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Incarceration Nation

Prisons: America's growth industry

Alan Bisbort

January 26, 2010

Inside the borders of the United States resides a separate nation of 2.3 million people. It's a nation in constant flux, with 700,000 residents released each year, their places soon taken by 700,000 others. It's a land where the meals are free but the doors are always locked. Often, the same people keep returning to this nation, while others who've been there before are released, creating an awful human churning effect that baffles social scientists, hamstrings mayors, breaks municipal budgets and overwhelms the ability of do-gooders to adequately address.

I speak, of course, of America's prison population. Incarceration may be the only U.S. industry that enjoys unlimited growth potential. We lead the world, by a wide margin, in the number of citizens in prison. The per capita rate is six times higher than Canada, eight times that of France, and even surpasses China and Russia. According to Georgetown law professor David Cole, a new prison opens every week somewhere in America, a truly insane statistic that prompted him to suggest, "We literally cannot afford our political addiction to incarceration."

It was not always thus. In 1975, the rate of incarceration in the U.S. was 100 per 100,000 people, a rate that hadn't fluctuated much in the previous half century. As knee-jerk humanist as this may seem to the hardboiled politics of the new millennium, prison rehabilitation programs appeared to have been working. That is, recidivism was not a guarantee. You still had a fighting chance if you screwed up and landed in a jail cell (as long as your crime did not involve violence) to get back on your feet on the outside. And even after 1975, though the incarceration rate slowly climbed to its present-day 700 per 100,000, Cole suggests that Americans did not commit crimes at any higher rate than previously; the United States simply grew more punitive.

The change can be summed up by a single word: Drugs. Since Pres. Reagan declared a "war on drugs" in 1982, drug arrests have increased 1,100 percent. Eighty percent of all arrests are drug related; 80 percent of the prison sentences for "drug offenses" are for possession of drugs (read: non-violent users, not dealers). If the goal of the war on drugs was to reduce use and availability, we have lost. Drugs are more readily available and more dangerous than ever before. Connecticut is not spared casualties in this war.

"Most people look at incarceration as black and brown people being put in cells, but 80 percent of those who die from illegal drugs in this state are white, either through overdoses or complications from drug dependency," says Clifford Thornton, director of the Hartford-based Efficacy, a group advocating drug policy reform. "Most people don't want to believe this. But it is basic knowledge. ... The war on drugs has been a failure on all levels but most obviously on an economic level. We are on the very precipice of having the Mexican cartel bringing their drug war into the U.S. It's already here in Connecticut."

Connecticut has 17,000 prison inmates with another 50,000 on parole, says Thornton, a former candidate for state governor. He said, "Black and Latino men make up less than six percent of [the state's] population but account for 68 percent of the prison population, and 70 percent are in prison for drug-related charges. It costs $600 million a year to operate the state prison system. That money could be better spent. The war on drugs is nothing but a game. To continue this game is crazy."

Thornton advocates a comprehensive series of reforms that would "bring drugs under legal control." He will soon unveil a "restorative justice" program that he hopes to make part of the ongoing debate in the 2010 governor's race. Check efficacy-online.org for updates and a variety of statistical evidence.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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