A Country of Inmates

I became passionate about the politics of incarceration after volunteering to teach a creative writing class at the local county jail a few years ago. It opened my eyes to a good deal of oppression and exploitation that takes place in the U.S., in the name of justice. In my opinion, and from my investigations, much of what we call “justice” in the United States is a cruel fantasy that not only causes needless suffering and perpetuates poverty but also is currently bankrupting we, the (so-called) good people.

I came across an op-ed written in the New York Times by Albert R. Hunt entitled “A Country of Inmates.” (reprinted at Truth-out.org) Despite the fact that crime rates have been dropping, incarceration has been on the rise. He points to the politics of incarceration. I would also mention that at this point, incarceration has become a for-profit enterprise and an important part of the economic fabric of many communities. So, it is politically not possible to be perceived as both “soft on crime” and also pull the plug on prison facilities that are now important economic engines.

A friend of mine and former student in a prison in Indiana was looking forward to getting some sort of post high school degree. (A felon can expect a 40% decrease in earnings potential when leaving prison.) The program was just cut.

Here are a few excerpts from the article:

“The U.S. prison population has more than doubled over the past 15 years, and one in nine black children has a parent in jail…

“The prison explosion hasn’t been driven by an increase in crime. In fact, the crime rate, notably for violent offenses, is dropping across the United States, a phenomenon that began about 20 years ago….

“’People ask why so many black kids are growing up without fathers,’ said Ms. [Michelle] Alexander. ‘A big part of the answer is mass incarceration.’….

“A hypothetical example: A black kid is arrested for selling cocaine to the members of a fraternity at an elite university. The seller gets sent away for 25 years. The fraternity is put on probation for a semester by the university and nothing else.

“In all likelihood, the convicted seller is quickly replaced, and few of the fraternity kids change their drug-use habits. The lesson: neither the supply nor the demand has changed, and the prison population grows…..

“Nevertheless, the politics of the crime issue cuts against any rational approach. Even if recidivism rates are low, it’s the failures that attract attention…’One case where a parolee does something very wrong is sensationalized,’ Ms. Alexander said, ‘and many, many others are kept behind bars for a long time.’”

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

10 thoughts on “A Country of Inmates”

  1. Here’s a related article. A few highlights:

    I was born in 1984 and since the year of my birth the num­ber of black men in prison has grown by 800%.

    73% of peo­ple of color in­car­cer­ated since 1984 are non-vi­o­lent, drug-re­lated of­fend­ers.

    I was born in 1984 and since the year of my birth the num­ber of black men in col­lege has with­ered by al­most 50%. Today, there are some 820,000 black men in cells, but only 270,000 in dorms.

    The Ari­zona De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions re­ported in its 2010 “Op­er­at­ing Per Capita Cost Re­port” that in­mates in pri­vate pris­ons can cost as much as $1,600 more per year.

    Cal­i­for­nia’s adult prison pop­u­la­tion has grown from about 97,000 in 1990 to nearly 161,000 today, while the cost of in­car­cer­a­tion dur­ing has risen from $20,562 per in­mate to $47,101. The cor­rec­tions de­part­ment now draws $9.8 bil­lion from the state’s gen­eral fund, or 11.4% of this year’s spend­ing plan. This is more than the state spends on the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia and Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­sity sys­tems com­bined.


  2. The statistics are truly shocking. Almost beyond belief, really.

    The criminalization of drug addiction is perhaps one of the keys to our incarceration debacle. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, is an academic who makes the point that the “war on drugs” has simply translated into a mass incarceration of black men. I would extend this out a bit. Not only has it meant a war on black men but also a more general war on the poor. When those who are poor are charged with drug-related crimes, they generally do not have access to good legal representation. The wealthy, of course, do. Furthermore, as my above article noted, selling drugs is what is more highly criminalized, and it is a poor person who is more likely to sell drugs. So, the poor person selling drugs gets put away for a decade, the rich guy that bought the shit will get a slap on the wrist.

    Question for you. What does the Arizona Dept. of Corrections statistic mean. Are they saying that this is the cost per person to incarcerate inmates? In other words, if the cost is split evenly among tax payers, the cost of incarceration is $1,600 per year? Is that how you understand that statistic?


    1. I got the statistic from the article I linked, and the author doesn’t elaborate. My interpretation: for-profit prisons cost the state $1600 per inmate per year more than do publicly-run prisons.


  3. Decriminalizing drugs is one of those issues that people from the left and the right can agree on, don’t you think, Erdman? In terms of freedom and justice, decriminalization seems like a win-win.

    Among tea partiers there’s probably a trade-off between the presumed social good of legally-imposed morality laws versus the big profit-making potential to private industry of a newly-legalized drug business. I bet the legalized drug industry would maintain current street prices because it’s what the market will bear. Instead of having to pay the overhead costs of secret processing and transportation and distributions infrastrutures and paying off cops and mobsters, the legalized drug industry would just keep the profit. It would become yet another institutionalized source of economic oppression. Plus can’t you picture the TV commercials?


  4. So instead of a democratic process based on principles — public morality, individual freedom, class/race discrimination — the political might come down to whether the prison industry or the pharmaceutical industry has a more powerful lobby. And that comes down to whether there’s more profit to be made from prisoners or from drug buyers. I guess I’m just feeling that holiday cheer when I think about these things.


  5. On my walk I realized that I had framed the tea party’s position on legalization in the crass terms of profit-making potential. I should have said that legalization removes artificial government restrictions on the free market and on individual economic liberty and initiative. My bad.


  6. Ktismatics,

    Yes! Ha, ha. I feel the holiday cheer as well.

    I hadn’t thought of the decriminalization issue in those terms. Between the two, my guess would be that the prison industry would carry the day. No politician can afford to look soft on drugs, and at this point, lacking any creativity or public imagination, all we can think to do with offenders is lock them in cages with other troubled people….then again….you have to think that even with a morally insensitive and unimaginative public, eventually people will start to see the dollars and sense of it all. I mean, if we start to realize that there are only about 100 tax payers who must pay to support one criminal for a year, at roughly the cost of 25,000-50,000 a year, then maybe the pharma lobby can step in and push the issue over the top.

    Interesting thoughts. These cheery holiday thoughts call for more Bailey’s.



  7. Here’s an article about Guantanamo. It’s the most expensive prison on earth, with costs of $800,000 per year per inmate. The article concludes:

    This ex­ces­sive spend­ing could be uti­lized to build schools, sup­port com­mu­ni­ties, and more. In­stead, it is being used to pay for an un­con­sti­tu­tional de­ten­tion camp that the pres­i­dent promised to close nearly three years ago. In this time of eco­nomic hard­ship, is this re­ally what the Amer­i­can pub­lic wants or de­serves?


  8. Thanks John. I’ve reposted that link on my home page. Looks like we could cut a cool $139 mil, just by getting rid of Guantanamo.


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