Incarceration in the United States

From Wikiquote
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Mainstream corporate media and politicians ... persistently projected the false image of US prisons as resorts where criminal predators eat chips, lift weights, and watch videos all day, much like the images given of slavery as an experience that Black folks actually enjoyed. ~ Kevin Rashid Johnson

Incarceration in the United States is one of the main forms of punishment and rehabilitation for the commission of felony and other offenses. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and the highest per-capita incarceration rate.


  • Incarceration in prison or a local jail sets poor people up for exploitation in a forced labor system. New Deal laws once prohibited the use of prison labor except for state institutions. Businesses won the right to use prison labor in 1979. They won an exception from minimum wage laws for prison workers in 1995. This led to the employment of hundreds of thousands of inmates of federal and state prisons for mere pennies per hour. Many are forced to work in unsafe conditions without protective equipment, because workplace health and safety laws do not apply to prison workers.
  • Presently, there are 2.3 million people housed in the country’s prisons, jails and other criminal-justice facilities. By most measures, this number is remarkable. It means that the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world. China comes in second, imprisoning 1.7 million people–over half a million fewer people than the U.S., in a country of 1.4 billion. The U.S. number translates to the imprisonment of 698 people for every 100,000. This rate dwarfs the incarceration rates of the countries that the U.S. usually thinks of as its peers. Indeed, the rate at which the U.S. incarcerates its population is roughly six times the highest rate of incarceration among Western European nations. While these numbers, in and of themselves, might be disconcerting, they become even more disturbing when we consider the racial geography of the U.S.’s prison population: people of color, particularly black people, are disproportionately represented among those who are incarcerated. While black people constitute 12% of the U.S. population, they constitute 33% of the prison population. Thus, black people are dramatically overrepresented in the country’s prisons and jails. Meanwhile, white people make up 64% of the U.S. population, but they make up just 30% of the prison population.
  • Mass incarceration means that this country approaches its problems through the criminal-justice system. When faced with a social ill, our nation responds by building more prisons and jails. Because incarceration is the tool that we use to address societal problems, we have erected few limitations on the police’s ability to keep the social order. Police can stop whomever they want to stop whenever they want to stop them. They can investigate things that have no relation to the reason for the stop. They can use force. They can kill.
  • If we are right that the overdevelopment of the American penal state is a symptom of the underdevelopment of the American social policy, meaningful reform is in large part the task of winning redistribution from ruling elites. It will be costly. And there will thus be losers, who will resist it. The end of American mass incarceration is not a technical problem for which there are smart, straightforward, but just not-yet-realized solutions. Rather, it is a political problem, the solution of which will require confronting the entrenched power of the wealthy. In this sense, the task before us is to build the capacities of poor and working-class Americans to win redress from their exploiters.
  • The American prison system has no equal in any other country or any other epoch. Almost 2 million people sit in our prisons and jails each day. Another 3.7 million are on probation or parole. Hidden behind the system's vague abstractions — justice, law and order — is the fact that the overwhelming majority of America's current and former prisoners are very poor. By the time they reach their mid-thirties, almost seven in ten black men who didn't finish high school will have spent a portion of their life in a cage. Prison robs people of the prime of their life, taking not only the sleepy, slow years at the end but also the pulsing, hot years in the middle. In prisons, of course, they will remain poor, earning in their prison jobs between 14 cents and 1.41 an hour on average, depending on the state. The United States doesn't just tuck its poor under overpasses and into mobile home parks far removed from central business districts. It disappears them into jails and prisons, effectively erasing them: The incarcerated are simply not counted in most national surveys, resulting in a falsely rosy statistical picture of American progress. Poverty measures exclude everyone in prison and jail — not to mention those housed in psych wards, halfway houses, and homeless shelters - which means there are millions more poor Americans than official statistics let on.
  • Our prison-industrial complex, which holds 2.3 million prisoners, or 25 percent of the world’s prison population, makes money by keeping prisons full. It demands bodies, regardless of color, gender or ethnicity. As the system drains the pool of black bodies, it has begun to incarcerate others. Women—the fastest-growing segment of the prison population—are swelling prisons, as are poor whites in general, Hispanics and immigrants. Prisons are no longer a black-white issue. Prisons are a grotesque manifestation of corporate capitalism. Slavery is legal in prisons under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It reads: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States." And the massive U.S. prison industry functions like the forced labor camps that have existed in all totalitarian states.
  • Most people don’t quite relate US prisons to government sponsored torture. We can thank the mainstream corporate media and politicians for this. Since the 1960s and 1970s they’ve persistently projected the false image of US prisons as resorts where criminal predators eat chips, lift weights, and watch videos all day, much like the images given of slavery as an experience that Black folks actually enjoyed. These false images are sustainable because the real world of prisons is a hidden one, concealed behind walls and razor wire, inaccessible to the public.
    • Kevin Rashid Johnson, "Amerikan Prisons Are Government-Sponsored Torture," Socialism and Democracy, vol. 21, no. 1 (2007), p. 87
  • My second thesis is that we must re-link shifts in penal and social policy, instead of isolating them from one another. The downsizing of public aid, complemented by the shift from the right to welfare to obligation of workfare (that is, forced participation in sub par employment as a condition of support), and the upsizing of the prison are the two sides of the same coin. Together, workfare and prisonfare effect the double regulation of poverty in the age of deepening economic inequality and diffusing social insecurity.

See also