The US prison system: America’s contemporary shame

by David Lambert

For over 300 years, slavery was a banality in America, blending into everyday life seamlessly and uneventfully. Despite how difficult it is for us to imagine a society in which owning, torturing, and exploiting other humans based on skin color was condoned, the truth is that for millions of decent Americans, slavery was simply not something to get worked up over. This should disturb us. It is easy to judge the past for its callousness. What’s harder is coming to term with our present travesties.

So with that in mind, what is it about contemporary America that will cause future generations to shake their heads in disgust? Outlandish military spending? Factory farming animals? These are possibilities, but there is one issue that stands out in its absurdity and cruelty: America’s prison system. Here is why.

It’s gigantic

From 1970 to 2005, America’s prison population grew by over 700 percent. There are now six million people under “correctional supervision” in this country, a number unprecedented in human history. The USSR under Stalin, apartheid South Africa, China during its most repressive days – none of them incarcerated more people than we do now. With only five percent of the world’s population, America has 25 percent of its prisoners. In regards to per capita prisoners, America also stands out.

US Incarceration Rates

The second country on this list, Rwanda, is a telling comparison. This small east African nation experienced genocide in 1994 in which an estimated 200,000 people directly participated in the killings. The rebel group-turned-government that wrested control of the country took a hardline approach to reconciliation, choosing incarceration over amnesty, throwing hundreds of thousands in its overcrowded prisons. Moreover, Rwanda is a police state. Crimes like protesting the government or questioning the official version of the genocide can get you thrown in jail indefinitely. So can petty stuff. While working in the country, a friend told me about spending a week in prison for public urination. His little brother has been in jail since 2011 after getting shot in the chest for “resisting” police while organizing for a political party.

Let the fact that Rwanda doesn’t even come close to locking up a higher percentage of its population than America sink in for a second.

It’s cruel

Prison is punishment. And punishments are supposed to be harsh. Yet calling the conditions prisoners in America face—the majority of whom are convicted for non-violent offenses—cruel and unusual is an understatement. Torture is a better word.

The use of physical force by guards at Rikers Island, New York’s largest prison, has soared by 90 percent during the last five years. A federal investigation found a “deep-seated culture of violence,” with adults and juveniles routinely beaten by staff members who rarely faced any consequences.

With abuse rampant among staff, it comes as no surprise that little is done to protect prisoners from fellow inmates, which partly explains the rape epidemic in prisons. More than 70,000 prisoners are sexually assaulted each year. Nearly 10 percent of juveniles report being sexually abused, resulting in untold long-term psychological damage. The lax attitudes Americans take toward this abuse is disturbing. As Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker :

The subject [prison rape] is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized.

Isolation from fellow prisoners and guards is not a respite but rather another form of torment. Low estimates place the number of prisoners in solitary confinement at any given moment around 80,000, with over 30 percent in long-term or permanent isolation. Among those who have experienced it, solitary confinement is often compared to being buried alive. Sitting alone in a florescent-lit cell for 23 hours a day with nothing but your thoughts destroys people. Prisoners who endure it experience panic attacks, paranoia, depression, self-harm, and an increased propensity toward violence.

It’s racist

It is impossible to talk about the prison system without bringing up the subject of race. The figures once again are mindboggling. As Michelle Alexandra, author of the seminal The New Jim Crow writes, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” The figures are once again startling. Black males in their 20s without a high school diploma are more likely to be imprisoned than employed. As mentioned earlier, about 730 out of every 100,000 Americans are behind bars. In the black population, however, this number shoots up to 2,207.

Could socio-economic conditions be forcing more blacks into a life of crime? Perhaps. But there is no denying that both judges and cops treat blacks far differently than whites. An analysis by the US Sentencing Commission found that sentences for black men were nearly 20 percent longer than white men for similar crimes. When pulled over for driving violations, blacks can expect to have their vehicles searched 12.3 percent of the time while whites only get searched 3.9 percent of the time.

Like slavery and Jim Crow before it, prisons create barriers to racial equality in America.

Jail reduces the time that a young person can expect to work by 25 to 30 percent when compared to a non-incarcerated youth. The right to be free from legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits – you can forget about that after getting out of prison. As a friend who works as a social worker in the Bronx recently told me, “the criminal justice system has completely devastated the already impoverished neighborhoods where I work.”

But perhaps the most disturbing effects of the prison system on black communities are intangible. Hundreds of thousands of children, most of whom come from already disadvantaged backgrounds, grow up with a parent in prison, leading to more poverty, less parental supervision, and more future prisoners. Even more disturbing is the realization that money is being diverted from public education to fund our incarceration obsession. Over the last 20 years, the amount of money spent on prisons increased 570 percent, while the amount spent on education increased by only 33 percent. California now spends $47,421 a year for each prisoner, but only $11,420 for each student. In modern America, preventing children from becoming criminals is government waste; imprisoning them is being “tough on crime.”

It’s ineffective

Labeling prisons as “correctional facilities” is about as Orwellian as it gets. It is a great idea to keep people who pose a danger to society off the streets and to attempt changing their destructive habits. Rehabilitation is the official raison d’etre of the prison system. The only problem is that prisons suck at it.

