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The Shame of Mass Incarceration in America

May 22, 2013

by Blayne Sapelli

The United States today is in a real crisis. Over the past 40 years, the US prison population has exploded into the largest system of mass incarceration in the world. We imprison a higher percentage of our population than Russia, China, Iran, and many other nations, with the possible exception of North Korea, but even this embarrassing comparison is not totally certain.

Perhaps to some, this is a point of pride, or American exceptionalism. Maybe this is what “We’re number one!” is really all about. The imprisonment of a full 1% of our adult population.

Many of us do have a certain instinct which says: these people committed crimes, and a crime warrants a punishment.

But that impulsive response only begs the question: what is a crime?

The truly disturbing aspect of what has happened to our criminal justice system is that over 60% of the people in prisons and jails today are serving time for non-violent offenses. One quarter of the incarcerated 1% are jailed for drug-related offenses- people with real substance abuse issues that should be treated by doctors and nurses- not by police and jail cells.

These are not vicious criminals. These are human beings whose families have been broken, whose children have been left without parents, and whose lives have been ruined or cast into a vicious cycle that our extremely punitive criminal justice system has created. This is not the norm for a democracy.

This is a national disgrace.

When we break down the figures and look at certain demographics, the picture becomes even more frightening.

Let’s look at race. African Americans comprise 13.6% of the American population, but they also make up almost 40% of the prison population. Almost 5% of the entire adult black male population is behind bars. And that’s a snapshot of this moment, right now. Over the course of their lifetime, the average black male has a 28.5% chance of spending time in prison.[1]

If we look at the number of males aged 18-44 who are either imprisoned or on parole, more than 8% of this population is under the control of the criminal justice system. The total number of Americans under control of the prison industrial system (in prison, jail, on probation, or parole) is 7.3 Million.

Let’s compare the US to the rest of the world.

First we can look at our neighbors: Canada incarcerates 116 per 100,000 residents, Mexico imprisons 209 per 100,000, and the US vastly overshadows these rates with the world record 743 per 100,000. When we look at Western Europe, we find the highest levels of incarceration in the UK, with 125 per 100,000 citizens behind bars. That’s one fifth the USA’s rate of incarceration, and that’s the worst one.

Countries with low level of incarceration include India, with a population of over 1 Billion, and an incarceration rate of 40 per 100,000. Iceland has 44 per 100,000, while Norway boasts 70 per 100,000, and Germany holds 90 per 100,000.

China holds a prison population of just 111 per 100,000. Russia has 502 per 100,000, and Iran maintains 333 per 100,000.[2] These are supposed to be America’s biggest threats, and yet they criminalize their citizens to a far lesser extent. Why?

Throughout most of the twentieth century, the US remained within the high end of western democracies, averaging between 100-200 per 100,000 from at least as far back as 1880, and lasting until the 1970s. Today, it is by far the most prolific incarcerator in the world. How did it get this way?

For most of the 20th century, the US held between 100 and 200 inmates per 100k, peaking at 206 per 100k during WWII.[3] At around 1980, however, the total rate of persons being held by federal, state, and local incarceration facilities increased once again to over 200 per 100k, and ever since has exploded. The graph ends in the year 2000, but more recent data shows the US total incarceration rate in 2010 to be 743 per 100k.[4]

Change in US incarceration rate

But these are not just numbers. Policies are scraps of paper on which people think and critique, but these ideas have very real human consequences.

In California, 3 strike laws mandate utterly absurd life sentences for offenses like stealing $2.50 worth of toilet paper, or slices of pizza, or golf clubs. Most of those charged in California- roughly 40% – have been clinically diagnosed as either mentally retarded or suffering from severe psychological problems. Prisons function abhorrently as mental hospitals, yet that is how many of them are utilized. These are human beings, and the conditions within many parts of the prison system are utterly inhumane.

Scholars like Nils Christie point to the deinstitutionalization of the American mental health system, and the extremely punitive regime America has put into place in order to deal with the issue of drug abuse in society.

Roughly one million non-violent criminals currently inhabit America’s vast network of prisons and jails. More than half have drug abuse issues.[5] This is a revolving door, with recidivism rates in the US as high as 50% nationwide. Entering jail is not a pleasant experience. As Chris Hedges explains:

Once you disappear behind prison walls you become prey. Rape. Torture. Beatings. Prolonged isolation. Sensory deprivation. Racial profiling. Chain gangs. Forced labor. Rancid food. Children imprisoned as adults. Prisoners forced to take medications to induce lethargy. Inadequate heating and ventilation. Poor health care. Draconian sentences for nonviolent crimes. Endemic violence.[6]

For many, prison functions more like a criminal boot-camp than anything else. These people were not born with the instinct to harm others. Overwhelmingly, those that commit extremely violent crimes have prior arrests for non-violent crimes. They learned the behavior from the culture and environment that incarceration itself creates.

