The business of keeping people in cages is not a pretty one. While bodies pile up on Vancouver streets and as dealers fight over the drug war's lucrative spoils, our politicians and corporate media look to jails as a solution. But we need only look south of the border to see what sort of solution corrections offers.
The United States now has far and away the highest proportion of population under correctional control in the world.
In 2003, a report by The Sentencing Project's Mark Mauer reported that internationally, the rate of incarceration per 100,000 people was 702 in the US, 620 in Russia and 400 in South Africa, and the rates fell quickly from there. Writing in 2008, Adam Liptak counted 2.3 million people in US jails, while second place China, with a much larger population, had "only" 1.6 million in jail.
Now, a new report, "One in 31: the Long Reach of American Corrections," by the Pew Center (March 2009), suggests that one in every 31 adults in the US, or about 7.4 million people, is in prison, jail, on probation or parole.
About one out of every 100 adults in the US are currently in prison or local jails. There are about five million adults on probation or parole, up 300% from 1.6 million 25 years ago.
Those caught up in this gulag of control are disproportionately people of colour, serving time for petty or victimless crimes.
The Report states that corrections now sucks $68 billion annually from the US taxpayer.
While the US educational system decays and their medical system is a cruel joke, they lead the world in imprisonment.
There is no single cause for the US gulag.
One reason was definitely not rising crime rates, which began falling in 1980, prior to the expansion of the prison system, and has continued to decline since.
Drug laws, racism, increasing unemployment, new sentencing requirements, massive government expenditures on prisons, and law and order technology, real estate politics, and more, have been cited as factors contributing to the rise of the US prison-industrial complex.
Drug laws are an ideal vehicle for social control because they can be applied in an arbitrary manner.
Middle class white swingers can indulge their pleasures with impunity.
Drug laws apply only to certain social groups: the poor, the coloured, the young, the unemployed, those on the street. While Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller both exploited the issue of drugs for political gain, it was with the rise of Ronald Reagan and the neocons that the modern drug war exploded.
In California, according to Ruth Wilson Gilmore, drug offenses had accounted for about "10 percent of new admissions in 1977, but by 1990, they accounted for 34.2 percent." Across the US, "drug commitments to federal and state prison systems surged 975 percent between 1982 and 1999."
In Smoke and Mirrors, Dan Baum recaps Ronald Reagan's Crime Bill of 1984. It gave police authority to confiscate the property of those arrested, without trial. It created a new bureaucracy, the "National Drug Enforcement Policy Board," which coordinated a massive escalation of the drug war. Worst of all however, the Crime Bill dictated sentencing requirements that specified a "range of sentences," says Baum, "from which the judges weren't permitted to deviate without a written explanation."
This was the antecedent of the vicious mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have become progressively more punitive over the past twenty years.
Two years later Reagan brought in the "Anti-Drug Abuse Act" that contained 29 new minimum mandatory sentences.
In Whiteout, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair document the Act's draconian sentencing requirements. Targeting crack cocaine, the bill "established a 100-to-1 sentencing ratio between possession of crack and powder cocaine." Possession of 5 grams of crack carried a 5-year minimum sentence, while possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine received the same sentence.
Cockburn and St Clair cite a review by the US Sentencing Commission of eight years of application of this provision: 84 percent of those arrested for crack possession were black, while only 10 percent were white.
That great liberal Bill Clinton did nothing to address these injustices. Vijay Prasad calls Clinton the "Prisons President" and states that when he came to office, the US correctional system had 4.5 million people under its control; when he left office there were 6.4 million people in its iron grip.
In his diary, H R Haldeman, President Nixon's White House Chief of Staff, wrote that Nixon "emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks.
The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to." Law and order politics "recycled an old and trusted trope: race spoken through the code of crime and welfare," claims Christian Parenti in Lockdown America.
The statistical evidence of the racist bent of the US injustice system is overwhelming. The March 2009 Pew Center Report states that while 1 in 45 white adults in the US are under "correctional control," one in 11 blacks are. The Pew Report comments that "Black adults are four times as likely as whites and nearly 2.5 times as likely as Hispanics to be under correctional control." For years now there have been more black men behind bars in the US than in institutions of higher education.
In 2002 there were about 800,000 black men in American prisons and jails, and about 600,000 in its colleges and universities. This is a big change from 1980, when, according to the Guardian, about 450,000 black men were in college or university in the US, while about 150,000 were in jails.
Even though proportionately, drug use by blacks mirrors their population in the US, "they represent 35 percent of all drug arrests, 55 percent of all drug convictions, and a staggering 74 percent of drug prisoners," according to Parenti, citing Sentencing Project figures from the 1990s.
The 1980s war on drugs emerged in an economy reeling from the highest unemployment rates since World War II, the destruction of the post-war business-labour detente, and declining income for workers generally.
The link between this surplus population of young workers with no hope of decent wages has been explored by a number of writers.
Parenti argues that, "reproducing the business system, and the American social order generally, required containing the poor. Policing and the war on drugs are part of this political triage." Looking specifically at California, Ruth Gilmore tracked unemployment numbers and numbers of people behind bars and found a loose correlation. Two big spikes occurred during the recessions of the 1980s and of the early 1990s. The correlation is not exact, as since the early 1980s the numbers of prisoners has increased annually, even when unemployment declined.
In Golden Gulag, Professor Gilmore provides a detailed study of the growth of the prison industrial complex in her state, California. She makes interesting connections between economic crises and the explosion in prison construction. Gilmore found that the amount of state debt for prison construction expanded from $763 million to $4.9 billion from 1985 to 1993, even while successive state governments ranted about cutting back government spending programs.
She points out that the prison construction boom answered one of capital's basic needs, as an outlet for capital left idle by the dearth of private investment opportunities. "[W]hen productive investment opportunities wane," argues Wilson, "owners of surplus capital move their wealth into non-productive income-generating investments in order to be assured of constant returns.
The credit system, the province of finance capital, is such a venue." Again, looking specifically at California, she finds that declining agricultural giants in that state made huge profits by selling land in rural California to house black and Hispanic males from urban California in prisons.
A bloated bureaucracy sustained by billions of tax dollars that rivals the military-industrial complex for malignancy, the US prison-industrial complex resembles a vampire who requires a daily quota of new bodies to feed on. Dismantling this complex requires "less policing, less incarceration, shorter sentences, less surveillance, fewer laws governing individual behaviors, and less obsessive discussion of every lurid crime, and less prohibition," argues Christian Parenti. In the United States, the prison-industrial complex is a cancerous institution that threatens the body of its host.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.