For Justice and Against Prison

Z magazine, March 2000, p4


... U.S. citizens constitute 5 percent of the global population. U.S. inmates constitute 25 percent of the world's prisoners. The U.S. has a higher proportion of its citizens jailed than any other country in history. When George W. Bush, presidential candidate and Governor of Texas began his tenure in Texas, 41,000 were in prison there. Now there are 150,000. In federal prisons, 60 percent are drug offenders with no history of violence. It is not unusual that inmates are doing 20 years and more for just being present in a house where drugs were found and 3,600 people currently await execution in the U.S. More than 90 percent of those on death row are poor.

Close to 70 percent of America's prisoners are people of color. In New York City, one in three black youths is either in custody or on parole. By the mid 1990s more black men were in prison, jail, or on probation than in four-year colleges; 80 percent of all new federal convictions were for non-violent drug crimes; and the prison budget in California eclipsed state spending on education.

In 1986, 342 out of every 100,000 blacks were admitted to state or federal prison-a more than three-fold increase over 1926. Moreover, in 1986 blacks made up 44 percent of the new prison admissions, though less than an eighth of the population. Over the next decade, the black share of the prison population increased to nearly half. Out of every 100,000 African Americans at year-end 1996, 1,571 were serving at least a year in federal or state prisons; for Latinos, the figure was a still enormous 688 per 100,000; for non-Hispanic whites, it was 193 per 100,000

In 1995, 3,250 out of every 100,000 black males were imprisoned (compared to 851 per 100,000 for black males in South Africa at the end of the apartheid regime). A black male has a greater than one in four lifetime chance of serving a prison sentence. In many U. S. states not only can't those in prison vote, but neither can those on probation, and in some states, you can't vote even if you have served your time and are out of the system entirely. As a result, over one out of eight black males in the United States can't vote. In Alabama and Florida, almost one out of three black males can't vote.

New jails cost an average of $7 billion per year over the last decade. The annual cost for incarcerating U.S. prisoners is up to $35 billion. The prison industry employs more than 523,000 people and is the country's biggest employer after General Motors.

The private prison sector now administers more than 100 facilities in 27 states, holding more than 100,000 inmates. Eighteen private firms run local jails, private prisons, and immigration detention centers. Firms such as Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch are estimated to write between $2-3 billion in prison construction bonds every year. In 1995, in response to agitation against harsh mandatory sentencing for drug crimes, the Federal Sentencing Commission recommended to Congress a reduction in crack sentences. Congress rejected the commission's proposal 332 to 83. In over 500 Commission recommendations, this was the first to be rejected. The desires of financial backers and lobbyists are so great they now overwhelm whatever little sense might sometimes surface in the mind of an honest and caring politician.

Prison watch