Saturday, March 05, 2005

IT'S NAUSEATING TO READ about the U.S. military building one new prison after another and filling them up with Iraqi males arrested in sweeps and in military offensives against the insurgency -- but it's not terribly surprising. Building prisons and filling them is not only one of the things America is really, really good at; it's also an essential component of the U.S. economy. Prisons are a growth industry in this country, especially in rural areas where prison work is likely to be one of the few job opportunities around. There's even a name for the alliance between private corporations and the prison industry: the prison industrial complex -- a variant on "military industrial complex," Dwight D. Eisenhower's term for the complex of interests between the military and private business.

According to Dept. of Justice statistics quoted by Human Rights Watch's Prison Project, there are more than two million people in prison right now (as of April, 2003).

Contrary to popular perception, violent crime is not responsible for the quadrupling of the incarcerated population in the United States since 1980. In fact, violent crime rates have been relatively constant or declining over the past two decades. The exploding prison population has been propelled by public policy changes that have increased the use of prison sentences as well as the length of time served, e.g. through mandatory minimum sentencing, "three strikes" laws, and reductions in the availability of parole or early release.

Although these policies were championed as protecting the public from serious and violent offenders, they have instead yielded high rates of confinement of nonviolent offenders. Nearly three quarters of new admissions to state prison were convicted of nonviolent crimes. Only 49 percent of sentenced state inmates are held for violent offenses.

More than half of those two million prisoners are black, which is way out of proportion to the percentage of blacks in the U.S. population. Just under 13% of the U.S. population is black; but 48.2% of those incarcerated in state and federal prisons and in local jails are black. And it's not because African-Americans are more likely to be criminals. Caucasians represent 72% of the nation's drug users; but 35% of drug possession arrests, 55% of drug possession convictions, and 74% of convictions resulting in imprisonment are black.

If amount of money spent is a measure of perceived value (and in American society, value is unquestionably measured in dollars), then prisons are valued much more highly than are schools. According to a press release put out by the Justice Policy Institute, states have been steadily cutting education budgets while increasing spending on prisons.

...a new report has found that the shift in new funding from education to prisons is having a devastating impact on American African men. ... The report comes amidst state cuts to K-12 and higher education and following another recent Justice Department report showing significant growth in America’s prison population despite years of declining crime rates. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states were considering proposals that would reduce funding for K-12 education this spring. Sixteen states raised college tuition by more than 10 percent for the current school year, and six states took the unusual step of enacting mid-year tuition hikes for the spring 2003 semester. From 1977 to 1999, total state and local expenditures on corrections rose by 946 percent -- about 2.5 times the increase in spending on all levels of education (370 percent). Earlier this month, the Justice Department reported that the nation’s prison and jail populations grew by 3.7 percent between 2001 and 2002, three times the previous year’s growth.

The fact that being in prison is such a common experience for African-Americans has significant implications for their voting rights. As we all know, convicted felons lose their right to vote, and often can't get that right reinstated even after having completed their sentence. This obviously means that blacks are being disenfranchised in numbers far out of proportion to their numbers in the population, and far more than whites. Interestingly, the boom in prison construction and the disenfranchising of blacks who have felony convictions are biggest in swing states and in red states.

Nearly two million adults in the 17 key electoral states are ineligible to vote due to felony disenfranchisement laws in those states. Both trends disproportionately affect the African American population in those 17 states, according to the report released today by the non-profit Justice Policy Institute. ...

Outside the swing states, states leaning Republican saw their incarceration rates increase at nearly twice the rate of Democrat-leaning states (30.3% compared to 15.7%). Yet index crime in the Democratic-leaning states dropped at twice the rate of crime in the Republican-leaning states (37.3% vs. 16.9%).

The effect the felony-related disenfranchisement of black voters had on the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections has been well-documented.

Using data compiled by Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza from Northwestern University, the report ... estimated that 1,757,617 people were barred from voting in the hotly contested swing states in the 2000 election. The number of disenfranchised voters exceeded the margin of victory in eleven swing states. In Florida, the 827,207 disenfranchised exceeded George W. Bush’s 537 vote margin 1500-fold; in New Mexico, there were 214 times as many disenfranchised voters as Al Gore’s 2000 margin of victory there.

The report found that the increase in incarceration and disenfranchisement has hit African American men the hardest. One in ten black men in his twenties or thirties wakes up every morning behind bars and nearly twice as many black men will have been to prison by their early thirties as will have obtained a bachelors degree. African American men make up 30% of disenfranchised voters, but only 6.1% of America’s population.

“The target audience for America’s penal system, African American men, have a diminishing say in our political process, even after they have paid their debt to society,” said, Jim Lanier, of the National Urban League’s Institute for Opportunity and Equality.

It may be that the prison-building and incarceration industry we're seeing now in Iraq may come to have the same effect on the political process there, if the jails keep filling with insurgents and anyone the U.S. military thinks might be an insurgent.

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