COME ON WORLD'S NUMBER ONE JAILER
COME ON WORLD'S NUMBER ONE JAILER... LAND OF THE FREE? By Uriah J. Fields
Although for a number of years I have had an interest in the incarceration of American citizens, especially in the astronomical number of African American men, it was the recent action taken by Senator Jim Webb, D-Va., that inspired me to write this article at this particualr time.
In 2006 when Senator Webb was a candidate for the U. S. Senate, I heard him speak at two campaign events when I asked him questions. At one of those events, either the one held at the University of Virginia or the one on the Charlottesville Downtown Mall, I asked him "What does he plan to do about the incarceration of the huge number of people especially black men, and prison reform?" At the other event I raised the issue of immigration, especially so-called illegal immigration. To the question about incarceration, Webb said that our criminal justice system is in need of reform and if elected that woud be on his priority agenda
On October 4, 2007, less than a year after being elected to the Senate, Webb conducted a Joint Economic Committee hearing that was headlined, "Mass Incarceation in the United States: At What Cost?" In his opening statement he said, "I am committed to working on a solution that is both responsible to our needs for law and order, and fairer to those ensnared by this system."
On March 26, 2009, Senator Webb and his co-sponsor Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced legislation to create a bipartisan Commission to review the federal criminal justice system and offer recommendations to reduce the incarceration rates and accomplish reform. The Commission will have 18 months to take a compreshensive examination at aspects of the criminal justice system.
While it seems that 18 months is too long for the Commission to take to examine the incarceration issue, particularly, since most of the facts are known, Webb deserves our commendation and support in this endavor. It is well know that legislators from all corners of the nation, but especially the South, have consistently refused to even so much as mention prison reform. On the contrary, many of them have repeatedly voiced this mantra: "lock-em-up! throw-away-the key!" And some have said "keep-em in prison or kill-em!" There has been bipartisan action, however, with none voicing the false rhetoric "my friend across the isle" in appropriating funds for prisons and the military. Of course, any mention of funds for education and health care has more often than not resulted in partisan fights and squabbles, especially when the debate focused on appropriating funds for education and health care.
The United States has a Prison Industrial Complex. Prisons are overcrowded, neighborhoods are becoming more dangerous, billions of dollars are wasted and millions of lives are diminished or destroyed. With more than 2.3 million people behind bars the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents incarcerated, leaving far-more-populous China a distanct second, according to a study by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the states.
Race is a major factor in the incarceration of people. About 10.4% of all black males in the United States were sentenced to prison compared to 1.3% of white males in 2005. One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is behind bars. For black women ages 35 to 39, the figure is one in 100, compared with one in 355 for white women in the same age group. In 2007 there were 115,779 women in prison. A look at the United States' incarcration by race, June 2006:
The huge amount of money appropriated for incarceration is the main reason for the high rate of incarcerations. Many people owe their employment to the criminal justice system, including judges, prosecutors, lawyers, prison guards and the list goes on and on. I talked with a bussinessman in California who had become a millionaire while providing salad dressing for prisoners.
Another factor that fuels incarceration is the "three strikes law." President Bill Clinton signed this legislation and the welfare reform legislation. Both legislations are destructive to blacks and poor folk. While boasting, Clinton said "Our 1994 Crime Bill 'three strikes' and you're out is the law of the land." Three strikes laws are statues which require state courts to enforce mandatory sentencing based on a definite period of time that a person must be incarcerated when convicted of a serious (or not so serious) offense on three or more separate occasions. These statues became popular in the 1990s with many politicans other than Clinton boasting about how many peope their "three strikes law" legislation had helped in putting criminals behind bars. Unfortunately, many citizen support this madness-badness, despite the fact crimes continue to increase.
Another factor aiding this money-making industry is the privatization of prisons. At the beginning of the 20th century private prisons were outlawed, but in the 1980s private coporations once again were owning and operating prisons for profit. Like some hospitals they work hard to keep all beds filled. This can mean keeping prisoners as long as they can; in some instances, it has been reported that prisoners were provoked and charged with misbehaving in order to keep them in prison longer. Private prisons house roughly 50% African Americans, 35% Latinos and 15% Whites.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of the middle of 2007, private prisons housed 7.4% of the 162 million incarcerated adults in federal and state prisons. The largest state private prison population in 2007 was Texas with 18,720 (10.8% of all state prisoners). New Mexico had the largest percentage of that states' prisoners 2,835 (43.4%) in private prisons. Reportedly, it cost $24,000 a year to keep a person incarcerated. Some figures are as high as $45,000 when all related expenses are considered. Local, state and federal spending on corrections add up to about $68 billion a year.
