The drug war and the US prison industry

As a follow up to yesterday’s post on the inhumane nature of the US prison system, it might be helpful to look at two factors that have contributed to why the US has by far the largest prison population in the world, both in terms of absolute numbers and per capita, along with being extremely harsh in its treatment of them.

One factor is undoubtedly the introduction of draconian drug laws that resulted in huge numbers of people being locked up. Last month NPR had an interesting report on how this came about. It said that “Half a century ago, relatively few people were locked up, and those inmates generally served short sentences.” The origins of the current harsher policy can be traced fairly precisely to January 1973. Nelson Rockefeller was then governor of New York and had up until then “backed drug rehabilitation, job training and housing because saw drugs as a social problem, not a criminal one.” But he then made a sudden about face, switching to a zero-tolerance policy that called for things unheard of up that point: “mandatory prison sentences of 15 years to life for drug dealers and addicts — even those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin.”

After this supposedly moderate Republican signed on to these harsh measures, they swept the nation and the results were predictable. “Due in part to Rockefeller-style laws, the nations prison population exploded from 330,000 in 1973 to a peak of 2.3 million. That meant building hundreds of new state and federal prisons. By 2010, more than 490,000 people were working as prison guards.”

Such growth naturally attracted the attention of those who saw this as a money-making proposition and thus emerged the private prison industry. In 1984, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) came into being and is now the largest private prison business with 2011 revenues of $1.7 billion, with the Geo Group being second with $1.6 billion. There are now about 130,000 people in private prisons.

Just look at what has happened to the U.S. prison population over the past several decades. Prior to 1980, there were virtually no private prisons in the United States. But since that time, we have seen the overall prison population and the private prison population absolutely explode.

For example, between 1990 and 2009 the number of Americans in private prisons grew by about 1600 percent.

Overall, the U.S. prison population more than quadrupled between 1980 and 2007.

This industry has become a large and profitable business spending huge amounts of money on lobbying and it not only gets money from the government for housing inmates, it also makes money off prison labor.

“The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself,” says a study by the Progressive Labor Party, which accuses the prison industry of being “an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect to forced slave labor and concentration camps.”

The prison industry complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and its investors are on Wall Street. “This multimillion-dollar industry has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet catalogs. It also has direct advertising campaigns, architecture companies, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, plumbing supply companies, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colors.”

According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.

Part of the problem is the differential sentencing for different forms of drugs.

Jailing persons convicted of non-violent crimes, and long prison sentences for possession of microscopic quantities of illegal drugs. Federal law stipulates five years’ imprisonment without possibility of parole for possession of 5 grams of crack or 3.5 ounces of heroin, and 10 years for possession of less than 2 ounces of rock-cocaine or crack. A sentence of 5 years for cocaine powder requires possession of 500 grams – 100 times more than the quantity of rock cocaine for the same sentence. Most of those who use cocaine powder are white, middle-class or rich people, while mostly Blacks and Latinos use rock cocaine.

This racial and wealth disparity in sentencing enables policymakers to ignore the scale of the problem, since the people ending up in jail are mostly poor minorities and are not members of the ruling class. If we had equal sentencing for the different forms of drugs that resulted in celebrities and the friends and relatives of the affluent getting swept up and thrown in jail as well, there might be greater impetus for reforms.

As a result of all this, we now have a huge business sector that has a vested interested in seeing as many people incarcerated as possible, making reforms difficult, even though it is by now widely recognized that these so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws have been a disaster with then-New York Gov. David Paterson telling an audience in 2009 “I can’t think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller Drug Laws.”


  1. machintelligence says

    This is no doubt part of the answer, but look at what happened to crime rates in the last 50 years, especially violent crime. It headed up sharply in the 1970’s and only peaked in the 1990’s. At least some of the increase in incarcerations was surely due to this.
    Also some drug users/addicts should be locked up. It only takes one meth addict to cause a whole crime spree. We had one in Denver this week that involved four car/truck thefts, multiple accidents and people sent to the hospital.

  2. says

    I just finished this book for class called “The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease”, which details the shift in public and psychological opinion about schizophrenia from the early 20th century to the late 1970s. It went from being seen as a mental illness that affected restless, “incompetent” house wives (one case study says that a woman was institutionalized because she “acted out and embarrassed her husband in public”) to being seen as literally the product of black civil rights movements. Magazine articles, the DSM-II, and other sources racialized schizophrenia into something that caused aggressive masculinity in black men, and schizophrenia was either caused by engaging in the protest movement (according to white people) or by the long history of racism and the “double-consciousness” (DuBois, Ellison, others) of being an African American (according to black people).

    So, after the DSM-II was published, lots of black men were institutionalized with schizophrenia merely for being involved in protest movements or being violent (one case study follows a man who had just completed basic and infantry training and was on a short leave before shipping out to Vietnam. On leave, he was harassed by a few white men, a fight broke out, the police showed up and arrested the black man, even though he was the target. Then, when he expressed outrage at the injustice of his arrest, he was institutionalized as schizophrenic). And after deinstitutionalization (when a lot of non-violent institutionalized patients were released), schizophrenia was an excuse to keep black men incarcerated. Eventually the institution system transitioned into total incarceration, and here we are.

  3. baal says

    It offends my sense of morality to have private contracted prisons (let alone for profit). As Mano notes, the incentives are not to ‘do justice’ or fix societal problems but to maximize the prison population. Throw in the racial disparity issues and as a country, in some far off future, we’ll be looking back with shame at this era.

  4. jaxkayaker says

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that Obama had signed a bill into law correcting the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

  5. lanir says

    I’m trying to think of how one could possibly change the status quo on this without a major change from a whole lot of people. I think you’d need a well funded charity to sue for the right to serve the needs of prisoners or something and that might be how it could start. You probably couldn’t do it on private prisons at first. Change there would probably require results and shaming them into it as government run prisons start significantly outperforming them. It would take an awful lot of statistics too. Beyond just people not going back, you’d have to show the crimes committed by people who ended up back in prison and these statistics would have to clearly show increased victims as a result of more vengeful or uncaring imprisonment.

    And you’d have to hope you could do enough by volunteering to provide education and other services to make a noticeable difference. Because you probably couldn’t change the overall environment.

  6. brian faux says

    I saw a great documentary about the war against drugs called `the house that i live in` . Well worth a look on BBC or youtube.

  7. Mano Singham says

    I don’t think charities can sue because they would not have standing to do so. In order to have standing, you would need to show that you have been affected adversely by a policy.

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