The Era of Mass Incarceration

In one of her first speeches of the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton spoke of ending the “era of mass incarceration” and furthered the spotlight on the troubling issue of over-incarceration in this country.  Tony Newman, of the Huffington Post, recently noted that “America is the number one jailer in the planet, with under five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.” A study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences found that the U.S. rate of incarceration is 5 to 10 times higher than rates of incarceration in other democracies.  Startlingly, more than half of America’s state prisoners serve time for non-violent crimes.  From 1980-2000, the number of children with fathers in prison rose from 350,000 to 2.1 million. And it will not surprise most that there are appalling racial disparities in who gets incarcerated for drug crimes in our over-incarcerated country:  5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, but African Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.  An important point that must be recognized in considering these statistics is that there is actually an inverse correlation between the nation’s crime rate and its rate of incarceration:  although this country has quadrupled its prison population since the early 1970’s, the crime rate has been steadily dropping, dramatically so – between 1993 and 2012, the violent crime rate in the United States declined by 48 percent.

There are many causes behind this unacceptable era of incarceration, but one of the more insidious ones is profit and greed. It turns out that the nation’s largest owner of private prisons, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) – a company trying to buy up the prisons in 48 states – has seen its revenue climb by more than 500 percent in the last twenty years.  And the real pernicious side effect of all of the CCA contracts and other similar private contracts: they require the state keep the newly privatized prisons at least 90 percent full at all times, regardless of whether crime is rising or falling.  A short documentary released in April 2015 by the ACLU of Ohio called “Prisons for Profit” chronicles the first year and a half of the nation’s first state prison sold to a for-profit corporation, CCA, for $72 million.  The movie details the grisly squalor, pervasive violence, rampant drug use, scathing inspections, medical neglect, and prison deaths that followed.  With a profit motive model, education and rehabilitation efforts at the prison were eliminated – they are too expensive to the bottom line, and the profit incentive is for more recidivism, not less.  Quite simply, more crime means more prisoners means more profit. Medical care was kept to the bare minimum. The movie describes the utter anarchy of a prison without adequate resources, where state law enforcement was removed, but financial incentives left the corporation paying for minimal prison security in its stead.  Inmate on inmate assaults increased 305%, while CCA stock prices rose over 400%.

The era of incarceration will not end until this country confronts the warped incentive system it has created, where more prisons mean more money.  In the meantime, Loevy & Loevy’s Prisoners’ Rights Project advocates on behalf of men and women detained in jails and prisons throughout the United States. The Project advocates on behalf of the human and civil rights of prisoners, through litigation and advocacy, at both the individual and institutional level. The Prisoners’ Rights Project routinely tries cases involving denials of medical and mental health care, conditions of confinement, excessive force in the correctional setting, violations of First Amendment rights, and other official misconduct in jails or prisons.  If you or someone you know has had their rights violated while in jail or prison, please contact The Prisoners’ Rights Project.


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