A 2014 report published by the National Research Council asserts that the prison population of the United States “is by far the largest in the world. Just under one-quarter of the world’s prisoners are held in American prisons.” There are currently 2.3 million people behind bars. Since 1980, the federal prison population has grown 721 percent, according to a recently released Human Rights Watch Report.
“In the last 40 years, there has been a historic marked expansion in the US prison system. There are 7 times as many people in the prison system today than in the 1970s,” says Marc Mauer, Director of The Sentencing Project, a non-profit that documents trends and calls attention to policies.
The exponential rise in imprisonment rates is, sadly, not a reflection of rising crime rates. The prevailing consensus points a finger squarely at politicians and their push for policy changes in a much more punitive direction, intended to send more people to prison and to keep them there longer. According to a national study, 88 percent of the increase in incarceration rates between 1980 and 1996 was due to policymakers’ decisions to lengthen sentences, impose incarceration (as opposed to probation), and ensure that offenders spent an increased amount of their sentence in person (for example, by reducing parole).
In the 1980s, with rising crime rates, simmering racial tensions, and the spread of crack cocaine, legislators adopted a “tough on crime” stance. The “war on drugs,” that gained tremendous political speed during the Reagan administration, contributed significantly to the skyrocketing rates of incarceration. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to nearly 500,000 by 2000. The political hysteria led to the passage of draconian penalties at the state and federal levels. Even as the drug scare faded from the public mind, the tough-on-crime stance became a default for most politicians.
“Mandatory sentencing laws took away the power of discretion from judges to consider the personal circumstances of the offenders. ‘Three strikes and you are out,’ the war on drugs, and a number of other policies have all combined to make the system much harsher,” says Mauer. If all of this was intended to safeguard public safety, how has increased incarceration impacted crime rates? “The broad consensus is that while the threat of prison has some effect on crime, as the system has grossly expanded, we very much have a case of diminishing returns.” According to an ACLU report, over half of prisoners with a sentence of one year or more are serving time for a non-violent offense. Life sentences are often imposed on recidivists for property or drug-related crimes.
On average, it costs $25,000 to keep someone in prison for a year. With almost 700,000 people returning home from prison each year, “they find it hard to establish themselves since in most cases, they did not pick up any substantial work skills or education in prison that would enable them to reintegrate back,” Mauer explains. As a result, recidivism rates remain high, he adds—66% for violent crimes, 78% for property crimes, and 71% for drug re-arrests.
Who stands to profit from the massive incarceration? One obvious culprit, the private prison industry, interestingly enough, is not as deeply enmeshed in the system as one would think. Mauer points out that only 130,000 inmates are held in the private prison system, which amounts to roughly 8% of the total prison population. The industry has, instead, focused its profit-seeking efforts on immigration detention as the new area for expansion and has spent over 45 million in lobbying funds to ensure that immigration reform remains mired in a legislative quagmire. With a record number of deportations taking place, imprisonment is turning into the solution of choice when it should be the last option.
And prison labor has become the new sweatshop labor. Nearly a million prisoners are performing labor for private corporations, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day, giving new meaning to the term “confinement at hard labor.” The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM. In 1979, Congress created the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program to establish employment opportunities for inmates “that approximate private sector work opportunities”—a far cry from the tidy profit-making scheme for corporations that exploit the captive labor force it has devolved to. The worst abuses have taken place in the agricultural sector, especially in states like Arizona that require inmates to work, earning between 10 and 50 cents an hour, hardly approximating “private sector work opportunities.”
So what should be the priorities in seeking to reform the system? “Sentencing policy change is the most important. Reforming or eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing laws that prevent judges from being able to tailor sentences to the individual crime and the particular defendant is vital. Extremely long sentences are far too common. Far too many 25 year olds are sentenced to life in prison when their progress should be reviewed and they could be released back into the community,” states Mauer.