Incarceration Nation The US is the World

Incarceration Nation
The US is the World’s Leading Jailer

by Michael I. Niman, Buffalo Beat January 4th, 2000


When historians look back at the end of the 20th century they’ll write about "the era of incarceration." Prisons, like consumerism and suburban sprawl, have emerged as defining features of the American cultural landscape. Building and running prisons is one of the fastest growing industries in America, supported by a subservient judiciary eager to keep them filled.

We are suffering through a bizarre but tragic social epidemic. Since 1970 our state and federal prison population has grown nearly seven-fold from just under 200,000 to close to 1.4 million people. Add to that an additional 606,000 or so people locked up in county and city prisons, and we have approximately 2 million people in American jails. In New York State we’ve seen the number of our neighbors locked up increase from 12,500 to over 70,000 during the same time period.

In 1998 the US surpassed the former Soviet Union and won the crown as the globe’s foremost jailer with an incarceration rate of approximately 690 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. By comparison, that is almost 6 times Canada’s incarceration rate (115), over 12 times Greece’s rate (55), 19 times Japan’s rate (37) and 29 times India’s rate of 24 prisoners per 100,000 citizens.

Most Americans have turned a blind eye to the growth of what economists now refer to as "the Prison Industrial Complex." We know prisons are being built, but politicians and news anchors assure us that prisons are being build for prisoners, for bad people, for scumbags, not for us. It’s not our concern. At these epidemic levels of incarceration, however, we need to picture ourselves in prison, because the industry’s drive to build and fill cells is insatiable. We need to picture ourselves toiling to pay taxes to support these prisons at the expense of cuts in education and most social programs we hold dear.

Ronald Reagan’s Legacy

Prison growth is fed politically by the growth of the pro-prison lobby, consisting of the newly empowered prison employees unions and the private prison industry. Mandatory sentencing laws adopted by most states as part of Ronald Reagan’s "war on drugs," assured that our spanking new jails would be full for decades to come. This is Reagan’s legacy. The same people who voted Reagan into office voted for a plethora of state ballot propositions such as "three strikes and you’re out" laws mandating prison without parole for people convicted of three crimes.

In California, progressive’s recoiled in horror not only at the social cost of incarceration, but at the economic impact of filling jail cells at a cost of $20,000 to $60,000 per prisoner per year. The cost of "three strikes" legislation in California, according to a RAND Corporation study, would add nearly $6 billion to the cost of running California’s jails. Horrified that these billions would come at the cost of cuts to education, the arts, parks, environmental programs and social programs, the statewide teachers’ union led a campaign to defeat the resolution. They were outspent many times over, however, by a statewide prison guards’ union whose members were salivating at the thought of thousands of new jobs. The resolution passed in 1994 as did similar laws in state after state including New York. In the 1990s as prisons filled and bills came due, states such as New York placed public universities and school systems on austerity budgets, cutting faculty lines at the same time prison spending grew by epic proportions. For the past 15 years New York hired relatively few college professors, but a hell of a lot of prison guards.

Drug Arrests Triple - Jail Sentences Quadruple

The war on drugs, if successful at nothing else, was extremely prolific in filling cells. Drug arrests tripled from 1980 to 1997 with almost 80% of these people being arrested for simple possession. The number of people in state prisons for drug offenses increased eleven-fold from 1980 to 1996. Mandatory sentencing laws stripped judges of their ability to exercise judicial discretion, thus increasing the likelihood that a drug law offender would wind up in jail by almost 450% from 1980 to 1992.

The war on drugs which the prison industrial complex so relied upon to keep their cells full evolved into something far more ominous than a game of legal Russian Roulette for stoners. It wasn’t really a war against illicit drug users or even drug dealers as much as it evolved, either by design or by chance, into a war on people of color. The statistics are horrifying, yet this institutional racism continues unabated, rubber-stamped by a complicitous judiciary.

A War on African Americans - "Driving While in Kenmore"

Consider these numbers: According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, African Americans make up 13% of illicit drug users in the United States. However, according to the Sentencing Project, a policy research institute funded in part by the Department of Justice, African Americans constitute 35% of all arrests for drug possession, 55% of all drug possession convictions and a whopping 74% of people sentenced to jail for drug possession. White people, by comparison, make up 74% of illicit drug users but roughly account for only one fifth of those serving jail time for drug possession. Put simply, this means that if a white man in Amherst and a Black man in Buffalo both personally consume illicit drugs, the Black man is over 20 times more likley to wind up in jail.

