800 plus benefits at a rate of 59.8 percent, which amounts to a total compensation package of $49,222. Corrections Corporation of America pays $22,000 with a 25 percent benefit rate, which adds up to $27,500.

As Dostoyevsky, author of Crime and Punishment, wrote, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”



ajohnstone said...

A new academic study of 58,000 federal criminal cases has found significant disparities in sentencing for blacks and whites arrested for the same crimes. The research led to the conclusion that African-Americans jail time was almost 60% longer than white sentences. In federal cases, black defendants faced average sentences of 60 months, while the average for white defendants was only 38 months.
The report concludes that sentence disparities “can be almost completely explained by three factors: the original arrest offense, the defendant’s criminal history, and the prosecutor’s initial choice of charges.”

MikeT said...

Interesting piece. Some of the figures are inaccurate though. This expansion in prison is now beginning to ease, particularly in state prisons. In 2009 the state prison population underwent its first small decline since 1977. The industrial scale of US imprisonment notwithstanding, community disposals remain the preferred choice of sentencers. The current total of probationers and parolees stands at over 5 million (Glaze, Bonczar and Zhang, 2010). If we add that number to those who are incarcerated, we find that the US correctional authorities were responsible for a totality of almost 7.25 million offenders - higher than the 6 million figure you give. Put another way, no fewer than 1 in every 32 adult American citizens was subject to some form of correctional control, either in the community or behind bars.
That these rates are higher still for African American men but again, I am not sure you have got the rates correct. Over two million black citizens are currently under the control of the correctional system, whether in custody, on probation, or on parole. The scale of the US criminal justice system’s disproportional impact upon African Americans is demonstrated by the shocking observation that the USA incarcerates a greater proportion of its black population than South Africa did at the zenith of apartheid.

ajohnstone said...

Many thanks for your corrections and comments.

I think you can appreciate that acquiring accurate statistics is no easy task since many website sources conflict.

Feek free to contribute further with your own views.