The three states with the highest ratio of imprisoned to civilian are Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi. About 94% of priosners are males. The average age of a prisoner is 38. Many of them incarcerated since they were 21 years of age or younger are now senior citizens. Think of how many more would be senior citizens had they not died in prison from prison-death-induced causes.
It should not go unmentioned that the slave-like labor provided by prisoners make money but not for the prison or prisoners. The money are pocketed by civilians who sell these goods produced by prisoners. Louisiana, as stated earlier, the state with the highest imprisoned to civilian population also has the largest prison in the United States, some eighteen thousand acres. A lot of farm products are produced there and the money goes in the pockets of private citizens, not the state.
In additoin to over-crowdedness, fighting and killing, there are serious health problems in the prisons. Many prisoners having contacted AIDS in prison return to civilian life and infect others with the disease, especially black women who have become the group with the largest increase in AIDS. Tuberculosis is much higher among the prison population than the civiliain population. Prisoners have many other health issues. The U. S. Department of Justice estimates that 66% of the adult inmates in American prisons and jails... which means that 359,000 of those locked up - suffer from mental illness, and the percentge in juvenile custody is even higher.
Recidivism is extremely high mainly because prisons are warehouses, not rehabilitation centers. Recidivism means a person repeating undesirable behavior. In this case a person being re-convicted and sent back to prison. A United States Department of Justice tracking the re-arrest of ex-prisoners over a 3-years period in 15 states found that over 70% of those released were returned to prison.
Ex-prisoners, especially felons, find it difficult to get employment and most of them are denied the right to vote. Currently 48 states restrict the right of felons to vote. In the United States the Federal goverment defines a felony as a crime which involves a potential punishment of a year or longer. A lesser crime is called a misdemeanor. Some 13% of African American men are denied the right to vote because they are felons. Actually, felons should be the first in line to vote. What better way can they learn to be responsible citizens than to vote. Of course, across the years America, particuar in the South, has made it difficult for African Americans to vote. When I returned to Alabama in the mid-fifies after serving in the Korean War it was difficult for me to vote. Had I been a person with less courage or fearful, I probably would have not voted for another decade, after passage of the Voting Rights Bill.
The United States has by far the world's highest incarceration. With 5% of the world's population America now houses nearly 25% of the world's reported prisoners. Either we are home to the most evil and wicked people on earth or we are doing something that is vastly counterproductive. One out of every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised released. All tolled more than 7 millon Americans are under some form of correction, supervision, including probation and parole
In 2008, Japan's population was 128 millon and the United States' population that year was 300 million. Japan's prison population was 71,000 and the United States' prison population was 2.3 millon. If the United States had the same rate of incarceration as Japan with a population that is 42.5% the size of the United States the prison population in the United States woud be less than 300,000 prisoners, not 2.3 milion prisoners.
In closing, I pose a question that I will not attempt to answer in this discourse. Let me preface it: Americans seem to proudly declare that they are religious people; some even go so far as to say America is a Christian nation. I don't want to go there, particuarly, because it infers that Americans are religious, but not, for example, Chinese. It is true that in America there are many professng Christians, Jews and Muslims. Many of them are participants in organized religion, attend churches, synagogues and mosques with some regularity. But there are people in other countries - who may or may not be as religious as Americans - with prison populations that are just a fraction of ours. As stated earlier Japan is an example. To repeat, the United States is the world's largest jailer. This is my question: "WHAT IS THE ROLE OF RELIGION IN THE HIGH RATE OF INCARCERATION IN THE UNITED STATES?" May I add, it is difficult for me to accept as fact that an institution as powerful in America as religion - churches synagogues and mosques - does not impact incarceration in some way, positively or negatively.
Coyright 2009 by Uriah J. Fields