Part of the blame for this disparity lands with police agencies that are more prone to stop and search African Americans (for infractions such as "driving while in Kenmore") or carry out the bulk of their drug enforcement operations primarily in African American neighborhoods where their heavy handed tactics meet less political resistance. Statistics show that both practices are racist, as blacks are not statistically much more likely to abuse drugs. Blacks are, however, statistically more likely to be arrested for abusing drugs, making racial profiling a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The bulk of the blame for this disparity lies with the judiciary. First, judges seldom blink an eye at the fact that black drug users are three times as likely to be arrested than whites, thus raising a plethora of constitutional issues. Second, once arrested, African Americans are over 50% more likely than others to be convicted in the courts. And third, once convicted, blacks are another 40% or so more likely to receive jail time.

Skip College - Go Directly to Jail

The end result in New York State is that 51% of the state prison population and 91% of the New York City prison population is African American. Take into account the subsequent cuts to education funding which were needed to fund this prison growth and we wind up with the horrific fact that there are more African American men in New York State prisons than there are enrolled as students in the State University of New York system. When we factor in parole and probation, we wind up with twice as many African American men under the control of the criminal justice system then enrolled in all community colleges, colleges and universities, private and public, in New York State. This does not bode well for the future of New York.

Aside from providing needed dollars for prison construction, education cuts also guarantee that prisons will remain occupied. Nationally, 65% of prisoners have not completed high school. In New York State prisons that number is 75% and in New York City prisons a full 90% of inmates never completed high school. From an economic point of view, it is much cheaper to educate someone and radically lower their probability of landing in jail, than it is to incarcerate them. Politically, however, prisons are still the rage.

Like the Nazis Before Them...

State and local governments nationwide are finding out that even with cuts to other programs, they cannot afford the costly price tags associated with their new jails. To meet these costs, states are turning to prison labor. American prison administrators are now "leasing" prison labor to private corporations in a system reminiscent of their Nazi predecessors, who "leased" concentration camp labor to corporations such as Ford and BASF. The difference is that while the Third Reich prisoners were virtual slaves, the current American prisoners are paid. Their wages, however, are often less than state minimum wages, and the prison systems take about 80% of that wage for "room and board."

The prisoners who stuff junk mail into envelopes for the likes of Bank of America, Chevron and Macy’s, take telephone reservations for hotels and airlines such as Eastern, pack golf balls for Spaulding, repair circuit boards supplied to Dell, Texas Instruments and IBM, etc. often earn about $1 an hour. During the 1990s creative managers leased prison labor for a variety of tasks ranging from the nocturnal restocking of shelves at Toys R Us to raising hogs and manufacturing Honda parts and El Salvadoran license plates.

Strange Math in the Census

The prison boom has also caused a massive paper shift in the population of New York. The US Census counts prisoners as residents of the towns where they are imprisoned and not the communities where their homes and families are located. In reality, nearly 75% of the inmates in New York State prisons hail from seven neighborhoods in New York City (South Bronx, Harlem, Brownsville, East New York, South Jamaica, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Manhattan’s Lower East Side). These are some of the neediest communities in New York State, yet anti-poverty program funding that should be destined for these communities winds up diverted to communities that, at least census-wise, show large clusters of poor residents. Likewise, prison towns also enjoy bloated political representation since prisoners, who cannot vote, still count when legislative districts are apportioned, thus amplifying the pro-prison voice in the state legislature. Again, constitutional issues come into play here, this time involving equal representation, yet there has been no remedy forthcoming from the judiciary.

As New Yorkers and as Americans we need to learn more about both our prisons and our prisoners. It is this aspect of our society, more than anything else, that distinguishes us from other industrialized nations. We fill prisons as rapidly as we build them, and build them as rapidly as we can fill them. Prison wise, America is juggernauting out of control — Watch out.

Michael I. Niman is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Buffalo State College. Dr. Niman’s articles and columns are available on-line at and are available globally through syndication . For more information about prisons, contact The Sentencing Project, or The Correctional Association of New York State at (212)254-5700.