Wednesday, August 13, 2014

U.S. Prisons: Where Have All The Young Men Gone

            With only five per cent of the world’s population, the United States incarcerates twenty-five per cent of all people incarcerated in the world.  That translates to an incarceration rate of 707 adults per 100,000 population.   The highest rate of incarceration of any other country.   The U.S. rate is much higher than countries that are considered abusers of human rights, such as Iran with a  rate of 139 per 100,000, Russia with a rate of 470, Cuba’s rate is 510 and China has a rate of a mere 172 per 100,000 compared to the U.S.

 The United States is one of only twenty-one countries that have carried out executions in recent years.  In this area of crime and punishment we are in questionable company with countries such as: Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Prisons in the United States have become big business with significant growth potential.  From 1990 to 2009 the private prison population grew by over 1,600 per cent from 7,000 inmates to 129,000.  Along with this growth, stricter sentencing guidelines ensured a constant flow of inmates onto these private prisons.  Possibly due on no small part to the millions of dollars spent by the private prison industry lobbying legislators.  In the last decade alone, this industry spent more than $45 million dollars in lobbying activities at the sate and federal levels.  To gain insight into what these lobbying dollars were spent on, we can look at the SEC filing of the Wakenhut Corporation, one of the largest private prison providers.  With no need to disguise their intentions, this report includes the flowing excerpts.

Our growth depends on our ability to secure contracts to develop and manage new correctional, detention and mental health facilities and to secure contracts to provide electronic monitoring services, community-based re-entry services and monitoring and supervision services, the demand for which is outside our control.
 For example, any changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities.

In order for private prison contractors to make a profit, they must be guaranteed a steady flow of inmates to fill their beds.  On this score, their lobbying efforts seem to have paid off.  Beginning in the 1980’s, state legislatures began passing tougher sentencing laws, limited judicial discretion.  These included: truth in sentencing, limits on probation/parole, mandatory minimum sentencing, longer time in prison and three strikes laws.  All of these contributing to the massive growth in the prison population in the last several decades.  Prior to these sentencing laws in 1973 the total U.S. prison population was 200,000 inmates.  In the intervening years we have seen a growth rate of 1,000%, while the total US population only grew approximately 45%.

This rush to incarcerate has taken its toll most heavily on people of color.  According to the Sentencing Project white males have a 1 in 12 chance of being incarcerated at some point in their lives.  For African American men this number jumps to a 1 in 3 chance, and for Latino men it is 1 in 6.  This translates to a prison population that is 60% people of color, with fully 10% of all Black men in their thirties being incarcerated at any given time.

With the current US prison population at 2.3 million, and another 4.6 million individuals under some form of post incarceration supervision, it would suggest that crime in the United States is out of control.  However, the US crime rate, except for murder, is comparable to most European countries with lower incarceration rates, suggesting that the punishment may not always fit the crime.  Additionally, the US has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68% of all people released from prison return within three years, 77% return within five years.  More than half of all those rearrested were arrested by the end of their first year after release.

Is there a better way?  Are there other countries that are doing a better job then the US?  In 2013 and 2014 I had the opportunity to visit three Scandinavian countries to study their social welfare system.  While there I visited a prison in Norway and met with the Deputy Director of the Justice Ministry.  Known for its humane treatment of prisoners, Norway boasts a comparatively low recidivism rate of 20%.  The Deputy Director whom I met with is a public health physician and sees crime as a public health issue.  The motto of their prisons is “good prisons make good neighbors.”

I will be writing about what I learned and experienced about corrections, social welfare, health care and citizen participation during my visits to Norway, Sweden and Denmark, in future blogs.  In my next entry, I will compare the Norwegian approach to corrections with that of Massachusetts.  Norway is a country of approximately 5 million people and Massachusetts has a population of approximately 6.7 million.  While Massachusetts is considered the most liberal state in the union, its approach to corrections falls short of the more humane and successful approach of the Norwegians.

I will focus my comparison on Norway and Massachusetts, because it would not make sense to compare Norway with its small population to the US with a  population more than 60 times that of Norway.  But making the comparison to a single state that controls its corrections system can serve to highlight some of the possibilities for change that can reduce our prison population and help formerly incarcerated people back into society, instead of back into prison.

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