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US Prison Industry Turns into "Gulag" Nightmare For Poor and Minorities

By       Message T. M. Elkins     Permalink
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A recent Reuters news article reports that in a new report by the JFA Institute, a Washington criminal-justice research group, researchers recently called the US prison system a "costly, harmful failure", and recommended "shorter sentences and parole terms, alternative punishments, more help for released inmates and decriminalizing recreational drugs as steps to cut the prison population in half, save $20 billion a year and ease social inequality without endangering the public. "

Just how bad is the US prison system? For one thing, it's entirely bloated with inmates. The United States is now in the unenviable position of having the world's highest incarceration rate, followed by Russia, according to 2006 figures compiled by Kings College in London.

Duncan Campbell, in the Los Angeles Times, states, "Anger grows as America jails its two millionth inmate. The land of the free is now home to 25% of the entire world's prison population."

America now has a gulag-type system, overfull with nonviolent offenders and petty criminals who make up the bulk of its population. The JFA report cites, among other things, the example of a woman in Florida now serving a "two-year sentence for throwing a cup of coffee".

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Despite repeated criticism from experts from a variety of fields, including law enforcement, politicians continue to emphasize "get tough on crime", and states continue to build enormous prisons, at huge cost to taxpayers and society. Indeed, the prison "industry" has become America's second largest industry, with many states allowing "privatised" prisons to take over the duty of housing, clothing a feeding prisoners. By 1996, one out of four adults in America owed their employment to America's prison industry.

Meanwhile, these "privatized prisons" are raking in millions of dollars for their owners. Who foots the bill? American taxpayers, many of them relatives of those who are being imprisoned for parking fines, speeding or passing bad checks.

The new JFA Institute report said the prison population is projected to grow by another 192,000 in five years, which is expected to cost taxpayers $27.5 billion to build and operate additional prisons- this at a time in which less money is available for education, healthcare or infrastructure. While millions of law-abiding Americans lack basic necessities such as food, shelter and clothing, the prison industry is still going strong.

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Reuters reported, "Although the U.S. crime rate began declining in the 1990s it is still about the same as in 1973, the JFA report said. But the prison population has soared because sentences have gotten longer and people who violate parole or probation, even with minor lapses, are more likely to be imprisoned."

" 'The system is almost feeding on itself now. It takes years and years and years to get out of this system and we do not see any positive impact on the crime rates,' JFA President James Austin, a co-author of the report, told a news conference."

There have been "decades of broad U.S. public and political support for getting tough on criminals through longer, harsher prison terms", resulting in a phenomenal increase in the number of prisoners. Since the 1970's, the number of prisoners has been rising steadily. In 1980, the US jail population was 500,000. By 1987 or so, it doubled to 1,000,000. By 2000 it has surpassed 2,000,000. At this rate, given a rough estimate of 300 million people living in the USA, everyone will be incarcerated by the year 2057....if the US still exists by then, of course.

The "get tough" rhetoric employed by lawmakers and politicians carries with it an insidious side- the spectre of racism. Politicians began using "crime hysteria" in the 1970's and 80's as a campaign tactic, often alluding to race by using "code words" to refer to black criminals. With the increasing decline in well-paid jobs and a general malaise in the economy causing the gap between poor and rich to rise, it was necessary to find an outlet for white middle-class rage. Politicians found it easy to aviod addressing domestic anxieties by using poor, disenfranchised minorities as "scapegoats", just as now immigrants and muslims are being targeted.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, "Today, "thousands of young black men are serving long prison sentences for selling cocaine -- a drug that was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the CIA's army brought it into South-Central in the 1980s at bargain- basement prices."

While the US government under Ronald Reagan imported tons of cocaine to the US through the CIA in the 1980's, new laws, such as NY's Rockefeller drug laws, were used as a pretext to lock up huge numbers of drug dealers- all of them working for the CIA.

Because of these punitive drug-sentencing laws, minorities have borne the brunt of nefarious mandatory minimum sentencing policies. According to researchers, "At current rates, one-third of all black males, one-sixth of Latino males, and one in 17 white males will go to prison during their lives."

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The cost to society, in terms of social breakdown, poverty, mental and physical health, is incalculable. Many of those who are released find it nearly impossible to return to society and find work. They then become a burden to society. Worse yet, the report notes that, "Women represent the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. The result is increased social and racial inequality." Sometimes these women give birth in prison, and, unable to care for their children, they are forced to send their children into foster care.

"The massive incarceration of young males from mostly poor- and working-class neighborhoods, and the taking of women from their families and jobs, has crippled their potential for forming healthy families and achieving economic gains," it said.

The article stated that there are some "signs of shifting attitudes on sentencing policies". According to Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, "Some financially strapped states are shortening sentences and Congress is moving toward bipartisan passage of increased help for released prisoners. Compared to where we were in the mid-(19)90s, it's been a very significant change."

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Born in Camden, NJ, now living in Germany, T.M. Elkins is an educator, author, composer, jazz musician and singer, and founder of Christians against Bush. She eschews labels and "isms", is non-denominational and firmly believes in modern secular (more...)

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