Thursday, February 28, 2008

One in One Hundred U.S. Citizens are in Jail in the Land of Freedom?

by Norman Markowitz

There is an the news today which will in all probability be noted and forgotten. A study done for the Pew Center on the States concludes that one percent of the adult population of the U.S. is currently in prisons and jails.

The Justice Department, in the time honored tradition of using statistics to underestimate bad news, counts children its its computations, making the number one in one hundred and thirty. For African American males, the number is one in fifteen, for African American males ages twenty to thirty four, one in nine (for Latino adults, one in thirty six). The director of the Center, Susan Urahn, apparently a well-meaning and decent person, goes on to say "we aren't really getting the return in public safety from this level of incarceration," as if putting people in jail is like investing in the bond market for security. Urahn goes on to say that the massive increase in incarceration was easy and popular politics, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, "when we did have the money."

Today, though, state expenditures for what critics have long called the "prison industrial complex" have skyrocketed, representing a huge burden for state governments whose spending and borrowing privileges are far more limited than the federal government. About one in nine state government employees in the U.S. is employed in some part of the prison industrial complex, the same percentage as African American males ages twenty to thirty four. The Pew study, mentioning the huge number of non violent offenders incarcerated, advocates alternatives to incarceration and also early release programs.

The study apparently doesn't deal with the deep institutional racism reflected in the date it presents which cannot be separated also from the class system of unequal justice. It also doesn't see incarceration as a form of terrorism (watch it young man; Black or white, but especially Black; you can wind up in a very bad place, being gang raped in the showers of a place prison, as they say over and over again in the fictional shows, if you step out of line by getting caught with drugs or pretty much getting caught with anything). It doesn't deal with the local political economy of the prison industrial complex, which has become a kind of public jobs program, albeit a very unproductive, for communities through the country.

And it doesn't deal with the deep anti-humanist, anti-progressive concept of what I call a "punishment society" which reactionaries and so called conservatives have been pushing since the Nixon years and implementing since the Reagan years (with no real opposition during the Clinton years).

What is a punishment society. Hurt people and make them afraid to get out of line, particularly if they are working class and/or minority people, rather than helping them overcome their problems, providing them with help to help themselves (what I call a "therapeutic society" which is something conservative writing mocks as "soft-headed" and expensive "liberal" policies, but in effect reflects what is offered to upper and upper middle class whites who get out of line, that is, "treatment" programs, "counseling" and community service, even, if they can afford it, "rehab" instead of prison).

I recently looked at work in progress by Professor Heather Thompson, a Professor of History at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte on the Attica Prison rebellion, its suppression, and its long-term consequences for U.S. society as it moved in the direction of making incarceration into a way of life for more and more people by multiplying prison population growth. Thompson is dealing with the questions that the Pew study has apparently ignored and has uncovered remarkable archival material, particularly about the inside story of the rebellion and its aftermath, along with its larger long-term social consequences.

Hopefully, when she completes and publishes her work, the right Republicans and their appeasers among the DLC Democrats who have been in power through this entire period in the U.S. will have been decisively defeated and we will have a national government committed to "de-incarceration" and social reconstruction as an alternative to the prison industrial complex. which will become part of history rather than current and future events. And such a government, if it really reverses and rolls back the post Attica policies, will pursue "de-incarceration" policies to move in the direction of an socially just society, not simply, as the Pew Center study suggests, because escalating rates of incarceration are no longer affordable.


Anonymous said...

there are a number of embarrasing typos in my article. It should read in the news in the first sentence. Later on it should read data rather than "date. It should also read fictional tv shows rather than fictional shows. and finally a very unproductive program rather than a very unproductive. I apologize to all readers.
Norman Markowitz

Anonymous said...

As a quick update, I just received a very important email from a very reliable source on prison statistics suggesting that the Pew study as underestimated the numbers, which have passed over two million. Also, and this is often ommitted, even in progressive articles, their are, by the Department of Justice statistics currently over 7 million people under "correctional supervision" meaning on probation, on parole, in jail awaiting trial but not tried and convicted. This is a staggering number and when you add into it the policy in many states of depriving convicted felons in these categories the right to vote, a form of mass disenfranchisement aimed disproportiately and, the way Republican operatives have applied in recent national exclusively almost exclusively against African-American and other minority voters, to purge them from registration rolls and keep them from voting.
Norman Markowitz