The system is a self-sustaining feedback loop. When released from prison, ex-convicts, especially those of color, face extreme hurdles to re-integration into society. In the United States, release from prison comes with a criminal record that makes getting a decent job almost impossible. A criminal record adds excessive scrutiny to the process of accessing paid work. Without a decent job, healthcare is often inaccessible. And in many states, former convicts are barred from many forms of public assistance, subject to extended monitoring, and suffer extreme social stigma from the overall society.

In some ways, however, it de-stigmatizes incarceration itself. To young people with excessive tendencies towards novelty-seeking behavior, the law creates an opportunity for deviance. Incarceration becomes a rite-of-passage in some circles, social pressure pushes certain groups towards criminal behavior, and the segregation from the mainstream culture enables and encourages this cycle. In other words: When your only hope for economic survival is to sell drugs, you’re going to sell drugs.

Is this justice? Is closing the door to public services, scholarship programs, jobs, and numerous other paths towards social advancement the proper punishment for substance abuse crimes? Should these behaviours be defined as crimes at all, or are there more effective methods of treating the social ills of drug abuse?

And we have not even begun to discuss the way in which prisons are used as low wage factories for innumerable American companies. If you’ve purchased clothes from Victoria’s Secret, shopped at Walmart, own a Texas Instruments calculator, or called customer service at TWA airlines then you’ve dealt with prison labor. It’s hidden amidst the vast supply chains of the modern industrial landscape, an archipelago of prisons run for profit.

Again, to quote Hedges:

“How is it that a 15-year-old in Newark who the country labels worthless to the economy, who has no hope of getting a job or affording college, can suddenly generate 20,000 to 30,000 dollars a year once trapped in the criminal justice system?”

At every juncture in this system of building prisons, running prisons, providing raw materials (including food services, construction inputs, human beings, etc), and renting out prisoner’s bodies for extremely low wages, there is a massive transfer of wealth in progress from taxpayer expenditure to private profits. This too is a vicious cycle, as the top 3 private prison contractors spent $45 Million over the past 10 years lobbying for harsher sentencing laws – and yes, more prisons.

[1] Chrstie, Nils. Crime Control As Industry.

[4]  International Centre for Prison Studies (18 Mar 2010). “Prison Brief – Highest to Lowest Rates”. World Prison Brief. London: King’s College London School of Law. Archived from the original on 25 March 2011. Retrieved 25 March 2013.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2013 12:17 pm

    What is wrong with prison labor? Taking for granted that the profits should ALL go to cover the expenses of the prison itself; It teaches skills, and the value of holding a job, and can help pay for the incarceration vs the taxpayer. If the average schmo has to work a minimum eight-hour day, why shouldn’t someone in prison be expected to do the same?

    • Blayne Sapelli permalink
      May 28, 2013 10:35 pm

      1. My main point is that incarceration itself is a problem and should be massively reduced. How can we better deal with the problems of society?

      2. Renting out prison labor to private companies drives down wages and has extremely perverse incentives. The prison industry has tremendous economic, political, and institutional power that must be confronted to reduce incarceration rates,

      3. A solid step forward could be something along the lines of the Norwegian model. The Norwegian prison system does use prison labor to supply itself with agriculture, forestry, and other services that teach useful skills: I’m not against that.

  2. June 8, 2013 7:45 am

    Awesome article.

  3. June 13, 2013 8:02 pm

    Historically, the current US incarceration rate is comparable to the record-high Soviet Union ‘s levels before World War II when the USSR’s population reached 168 million, and 1.2 to 1.5 million people were in the Gulag system’s prison camps and colonies (i.e. about 800 people imprisoned per 100,000 residents, according to numbers from Anne Applebaum and Steven Rosefielde ).

  4. Jerry permalink
    April 1, 2014 3:17 pm

    Unfortunately, most people don’t care about prisoners until they become one. I firmly believe the United States wants every American to have a criminal record. Almost any offense results in an arrest now. My son was arrested for skateboarding for Christ’s sake! America has become a police state and there is nothing we can do about it. There is no forgiveness in people anymore. Our elected officials are too cowardly to do the right thing. We are surpassing Nazi Germany in marginalizing segments of our society who have no rights, human or otherwise. Everyone in America better get ready to “show me your papers,” because internal passports, i.e. National ID cards are coming soon!


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