Reverse Reparations: Race, Place, and the Vicious Circle of Mass Incarceration*
by Paul Street
March 04, 2007
“TOWNS PUT DREAMS IN PRISONS”
Sometimes it’s the silences that speak the loudest. Consider, for example, a page-one article that appeared in the New York Times in the summer of 2001 under the title “Rural Towns Turn to Prisons to Re-ignite Their Economies.” According to this piece, non-metropolitan America was relying like never before on prison construction for jobs and economic development. Formerly, Times reporter Peter Kilborn noted, rural communities had depended for employment and economic development on agriculture, manufacturing, and/or mining. Now, however, they were counting on mass incarceration to deliver the goods. Reporting that “245 prisons sprouted in 212 of the nation’s 2,290 rural counties” during the 1990s, Kilborn quoted the cheerful city manager of Sayre, Oklahoma, which had just opened a prized new maximum-security lockdown. “There’s no more recession-proof form of economic development,” this local official told Kilborn, than incarceration because “nothing’s going to stop crime.”
By Kilborn’s account, “prisons have been helping to revive large stretches of rural America. More than a Wal-Mart or a meatpacking plant, state, federal, and private prisons, typically housing 1,000 inmates and providing 300 jobs, can put a town on solid economic footing.” Thanks to money brought in through taxes on prisoners’ telephone calls, sales taxes paid by prisoners and prison staff, and to water, sewer, and landfill fees, Killborn added, Sayre’s city budget increased from $755,000 in 1996 to $1,250,000 in 2001, permitting the town to set aside 15 percent of its revenues for capital improvements. No such savings or investment were possible before the prison, when Sayre “was surviving largely on federal crop support payments to its dwindling farm population” in the wake of the collapse of the state’s oil and gas industry(1).
But each article also made three critical omissions for those who wish to understand the meaning and impact of the rise of a giant rural American prison industrial complex fed by primarily urban, human “raw material.” The first thing missing was any appropriate sense of horror at a society in which local officials sell the nightmare of mass human confinement as a ticket to the American Dream. As Huling observes, “hundreds of small rural towns and several whole regions have become dependent on an industry that itself is dependent on the continuation of crime-producing conditions” [emphasis added] in other parts of the nation (6).
What are we supposed to make, morally, of a situation in which crime and imprisonment for some are seen as sources of economic “security” for others? When prisons become “a force as much for economic development as for public safety,” citizens in a democracy worth its name should shudder with horror. Such a state of affairs raises (or ought to raise) sharp moral questions regarding the dominant U.S. social order and the economic options it offers to its populace (7).
Read all of it here.
America’s Draconian Approach to Criminal Justice: Prisoners of Ideology
By PHIL GASPER
For the past thirty years, the United States has been on an imprisonment binge unprecedented in world history. In 1980, the total number of people incarcerated in the U.S. was 500,000. Today the number stands at 2.2 million, with a further 4.8 million on probation or parole. The total U.S. prison budget increased from $9 billion in 1980 to $61 billion by 2003.
While the U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it now has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In other words, the country that often proclaims itself the freest in the world, imprisons its population at a rate over six times higher than the rest of the planet. The U.S. incarceration rate stands at 737 per 100,000, over five times higher than Great Britain and over twelve times higher than Norway. The statistics for minority populations are even more shocking. For Latinos, the imprisonment rate is twice the national average. For Blacks it is four times the national average, with over one million African-American men in prison or jail. In 2002, 10.4 percent of all Black males between the ages of 25 and 29 were imprisoned, and the numbers have not improved since then.
In a report presented to Congress last year, the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons concluded, “We should be astonished by the size of the prisoner population, troubled by the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos, and saddened by the waste of human potential.” The report found medical and mental health care in prisons to be grossly inadequate, and noted a “desperate need for the kind of productive activities that discourage violence and make rehabilitation possible.”
Another report, issued in February by the Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts, predicted that the prison population alone (not including jails, juvenile institutions, and other detention facilities) will rise by 13 percent, or another 192,000 people, over the next five years, at an increased cost of $27.5 billion. The report identified long mandatory minimum prison sentences, reduced use of parole, and harsh parole and probation rules, which often send people to prison for minor violations, as mainly responsible for the increase. “Every additional dollar spent on prisons,” it pointed out, “is one dollar less that can go for preparing for the next Hurricane Katrina, educating young people, providing health care to the elderly or repairing roads and bridges.”
Nowhere is the crisis worse than in California. In 1977, the state had fewer than 20,000 prisoners. Thirty years later the number stands at 173,000. In its first 130 years as a state, California built twelve prisons. Between 1980 and 2005 it added another twenty-one, at enormous cost. Today, California spends $35,000 a year for every prisoner, compared to $7,000 for K-12 students and only $4,500 in support for college and university students.
Yet despite billions spent on new facilities, California’s prisons and jails are bursting at the seams, with many crammed to twice their intended capacity. In nearly every state prison, the gym and every other available space is packed with triple bunk beds, squeezing out opportunities for recreation, education, and rehabilitation. Most California prisons are in a permanent state of lockdown, which confines prisoners to their cramped cells for all but an hour or two a day, while essential services are in a state of collapse. In 2005, a federal court put the California prison health care system under outside control because of its shocking level of deterioration.
Read the rest here.