This was always going to be the one bi-partisan issue over the last 10 years that was supposed to in for a major reformation. The mass overcrowding of America’s prison population, Republicans admitted it was a massive problem for tax payers and Democrats hollered about non-violent offenders including: Drug addicts, dealers and other low level criminals needing rehabilitation instead of hard time. Biden promised over and over again during his 2020 presidential campaign to eliminate incarceration amongst people whom were deemed not threats to society. He also, like a certain president before him, proclaimed to reverse draconian laws like drug dealers being sentenced to outrageous amounts of prison stints, some as long as life sentences.
The U.S. federal and state prison system population reached an unbelievable 2.3 million people in 2008( www.vera.org). Some of that could’ve blamed on the recession and people turning to lives of crime to survive. By late 2020 the prison population was reduced to 1.8 million which represented a 21 percent drop from 2008.
But when you look at the numbers of US prison inmates when compared to other nations its mind boggling. Stating the obvious, according to statistica.com, the United States, a country of over 300 million is first in the world in prisoners. China comes in second with 300,000 less. It makes one wonder, how can a country of 2 billion people, deemed an authoritarian communist dictatorship have less inmates than that of the beacon of freedom and democracy? Other nations that rounded out the top five: Brazil, India and Russia, really quite a head scratcher. Brazil the largest and one of the most violent countries in the Western hemisphere had 51,589 known homicides in 2019 which was actually a 13% decline from the prior year. Also according to businessinsider.com, 25 in 100,000 of people in Brazil were victims of homicides last year. You can chalk that up to corruption and lack of police but for the US to be number one in the world in such a category is disgraceful. Russia rounding out the top five is shocking for one reason, at least. Mainly, due to the fact any hint of anti-Putin sentiment can certainly get you locked away in one of Russia’s many state of the art, terrifying facilities, one ominously titled the Black Dolphin. According to news.bbc.co.uk, 876,000 inmates are currently languishing in those facilities. (Fun fact half of the worlds 9 millon prisoners are housed in the U.S., China and Russia.)
The Prison Industrial Complex or PIC was a term coined in the late 1950’s modeled after the classic term ” Military Industrial Complex” which described the U.S amount of military excursions around the world for corporate profit ( sites.tufts.edu). The PIC was used to describe the immense and alarming amount of growth in the prison population starting in the late 50’s and continuing well into the 1960s. Reasons for these rises in numbers were mostly attributed to the invent of privatized, for profit prison facilities. This unfortunate aspect of freedom of enterprise led to these private, corporate run prisons to offer not only dirt cheap contruction labor from inmates, but also much cheaper surveillance systems, food and medical distributors. Not mention less pay for correction officers, lawyers and mental health workers. Another key element of PIC was priortizing financial gains over the health, humane treatment and eventual rehabilitation of inmates(ACLU.org).
As of 2019, according to sentencingproject.org, 116,000 US inmates or 8.3 % are being housed in for-profit, privatized facilities. So when you thought we may have found a bi-partisan issue, we are reminded that whenever a profit can be made in this ultra capitalist haven it can never be so simple. Not to mention the inate ability of the US justice system to continue filling these jails up with minorities, mostly African- Americans.
How has President Biden’s promises to decrease the prison population by half gone so far? Well, according to motherjones.com, during the first six months of Biden’s presidency his campaign bluster has rang hollow as prison numbers have increased. And get this! Federal prisoners whom were granted early release due to covid concerns may be forced to return behind bars when the government deems it safe enough. If that’s not just the height of cruel injustice, I don’t know what is. The truth of the matter is the US prison reform will never come to pass as long as private companies running these cold, unholy lockups can promise the government the cheap labor, food and medical services they have been able to do for the last nine decades.
The overwhelming statistics of people of color in the prison system compared to any other race is no shocker, but when you hear these statistics it might hit you a bit harder. According to prisonpolicy.org, the number of people incarcerated per 100,000 was overwhelming not just African American but all minorites, and of course coming in 2nd to last in this study was white people, with Asian Americans finishing dead last. The racism in the justice system in the United States may take many decades to rectify. One study that gives a glimmer of hope was, according to pew research, Africa American imprisonment fell by a third from 2006-2018. That may be the only positive statistic in this entire editorial.
One thing that could help truly reverse some of this trend is treatment over incarceration, especially for the drug addicted and mentally ill. An outrageous 76% of state inmates as of 2020 met the criteria of either mental illness or drug dependency. ( stats courtesy of bjp.ojp.gov). If these listless bureaucrats, liberals and conservatives alike cannot see what the major societal problem is that’s causing these high prison rates they must just not be paying attention.
So what’s is going to be? A continuing revolving door, unfair justice system for the poor and downtrodden, for profit. Hopsfully someone will come along with not only a hint of empathy and common sense but also the notion that having the largest prison population in the world is nothing to be proud about. On the contrary, it’s a massive embarrassment, and to hear Joe Biden and so many others before him make these campaign promises about reforming our justice system is becoming just another disgraceful lie to get elected. For this, another national stain on the one country that promotes “freedom” above all else somehow, someway this alarming trend of mass incarcartion must one day cease to be.
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