Left out in the NPR story is the other major welfare program that pays for health care and housing for people under 65. That’s right, I’m talking about the prison system.
Now the prison system is there for a reason, and it’s certain that there is a percentage of people who are essential dangers to society and absolutely should be behind bars. But that number is certainly smaller than the number that are actually there now. In fact, we have not built our prison system to be able to house the staggering number of prisoners that are there now, probably because no one could imagine that we would ever lock up so many of our own people:
At the Gadsden County Jail near Tallahassee, Fla., there are bunks, and mattresses on the floor. The jail has a capacity of about 150 inmates, but there are presently 230 inmates in the facility right now. Walter McNeil, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, sees the same story everywhere he goes in the U.S.
In one “pod” of Gadsen jail, in which there are 24 bunks, there are 28 inmates – and by the time the weekend comes, there will be five or six more inmates. That’s nothing compared to California. Overcrowding was so bad there, the U.S. Supreme Court called it “cruel and unusual punishment,” and last May ordered the state to cut its prison population by more than 30,000.
Nationwide, the numbers are staggering: Nearly 2.4 million people behind bars, even though over the last 20 years the crime rate has actually dropped by more than 40 percent.
“The United States has about 5 percent of the world’s population, but we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners – we incarcerate a greater percentage of our population than any country on Earth,” said Michael Jacobson, director of the non-partisan Vera Institute of Justice. He also ran New York City’s jail and probation systems in the 1990s.
The cost of a nation of incarceration (CBS News)
The staggering increase, as everyone knows, can largely be traced to the “drug war”:
The explosion in incarceration began in the early 1970s – the political response to an explosion in urban violence and increased drug use. “So ‘Tough on crime,’ ‘three strikes, you’re out,’ ‘Let ’em rot, throw away the key’ – all that stuff resulted in more mandatory sentencing, longer and longer sentencing,” said Jacobson. But nothing came close to the impact of the war on drugs. When it was announced in 1971, fewer than 40,000 people were incarcerated for drug offenses; now, it’s more than half a million. And here’s the elephant in the room: Blacks use drugs at the same rate as whites, but go to prison more – nearly 3 out of 4 people incarcerated for drug possession are African-American.
But, we might be tempted to ask, ‘why did crime and drug use become so rampant?’
The fact is, for a significant number of Americans, making and distributing illegal drugs is often the only economic activity left for them to engage in. And it follows that these are also people who are disproportionally poorly educated, or live in economically depressed areas. This is true of inner-city streetcorner crack dealers and rural methamphetamine lab cooks. If there were other options, including farming or factory work, many if not most of these people would be doing that instead. And since drug dealing unfortunately pays much better than “legitimate” work, there is an incentive to engage in it despite the dangers. Note that this trend began in the late 1970s, just as deindustrialization got under way. Thus, we see that once America deindustrialized, the idea that all those people found their way into new jobs is simply false. A lot of them ended up much poorer, and a lot of them ended up in prison.
The simple fact is, the way we have structured our economy, you need money in order to survive, so people will be driven to get it by any means necessary, and if there are no legitimate avenues, they will engage in underground activities because they have no other choice. In fact, one often has to admire the creativity and hustle of people in the illicit drug industry – it seems like it’s the last refuge of small-scale entrepreneurship in America, and the one with the lowest barriers to entry. But here’s the thing – rather than reward them like we do other entrepreneurs, we arbitrarily deem these activities illegal, and put anyone associated with it in any way at all, from suppliers to growers to dealers to pushers to users, in prison, regardless of whether they are a threat to anyone else or the wider society.
I’ve often referred to the prison system as a surplus worker warehouse. And as I’ve often pointed out, the purpose of the war on drugs is not to stamp out drug abuse, but is merely a pretense to “legally” lock away large numbers of people who have no value under the current economic paradigm. The reason minorities are so disproportionally targeted is because they have no value in deindustrialized America, both sharecropping and factory work being distant memories, and a significant number of them do not fit into the “knowledge worker” category due to educational deficiencies, lack of aptitude and interest, personality mismatch or simply institutionalized racism. By contrast, people who are economically productive in the corporate structure such as suburban whites are not a problem and are allowed to a degree to use without sanction, or punished with a slap on the wrist. This is by design.
