Behind Bars

December 20, 2010

It is ironic that the country regarded by many to be the most developed and the most democratic in the world not only incarcerates more people per capita than any other country, but has a larger prison population (even compared to countries like China and India). As of 2005, there were 2 million people locked up in federal, state and county facilities, and although crime rates are down, the incarceration rate has gone up more than 600 percent since the 1970s. It seems that this rate has increased due to changing policies, not increased criminal behavior.

Every day in the United States, 200 new jail cells are constructed. Black people are 7.8 times more likely to be imprisoned than whites when convicted of the same crime. Prisons cost the country more than $32 billion a year, and states are spending more money on prisons than education. Over the course of the last 20 years, the amount of money spent on prisons was increased by 570 percent, while that spent on elementary and secondary education was increased by only 33 percent. On average, two out of three prisoners will return back to prison, and one in two will be back within a year.
Furthermore, a rising occurrence is the emergence of private prisons. In most cases, prisons are constructed, maintained and guarded by the state or county, but here in America, the spirit of capitalism has found yet another market. In many of these private prisons, all of the taxpayer money goes to highly inflated prices that are marked arbitrarily by the companies that construct private prisons. Unfortunately, since there is little to no state oversight, there have been several cases of overworking, malnourishment, overcrowding, and other inhumane practices in prisons. The rise of private prisons (which began during the Reagan administration) coincided with a huge influx of prisoners, and for the first time the U.S. surpassed countries like the USSR and South Africa in per capita prison population. This was also the time of the introduction of the War on Drugs, which contained policies that instituted mandatory minimum sentences, tighter or no parole schedules, and tougher “good time” regulations.

The influx of prisoners is, in fact, directly correlated to the rise in privatization of prisons, because more prisoners means more money and higher stock values. The drive of privatization has reached such a point that even some juvenile prisons are being privatized, and in many cases connections between the judges who sentence the verdicts and these private prison companies have been well documented. In Michael Moore’s 2009 film “Capitalism: A Love Story,” many juveniles were sent to prison for years for undeserving reasons, and were released only when the corporation allowed them to be. There were neither parole hearings nor any legal oversight by the state in these cases.

The most worrisome aspect of prison privatization is the inevitable emergence of a private “prison lobby,” concerned not with social welfare, but with increasing its shareholder value and profit margins. Sentencing guidelines, parole rules, corrections budgets, and new criminal legislation are areas in which private prison operators have a vested interest and could influence policy decisions. They could also benefit by manipulating public fear of crime.

Why do Americans lock up their undesirables? Has our society sunk to the level of warehousing the people who we deem unfit for our society? Our prison system does not often correct the behavior of criminals, and in the rare cases in which it did rehabilitate, these programs were often canceled because fewer inmates meant less money. Crimes of passion aside, why do people commit crimes? What are laws, but a society’s determinacy to maintain the status quo?

How can we maintain the relative peace while preserving the rights of people?

“Let freedom reign. The sun never set on so glorious a human achievement.” –Nelson Mandela

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