Over the past 30 years, a complex set of social and political developments has produced a wave of building and filling prisons unprecedented in human history. Beginning with less than 200,000 in 1972, the number of inmates in U.S. prisons has increased to over 1.5 million today. Add to this the over 800,000 inmates in local and regional jails either awaiting trial or serving sentences, and a remarkable 2.4 million (and counting) Americans are behind bars as of 2008.
These figures take on more meaning in comparison with other nations. The United States locks up offenders at a rate 6 to 10 times that of other industrialized nations. The next-closest nation to ours in incarceration rates is Russia—which has been de-incarcerating for several years now. The nature and meaning of incarceration in the United States have changed in a variety of profound ways with far-reaching implications.
Among these is the institutionalization of a societal commitment to the use and expansion of a massive prison system. Nearly two thirds of prisons today have been built in the past 20 years. These prisons are expected to hold offenders for at least the next 50 years, guaranteeing a national commitment to a high rate of incarceration. The growth of the prison system has spawned a set of vested interests and lobbying forces that perpetuate a societal commitment to imprisonment. The nearly 1,000,000 prison and jail guards, administrators, service workers, and other personnel represent a potentially powerful political opposition to any scaling down of the system.
The idea of prisons as sources of economic growth appeals to many communities that have lost jobs in recent years. Communities that once organized against the location of prisons now beg state officials and private prison companies to construct new prisons in their backyards. But the scarce research available questions the promise of prisons as economic development catalysts. There is also a rapidly expanding prison privatization movement focused on the bottom line of profiting from imprisonment. Privatization has produced a new dynamic in mass imprisonment that encourages the production of more inmates—which means more money and more profits.
The near permanent status of mass imprisonment is evidenced despite expressed concerns that often focus on the problem of funding for an expanding prison system that diverts resources from other public spending. Vast expenditures on corrections systems are now considered the norm, and represent the largest growth area in most state budgets. Virtually every state has engaged in a significant if not massive prison construction program over the past 20 years, financed through general funds; bonds; and more recently, public-private venture arrangements, which put communities into further long-term debt.
The impact of incarceration on individuals can be understood to some degree, but the effect of mass imprisonment on African American communities is a phenomenon that has only recently been investigated. Marc Mauer (Mauer & Chesney-Lind, 2002) of The Sentencing Project has asked what it means to a community to know that 4 out of 10 boys growing up will spend time in prison; what it does to family and community to have such a substantial proportion of its young men enmeshed in the criminal justice system; what images and values are communicated to young people who see the prisoner as the most prominent or pervasive role model in the community; and what the effect is on a community’s political influence when one quarter of black men cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction.
New prison cells are increasingly being used for drug and nonviolent offenders. About 3 of every 5 (61%) new inmates added to the system in the 1990s were incarcerated for a nonviolent drug or property offense. In the federal system, three quarters (74%) of the increase in the inmate population are attributed to drug offenses alone. Incarcerating ever-increasing numbers of nonviolent property and drug offenders is not the only option open to policymakers, nor is it the most cost-effective. A large proportion of these offenders would be appropriate candidates for diversion to community-based programs—if policy could be diverted away from imprisonment.
Direct consequences of the wars on drugs and crime include the imprisonment of literally millions of people, most of whom are guilty of relatively petty crimes; their lengthy and debilitating incarceration; and their ejection (reentry) back into society—ill-prepared and handicapped by their stigmatized social status. The direct financial cost of the imprisonment binge has been well publicized, and exceeds $60 billion per year.What has not been emphasized enough are the invisible or collateral damages of mass imprisonment, including the harm done to other social programs because so much money has been siphoned off into corrections, the diminution of civil rights of many kinds, the erosion of traditional values of fairness and tolerance, the damage done to families and communities, and the creation of new and powerful lobbying groups with vested interests inmore imprisonment. Imprisonment in the 21st century has generated far-reaching consequences that touch virtually every aspect of life, for prisoners and non-prisoners alike, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.
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