No other society in human history has ever imprisoned so many of its own citizens for the purpose of crime control.
Marc Mauer, The Race to Incarcerate
The US state of California imprisons more people than the Federal Bureau of Prisons. That state alone incarcerates more citizens than France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined. The United States as a whole imprisons nearly two million people. The US locks up, proportionately and absolutely, more of its citizens than Soviet Russia under Stalin. Estimates vary, but a likely figure is that half of those prisoners are non-violent marijuana users, and that’s why California locks up so many people. The primary enforcement regime for pot possession busts is administrated via state and local policing.
Eric Schlosser was writing about this at the Atlantic as early as 1998:
The prison boom in the United States is a recent phenomenon. Throughout the first three quarters of this century the nation’s incarceration rate remained relatively stable, at about 110 prison inmates for every 100,000 people. In the mid-1970s the rate began to climb, doubling in the 1980s and then again in the 1990s. The rate is now 445 per 100,000; among adult men it is about 1,100 per 100,000. During the past two decades roughly a thousand new prisons and jails have been built in the United States.
In other words, that explosion in incarceration tracks precisely with the increasingly punitive history of US drug prohibition. He goes on:
In 1980 about half the people entering state prison were violent offenders; in 1995 less than a third had been convicted of a violent crime. The enormous increase in America’s inmate population can be explained in large part by the sentences given to people who have committed nonviolent offenses. Crimes that in other countries would usually lead to community service, fines, or drug treatment—or would not be considered crimes at all—in the United States now lead to a prison term.
That’s journalese for penny-ante possession convictions.
Three decades after the war on crime began, the United States has developed a prison-industrial complex—a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need. […] private companies regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market. Since 1991 the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by about 20 percent, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50 percent. [ my emphasis – ed. ]
So the question is, who’s benefiting from this? When you see a public policy where the numbers make this little sense, somebody somewhere is making a whole ton of money. And the sums involved are very large indeed: this is from HuffPo in 2012.
At the federal level, the political action committees and executives of private prison companies have given at least $3.3 million to political parties, candidates, and their political action committees since 2001. The private prison industry has given more than $7.3 million to state candidates and political parties since 2001, including $1.9 million in 2010, the highest amount in the past decade.
No-one spends that much buying politicians if they’re not making considerably more than that as a result. So how do people extract Robber Baron profits from running prisons? Forced labour.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this obstinate moral predicament presents itself in the private contracting of prisoners and their role in assembling vast quantities of military and commercial equipment. While the United States plunges itself into each new manufactured conflict under a wide range of fraudulent pretenses, it is interesting to note that all military helmets, ammunition belts, bulletproof vests, ID tags, uniforms, tents, bags and other equipment used by military occupation forces are produced by inmates in federal prisons across the US.
The United States has institutionalised a culture of bonded labour which generates very large incentives to lock up more people, whatever the excuse. Now, if you’ve been paying close attention to the motivations behind the War on Drugs, you may be expecting the next reveal by now. Why might America think it was a good idea to permit and promote financial incentives for locking up a whole bunch of people?
More than 70 percent of the imprisoned population are people of color. It is rarely acknowledged that the fastest growing group of prisoners are black women and that Native American prisoners are the largest group per capita. Approximately five million people — including those on probation and parole — are directly under the surveillance of the criminal justice system. […] “For private business,” write Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans, “prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries.”
No-one ever went bust buying IBM and Microsoft. If you’re looking for the skeleton in an American political closet, it’s safe to bet on money and racism. And it gets worse: through proxy organisations such as ALEC, the prison-industrial complex gets to actually write laws which expand the incarcerated population when they need more labour:
The membership consists of state legislators, private corporation executives and criminal justice officials. More than one-third of state lawmakers in the country (2,400) belong and they are mostly Republicans and conservative Democrats. Several major corporations and corporate foundations contribute money to ALEC. Within ALEC there was until recently a “Criminal Justice Task Force.” Among the duties of this group was to write “model bills” on crime and punishment. Among such “model bills” they helped draft include “mandatory minimum sentences,” “Three Strikes” laws, “truth in sentencing” and the like.
– Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice
My emphasis. Those first two ‘model’ bills are directly responsible for most of the incarceration epidemic. Mandatory Minimum sentencing legislation is the most effective and most explicit engine of institutional racism in the enforcement regime. And the most hideous part of this picture is that the entire scheme is paid for by the taxpayer. The private prison contracts per prisoner with the government, at a price which yields a profit. They get to keep that profit, and then make considerably more money selling forced labour they have been paid thousands of taxpayer dollars to exploit. This is corporate welfare wrung from the ragged lives of America’s poor.
US law enforcement arrest someone for marijuana possession every 42 seconds. In 2011, 1,531,251 arrests (approximately half of all criminal arrests) were for drug abuse violations: the vast majority will have been for cannabis possession. As illustrated above, marijuana possession incarcerations are revealing. The prison-industrial complex is a machinery for instituting the forced labour of American citizens of colour, mediated through the political cover offered by the War on Drugs. And it is evil: the longer we permit it, the more we betray any right we ever had to the heritage of the Enlightenment.