With less than 5% of the world’s population, but nearly 22% of its prison population, America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We imprison almost 2.3 million people today, as opposed to around 300,000 during the 1970s. Of those 2.3 million, estimates indicate between 300,000 and 500,000 are non-violent drug offenders.
Building and operating prisons is one of America’s largest and most profitable urban industries. These companies have made a huge financial investment in lobbying for more severe drug and “tough on crime” laws and increased criminalization of immigrants. The “prison-industrial complex” thrives on the volume of people arrested, detained, convicted, and sent to private for-profit prisons. The two largest private prison institutions, CoreCivic and GEO, own 75% of the market and house an ever-increasing percentage of America’s prison population. The primary funders, and in many cases shareholders, of CoreCivic and GEO are banks and related financial entities. Private prisons also account for an estimated 73% of detainment facilities for undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Such horrifying statistics – plus clear racial discrimination in prosecution and sentencing – makes the issue of mass incarceration a screaming moral emergency. People of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos, are unfairly targeted by the police and end up facing harsher prison sentences than their white counterparts. According to a report released by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, black men receive prison sentences 20 percent longer than do white men for similar crimes. America is now incarcerating a higher proportion of African Americans than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.
While no one doubts that violent and even many non-violent criminals belong behind bars, America’s incarceration rate speaks to something much deeper than catching criminals; it speaks to a prison industry that lobbies for ever bigger budgets and benefits, to corporations that exploit cheap prison labor, and to Wall Street interests wanting bigger and bigger profits from locking up as many people as possible, for as long as possible.
The more America ignores these realities and the huge conflict of interest inherent in private for-profit prisons, the richer the prison-industrial complex and all who benefit from it will become — and the poorer we will be as a nation.
In the words of John F. Kennedy, “We cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor.” Our system of mass incarceration is a huge wound upon the spirit of America, and that wound can only be healed if we address what it is, how it got here, and how it can be changed.
Central to our problem is a penchant for punishment, rather than rehabilitation, that runs through too much of our criminal justice system. While there are many good people working within the system, institutionally we remain stuck within an obsolete consciousness that does more to prepare people for more life of crime once they get out of jail, than for a life repaired.
The 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Bill successfully deals with a few of the worst aspects of America’s prison problem, giving federal judges more leeway when sentencing some drug offenders and boosting prisoner rehabilitation efforts; reducing life sentences for some drug offenders with three convictions, or "three strikes," to 25 years; and incentivizing prisoners to participate in programs designed to reduce the risk of recidivism with the reward being an earlier release to either home confinement or a halfway house. Those measures, which apply only to non-violent offenders and only to federal prisoners, begin what will hopefully be a larger tide of criminal justice reform. Together with restorative justice techniques, and other peace-building measures, both in and out of prisons, hopefully, America is beginning, at last, to turn away from the draconian prison practices that have become such a stain upon America’s soul.
What we need to do next is to examine the prison population we have, and undertake a concerted, national discourse on how to free our people. Being that the vast majority of prisoners are locked up in state and local prisons, we need a populist movement in each individual state to release as many prisoners as possible – and to prepare them for their freedom at the same time. There is no issue where the bully pulpit of the White House is more necessary.
At the same time, there is a great deal that the federal government can do. The Justice Department can be empowered to investigate for-profit prisons. The Civil Rights Division can be empowered to bring appropriate civil rights class-action suits on behalf of the imprisoned, and to investigate the conditions under which prisoners are held. By the same token, the civil rights division can examine the parole process, and apply much-needed pressure on states and localities to re-examine their sentencing processes.