My blog entry on this is a few days late, but what does it matter for the 2.3 million Americans who languish in the prisons and jails of this country? They have plenty of time on their hands.
The Washington Post article last Thursday, New High In U.S. Prison Numbers, grabbed some headlines and commentary in the following days. But soon, all too soon, the revelations will grow stale, the stuff of old news, and the millions of prisoners placed safely not only behind bars, but out of sight and mind, can return to their quotidian lives of ongoing despair and impotent frustration. The Pew Report that generated the recent headlines is available here.
N.C. Aizenman writes at the WP:
More than one in 100 adults in the United States is in jail or prison, an all-time high that is costing state governments nearly $50 billion a year and the federal government $5 billion more, according to a report released yesterday.
With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving far-more-populous China a distant second, according to a study by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.
The growth in prison population is largely because of tougher state and federal sentencing imposed since the mid-1980s. Minorities have been particularly affected: One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is behind bars. For black women ages 35 to 39, the figure is one in 100, compared with one in 355 for white women in the same age group.
How can such figures mesh with any view of the U.S. as a country of free men and women? You don’t have to be a penal expert to know that besides having a racist justice system, the rise in incarceration is due to obscene drug laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, the draconian three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws passed by demagogic politicians and a frightened populace, and petty, tyrannical probation enforcement. As a result, there are more than one million non-violent offenders locked away in the U.S. prison system. Jailing people is a big industry in the U.S., and like any capitalist enterprise, the prison-industrial complex is always seeking new markets and greater expansion.
One fast growing area of prison expansion concerns the INS jailing of immigrants to the U.S. Some of these are asylum seekers, fleeing persecution in their native lands, and held in indefinite detention at public, and increasingly, at private prisons throughout the country. An estimated 1.6 million immigrants are detained at some point in their immigration hearings. From a report by CorpWatch:
As the government invokes national security to sweep up and jail an unprecedented number of immigrants, the private-prison industry is booming. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on New York, immigrants have become the fastest growing segment of the prison population in the U.S. today. In fiscal year 2005, more than 350,000 immigrants went through the courts. “A growing share of them committed no crimes while in the United States – 53 percent this year, up from 37 percent in 2001 – even though Bush administration officials repeatedly have said their priority is deporting criminals,” the Denver Post reported….
The government claims that locking up people without legal status is the only way to ensure that they do not disappear into the country. A December 2004 DHS report from the Office of the Inspector General concluded that all the evidence proved the “importance of detention in relation to the eventual removal of an alien. Hence effective management of detention bed space can substantially contribute to immigration enforcement efforts.”
The speed and scope of the Bush administration round up and jailing of non-citizens created a dramatically increased need for immigrant detention space. And saved the flailing corrections industry.
One example of this new privatization of prisons is the new prison built by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), “one of the nation’s biggest prison companies”, in Florence, Arizona:
The complex in Florence is part of a 300-facility-strong network of immigrant incarceration facilities. The average time an immigrant is detained is 42.5 days from arrest to deportation. At $85 a day per detainee, that adds up to $3,612.50 per person. In 2003, DHS was holding 231,500 detainees, and the budget to cover this was $1.3 billion. Since 2001, the DHS budget for detention bed space has increased each fiscal year as has the number of beds. In 2003 there was more than $50 million slated for the construction of immigrant jails….
For the second quarter of 2005, CCA announced that its revenue had increased three percent over last year, for a total of almost $300 million. CCA calculates that it expenditure of $28.89 per inmate, per day allows it to make a daily profit of $50.26 per inmate….
Business is good for CCA and the more people it stuffs into its prisons the better it becomes. “As you know, the first 100 inmates into a facility, we lose money, and the last 100 inmates into a facility we make a lot of money.” CCA Chief Financial Officer Irving Lingo said on a 2006 company conference call.
This trafficking in prisoners demonstrates how deep the moral rot has penetrated this society. The U.S. as a society has truly lost its soul. The leaders of this country seem to be bound and determined to realize concretely the Rousseau’s prophecy made in the years before both the French and American Revolutions:
Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.
The entire subject is almost too much to bear, if you are a thinking and feeling person. It took a great poet, namely George Gordon, Lord Byron, to take the experience of unjust imprisonment and make art of it. I close with his “Sonnet on Chillon,” written in 1816, It was inspired by Bryon’s visit to the castle at Chillon, on the shores of Lake Geneva, where Charles III, Duke of Savoy had imprisoned the monk and political prisoner, François Bonivard, underground for six years. The poem was written as a preface to a longer poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon.”
Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind!
Brightest in dungeons, Liberty! thou art,
For there in thy habitation is the heart
The heart which love of thee alone can bind;
And when thy sons to fetters are consign’d –
To fetters, and the damp vault’s dayless gloom
Their country conquers with their martyrdom,
And Freedom’s fame finds wings on every wind.
Chillon! thy prison is a holy place,
And thy sad floor an altar – for t’was trod
Until his very steps have left a trace
Worn, as if thy cold pavement were a sod
By Bonnivard! May none those marks efface!
For they appeal from tyranny to God.
Adapted from an original posting at Invictus