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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 6/19/11

Private Prisons and the American Police State

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In the last few decades, the population of our National Prisons has nearly tripled. This phenomenon can be attributed to many factors ranging from the increasing economic insecurity to the War on Drugs. Statistics tell us that 1 in 18 American men are now incarcerated or being monitored.   Although this number could be reasonably justified as a reflection of our social morality breakdown, America still leads the world in per capita imprisonment and the privatization of the our corrections system calls into question the motives behind tougher sentencing and the ever increasing police state in this country.

Since 1980, the increase of population in prisons or under surveillance by the judicial system has increased to over 7 million persons. This increase is said to be attributable to the following factors:

  1. Increased federalization of crime - The federal government has expanded its control into areas that have historically fallen under state jurisdiction.
  1. Mandatory sentencing policy - Mandatory minimum sentencing policies adopted by Congress beginning in 1984 have contributed substantially to the number of drug offenders in federal prison, both by removing discretion from sentencing judges and increasing the length of sentence for many offenders.
  1. Federal sentencing guidelines - An examination of sentencing changes in the first years of the guidelines' implementation found that the proportion of offenders sentenced to prison rose from 52% in pre-guideline cases in 1986 to 74% in guideline cases by 1990.

What is interesting is how the population increase per year has leveled off to"only" a 51% increase annually. Some will use this statistic to congratulate the growing police state and mandatory sentencing structure but the real reason is a profound lack of new prisons to house the inmates. Couple this with the recent California Supreme Court Case ruling on prison overcrowding and the need for more prisons and their associative costs becomes a dilemma needing to be addressed.  

As Dana Joel explains:

"As a national average, it costs roughly $20,000 per year to keep an inmate in prison. There are approximately 650,000 inmates in state and local prisons, double the number five years ago. This costs taxpayers an estimated $18 billion each year.   More than two thirds of the states are facing serious overcrowding problems, and many are operating at least 50 percent over capacity."

As evidence of this overcrowding problem; the California Supreme Court recently ruled that overcrowding was unconstitutional because it results in "cruel and unusual punishment," a violation of the US Constitution's Eighth Amendment.   This translates to mean either the prisons release a portion of its population or it must finds ways to maintain the present prison nation many of our citizens exist in.

In her article, Joel goes on to explain what she believes is the impetus for the drastic increase in prison populations:

Destruction of the Family & Marriage . The destruction or non-formation of the two-parent family is heavily correlated with increased levels of juvenile delinquency and crime.

Illegal Drugs & the War on Drugs . New illegal drugs or new forms of those drugs were discovered and developed. A War on Drugs swelled the prison population. Unlike real war combatants who destroy or disable their enemies, the government only puts the enemy in cages temporarily, and then releases drug war POWs to fight another day.

Abolition of Parole in the Federal System . The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 abolished parole in the federal system, sought to eliminate huge sentencing disparities, basically made all federal sentences determinate, rejected "imprisonment as a means of promoting rehabilitation," and said "punishment should serve retributive, educational, deterrent, and incapacitative goals."

Mandatory Minimum Sentences . The federal government and states enacted various mandatory minimum sentence laws, requiring judges to impose minimum sentences for designated crimes, including drug crimes.

Three-Strikes Habitual Offender Laws . Three-strikes habitual offender laws in many states mandated life sentences after the third felony conviction.

Incarceration of the Mentally Ill . As mental hospitals de-institutionalized and drastically reduced the number of their patients, the mentally ill increasingly wound up in prison. Mentally ill people in large numbers changed from institutionalization in state mental hospitals to incarceration in state prisons. Around 16% of the current American prison population is mentally ill.

On the last factor:  The current push by Congressional members at both the Federal and State level to defund social programs dealing with mental health care creates an even grater need for not only prison beds but more established medical care facilities within them. More and more institutions under the control of the Department of Corrections are being opened to replace this standard, social model. Instead of help, the mentally ill receive jail time.   In a society where the new normal has become self-indulgence over the care of one's Earth bound brothers and sisters, this makes perfect sense but in the real world, it is a travesty of epic proportion.

As a population becomes more and more dense, the struggles to survive become greater and aggression increases within the social strata. This correlation creates a situation where crime rates increase dramatically, prompting the police force to increase proportionately. The result of the ensuing insanity is a judicial system which becomes overburdened with criminal case loads and by proxy, more people are sent to prison or into the controlling probation system.

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Steven Forrest is a Project Architect living in St. Petersburg, Florida. Currently, he is working to implement Green Building initiatives in several communities across Florida. Given the current situation in America and the continued (more...)
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