Growth of the U.S. Prison Industrial Complex: Good Public Policy?

"This research paper was written for a college History course.  Many thanks to the authors cited in this paper."

Societal motivation for the use of prisons in the United States has changed over the years from rehabilitation (prior to 1970) to warehousing. The 20-year long War on Drugs and relatively recent “tough on crime” legislation are the major contributors to the growth of the prison population. The purpose of all law enacted in the United States is to support good public policy. 1 The current incarceration rate in the United States is having a negative affect on public policy and the future of this nation.

Generally, the term public policy “is taken to mean a widely shared view about what ideas, interests, institutions, or freedoms promote public welfare.” ( Indiana University ) Public policy is always changing since policy is dependent upon the perception of society at any given time. We all know that politicians use the media to procure votes and corporations use the media to sell products. Public perception, however, is not always directed toward the benefit of society at large because perception can be molded to reflect the interests of a few. Edward S. Herman, Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Noam Chomsky, Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology declare, “It is their function [mass media] to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into institutional structures of the larger society.” 2 Societal perception in the United States is dependent largely upon the media where news is “passed through several filters leaving only a residue fit to print.” (Herman) We need to take a closer look at the societal affects of mass incarceration to determine whether the current trend is necessary or desirable to promote public welfare; we need to momentarily suspend what mainstream media declares.

The growth of the prison population in the United States over the past two decades is unprecedented not only for the U.S. but when compared to other nations. According to King’s College London, the U.S. has the highest prison population in the world at 702 per 100,000 of national population. The Russian Federation follows with 628 per 100,000. 3 According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “If recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated 1 of every 20 persons (5.1%) will serve time in a prison during their lifetime.” 4 According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports 5, in 1970 8,117,700 U.S. residents were arrested; by 1999 that number had increased to 14,031,100 representing a 57.86% increase in arrests. The total U.S. population increased for those same years by only 33%. 6 By the end of 2000, 6.6 million people in the U.S. were under some form of correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, or prison). Today there are more than 2 million people in U.S. prisons (Bureau of Justice Statistics)

In taking a look at the public policy of incarceration, according to the United Nations, “All countries have prisons, and the prison rates are not generally related to either crime rates or levels of economic development.” 7 According to Kevin Johnson, staff w riter for USA Today, in the United States over the last decade politicians have consistently included “tough on crime” rhetoric in their platforms claiming that the crime rate is increasing . 8 Could politician’s rhetoric and media attention to crime have facilitated legislation directly related to the increase in incarceration? The Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act of 1994 9 and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 10 are two examples of legislation of the last decade that increased the length of incarceration, reclassified crimes as “violent”, and decreased availability of appeals processes for convicted offenders. During the 1970s and 1980s federal and state legislatures passed mandatory minimum sentencing laws “which means that judges are forced to hand out fixed sentences, without parole, to people convicted of certain crimes.” 11 Many states have passed “Three Strikes Laws” enforcing life or indeterminate sentence lengths (i.e. 25 years to life) for people arrested with two prior offenses regardless of the type of prior offense. 12 The courts’ enforcement of laws is a response to societal perception of needs. Tough on crime public policy has become so prevalent that politicians could jeopardize an election by appearing “soft on crime.” But what is the hidden cost of this policy and is the policy good?

Linda Evans is a federal inmate at FCI Dublin. Eve Goldberg is a writer, film-maker, and activist. Their collaboration has produced articles with an insider’s viewpoint on the subject of mass incarceration. Evans and Goldberg declare that the convergence of changing relations between labor and capital, decline of the domestic economy, racism, the U.S. role as policeman of the world, and growth of the international drug economy created the booming prison/industrial complex that has become an essential component of the U.S. economy. 13 Further, these authors state that the two-fold purpose of the burgeoning prison system is profit and social control. Could this explain why incarceration rates are increasing while crime rates are falling?