Concentrating poverty geographically also serves as a tool, since there are no legitimate economic outlets in the areas where poor people live, and only minimum wage jobs on offer (or, in some instances, government jobs). Because decent-paying jobs have long since vanished from deindustrialized inner-cities and benighted rural areas, the drug war gives authorities the pretense they need to clear out people in these poverty zones.
Once you understand that this is the real purpose of the drug war, rather than preventing or treating drug abuse, you can see why the drug war is prosecuted the way it is and why it is not going anywhere anytime soon so long as our economy remains the way it is, despite the rising costs and lack of public support. It kills two birds with one stone – it allows you to get rid of surplus workers, and in a declining economy it allows privatized corporate entities to make a profit in doing so by taxing the workers who still have jobs to lock up those who don’t to make them feel safe. In fact, this system actually functions better with increased drug use, as long as the economy remains depressed.
This is not an in-depth critique of the drug war, which is a subject for entire books and web sites (if it is not self-evident), but only to point out that millions of people currently housed in the nation’s jails, in much the same manner as those on disability described in the paragraphs above, are there mainly because there are no other options in this economy for them. They took a different route to be sure, but also ended up as wards of the state paid for at taxpayer expense, just as surely as those people who draw a disability check. In fact, you could argue that prison is a housing and healthcare program for millions of Americans with no other options. And it’s even more costly than disability checks per capita:
A report by the organization, “The Price of Prisons,” states that the cost of incarcerating one inmate in Fiscal 2010 was $31,307 per year. “In states like Connecticut, Washington state, New York, it’s anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000,” he said.
Yes – $60,000 a year. That’s a teacher’s salary, or a firefighter’s. Our epidemic of incarceration costs us taxpayers $63.4 billion a year.
And as for Alabama, where supposedly 1 in 4 people is on disability in some areas like Hale County?
Alabama’s prisons were built to hold 14,000 prisoners. Today, they hold 28,000. The state faces an overcrowding crisis created by the tremendous increase in the number of people sent to prison in the last 25 years.
Alabama spends only $26 a day per prisoner; the national average is $62. It spends the least of any state in the country on medical care for inmates. Alabama’s prisons have the highest inmate to correctional officer ratio in the county. Many have waiting lists for solitary confinement. Unsafe prison conditions have given rise to lawsuits in which courts have found that crowding in state and local facilities is “barbaric.”
Alabama inmates have been forced to sleep on concrete floors in facilities were the “sardine-can appearance of cell units more nearly resemble the holding units of slave ships during the Middle Passage of the eighteenth century than anything in the twenty-first century.”
There was a story some time ago about an older man who claimed he deliberately committed a crime simply so he would be sent to prison and receive treatment for his health issues. If you read some of the comments to the NPR article, you hear intimations that this is not an isolated incident. So prison is a de facto social safety net for the working classes as well! It also functions as a treatment center, as a significant portion of the inmates are mentally ill and would never have been let onto the streets before the mass deinstitutionalization that took place under Reagan.
And like disability, once you are in the prison system you are never out. Because felons are severely discriminated against in the job market, regardless of the cause of their felony, it is often impossible for them to land a legitimate job once they are released. Be honest, if you had several applicants for a position, would you take a chance on the one with a criminal record if you had a choice? So their only option is to return to criminal activities and be sent back. Observers of the prison system have long complained the rehabilitation purpose of the prison system is a failure, and that prisons are just a revolving door for large segments of society.
Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of American adults is about 230 million, meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars.
Incarceration rates are even higher for some groups. One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.
1 in 100 U.S. Adults Are behind Bars, Study Says (New York Times)
It’s interesting that people will go apoplectic about the few hundred bucks a disabled person will draw but not bat an eyelash about forking over $60,000 a year in taxpayer money to keep a person in prison. Imagine if they were paying half that amount to a person not in prison. What if that $26 a day Alabama spends on it’s prisoners were given to them as a check instead? I’m sure a lot of people could survive on $26 a day in Alabama. In the past two decades, the money that has been spent on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.
Oh, and those prisoners aren’t counted in the unemployment numbers either.