The situation is especially bleak when it comes to youth inmates. “Correctional officers” receive no training in dealing with the social, emotional, or psychological needs of young people. Using prison as a punishment, taking a troubled kid and placing him in a living hell, drastically increases the odds of that kid committing more crimes than youth who weren’t locked up. This is just common sense.

Adults don’t fare much better. Two-thirds of prisoners reoffend within three years of leaving prison, often with a more serious and violent offense. It is not hard to see why. Over 79 percent of prisoners are either non-violent offenders, with crimes ranging from drug possession to foraging checks, or the mentally ill.

For a non-violent offender, being tossed into such a harsh environment is an especially terrifying prospect. To survive, you need friends on the inside. Since racial division and hostilities are part of prison life, you would be incentivized to join a gang of prisoners with the same skin color as your own. Any sign of weakness is an intolerable offense, meaning you would be forced to respond violently to a myriad of minor affronts to remain protected by your gang. Prison has now transformed you from a guy who made a mistake into a violent racist, traits that could follow you for the rest of your life. Moreover, the stigma of being incarcerated will certainly make it more difficult to find employment, further incentivizing a life of crime.

There is no reason alternative punitive measures can’t be used for individuals who don’t pose an immediate threat to the well being of others. These include community service, monetary fines, and mandatory substance abuse counseling (treating the drug problem with a public health approach rather than a criminal one would have a transformative positive effect on prisons and our society in general). Due to the advent of technology such as GPS, house arrest is cheaper (costing about five dollars a day) and more effective than ever. An Urban Institute analysis found that electronic monitoring reduces odds of re-arrest by 23.5 percent, rather than increasing it, like prisons do.

For the mentally ill, prison is likely to exacerbate any medical issues that were the primary reason behind the crime. More than 356,000 people with mental illnesses are incarcerated in the United States, as opposed to around 35,000 receiving treatment in state hospitals. These people need help. Locking them in cages is something strait out of the middle ages.

So, the American prison system is massive, cruel, racist, and useless. How did we let things get so out of hand? There is no simple answer. Corruption (lobbying, as we call in in America) certainly plays a role. Free market systems are wonderfully efficient, allowing us the high standards of living we enjoy today. But contrary to the Ayn Rand club, some things absolutely should not be privatized. For-profit prisons, which were created under Reagan and skyrocketed during the Clinton years, offer perverse incentives for corporations to lobby politicians to to lock more people up for longer periods of time.

Conservatives have been especially zealous about waging the useless war on drugs while cutting funding to education, mental health care, and a myriad of other social programs that could cut down on crime, yet are more than happy to shovel money into the troughs of the prison system. But Democrats are just as guilty. In the 1990s, Democratic politicians started posturing as “tough on crime” to rid themselves of the wussy liberal image and appeal to a larger constituency. Encouraged by the billions of dollars in potential profits, corporations profiting from both the war on drugs and prison systems were more than happy to support them with millions in campaign contributions. Simply put, America’s prison catastrophe was a bipartisan creation.

As noted, however, corruption and political pandering are just two of the dozens of reasons why we got to where we are today. One thing is for certain though, and that is the blame ultimately rests on us, the citizens, for our apathy and susceptibility to fear. Assuming that Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said that the arch of history bends toward justice, the future will judge us on this just as harshly as we judge the past for allowing slavery to go unabated. The fact that our bloated prisons are rarely mentioned during elections is a disturbing sign that we still have a long way to go until justice is served.

5 replies »

  1. There is a direct and obvious connection between “chattel slavery”, and the Prison Industrial Complex.

    All of this is allowed by the 13th Amendment, which says; “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, EXCEPT as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”.

    There is a conversation that America is having concerning slavery, and we allege that mass incarceration was only ever devised as a method of replacing a lost piece of the economy, as well as serving as a form of eugenics. We are making the connection between the “New Jim Crow” and the same old slavery; people caught up on plantations, generating massive revenue for a handful of individuals. This is a plague on our country- a cancer on our society.

    All of the statistics are showing that lynchings of the past are happening at the same pace as extrajudicial murders by professional law enforcement today. Clearly that is unacceptable. Modern American police, as direct descendants of slave patrollers/slave catchers, and Corrections officers murdering inmates/slaves, are doing the same as they did on the plantation yesteryear- overseeing slave beatings, torture and murders.

    I invite you to check out New Abolitionists Radio.
    A movement towards finally abolishing slavery, and making our system of restorative justice more humane and more effective, is a movement which truly needs all hands on deck.

    Again, the program broadcasts live every Wednesday night at 8:00PM EST, so please listen in, and/or join us on the Black Talk Radio Network blog, or our facebook page of the same name- New Abolitionists Radio. There is a link

    Yohanan ELiYah

    You can find us on facebook:

    New Abolitionists Radio page:

    The Move to Abolish 21st Century Slavery group:

    Black Talk Abolitionists Radio Show:

    Power to the people!