Angela Davis, a well-known human rights activist, claims that the “prison industrial complex” has moved in to fill the vacuum left by transnational corporations. 14 Joe Lockard, commenting on Davis’ words proclaims, “Davis integrates her discussion of prisons into the rise of a contemporary social discipline, one that functions through the abuses of transnational capital against Third World labor as much as through creating a profitable domestic architecture building refuse bins for human beings. “ ( Davis)

Christian Parenti, author of Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis , discusses the economic advantages of prison construction in rural areas where prisons supply employment to previously displaced farm workers. 15 Parenti states, “ Nationally the tab for building penitentiaries averaged about $7 billion a year over the last decade. One report has more than 523,000 full-time employees working in American corrections -- more than in any Fortune 500 company except General Motors.” According to Parenti, there is a great deal of money to be made by private prison firms and the exploitation of convict labor. In fact, the CEO of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) “has distributed more campaign money to Tennessee politicians than any other individual” and the firm also “operates a robust lobbying operation in DC and several states where it has operations.” (Parenti) Further, Parenti reveals that two-thirds of the people sentenced to prison are non-violent offenders meaning that hundreds of thousands of inmates “pose no major threat to public safety.”

Given this information, we can see a pattern in the motivations for mass incarceration. But what are the real costs to society in terms of public policy? Craig Haney, with the Department of Psychology at the University of California - Santa Cruz has written a thorough analysis of the psychology behind mass imprisonment and crime control in general. 16 Haney writes, “The political mandate for social control has become so absolute that no countervailing values or interests are interposed to balance or leaven the pain that may be inflicted in the pursuit of civil order.” One of the most poignant statements Haney makes involves the inherent violence of prison life and judicial fairness in sentencing. A person sentenced to 10 years in one prison is not comparable in terms of pain inflicted as a sentence of the same length at another prison. (Haney) Haney challenges the psychology community to rekindle the debate on humane limits to pain while providing a course of action to create a crime control policy that does not sacrifice correctional justice. Haney is keenly aware of current political and social mores that keep prisons closed to public scrutiny. The psychological, emotional, and physical pain inflicted on prisoners in the U.S. goes far beyond the public policy intent of removal of these people from society. (Haney) Haney further poses the opinion that prisons act as “criminogenic agents” on prisoners with secondary effects on the lives of people connected to them, thereby actually increasing crime. “ This crisis threatens to bankrupt state and municipal governments, doom generations of citizens to lives at the legal and economic margins of our society, and thwart the development of any effective and humane national policy of crime control.” (Haney) Haney shows how widespread correctional harm is not considered unusual in our society anymore and is not regarded as cruel by popular constituencies. Haney shows convincingly through his writing that society is unaware and disinterested in the harm inflicted upon society by mass incarceration.

There are few reliable studies or statistics regarding the effects of mass incarceration on the families of inmates, especially children. However, it is known that incarceration breaks up the family unit, puts economic pressure on families of inmates, and frequently removes the sole income source or sole child caregiver from the home. 17 In 1998, 1.5 million children had at least one parent incarcerated; most children of an incarcerated parent lived in poverty before, during, and after their parents’ incarceration. ( Seymour) Mass imprisonment is having a marked affect on subsequent generations. A disproportionate number of incarcerated persons are non-whites and lower income. 18 Prisons are a breeding ground for disease and those diseases are spread to free society. 19 The monetary costs to taxpayers are underscored in budget cuts for education while corrections budgets increase “ the bill for prisons has grown six times faster per capita than spending on higher education.” (Gonzales) Corrections budgets result in large profits for corporations involved in the corrections industry. ( Davis) Recidivism rates are extremely high, due in part, to the lack of educational programs in prisons and the infliction of harm upon those incarcerated in our prisons. (Haney)

We can see from these facts that the prison industrial complex is designed not from a public safety standpoint at all but from an economic and profit standpoint. Inmates are harmed beyond a term of isolation imposed by the courts through the horrors that are perpetrated behind locked doors. Prisons are disease ridden because the conditions of confinement are not a concern to the free world, but those diseases spread to the free world because most inmates are released eventually. The family unit suffers, especially the children because they have, for all practical purposes, been abandoned by a parent. This harm is especially prevalent for people of color and lower income citizens. In our quest as a nation for safety from crime, while listening to a biased media, we have responded with “just desserts” thinking without evaluating the effects of our actions on society as a whole. This is the same kind of thinking for which we blame those who commit crimes. America has neglected to take responsibility for our own part in mass incarceration. We are willing to “stock the shelves” of our prisons with human beings for the profits of a few and turn a blind eye to the horrors of prison. “Dostoevsky and Churchill have observed that the real measure of civilization in any society can be found in the way it treats its most unfortunate citizens - its prisoners.” (Haney) In this nation of freedom and prosperity citizens have refused to acknowledge that we are being measured and we are harming ourselves.

Author: Candyce J. Hawk

Permission to Reprint freely given as long as article is reprinted in its entirety.


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