The Crisis in America’s Prisons

This article is not about the scandal of Abu Ghraib or even the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Both situations have been the subject of extensive reporting, investigations, and court proceedings.

This article is about the crisis in America’s own domestic prison system-a crisis of enormous proportions that has not received the attention required to force needed change.

Alan Elsner, a veteran Reuters correspondent, has addressed this crisis in a new book, Gates of Injustice. The book paints a shocking portrait of a situation about which most Americans know very little.

The statistics Elsner presents are staggering. There are, he notes, over 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S., giving the U.S. the highest per capita prison population in the industrialized world. For example, while in the U.S., 702 out of 100,000 persons are in prison, the next highest is Russia, where 628 out of 100,000 are incarcerated. The numbers for the United Kingdom and France are only 138 and 90 respectively.

Even more disturbing is the fact that this extraordinarily high U.S. ratio is a development of the last three decades. In 1972, for example, only 160 out of 100,000 people in the U.S. were in prison. To get a sense of the magnitude of this problem, according to Elsner’s calculations, the U.S., with five percent of the world’s population, has 25% of the world’s prisoners. Elsner quotes Rev. Jesse Jackson: "We are often tempted to think of China as an oppressive country, but we incarcerate 500,000 more people in this country-despite the fact that we have less than one-fourth of the population of China. We lock up our poor, our uneducated, our unruly, our unstable and our addicted, where other countries provide treatment, mental hospitals and care."

Minority groups in the U.S. are the most affected. Elsner notes that one in eight African American males between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars. One out of 25 Hispanics in the same age group is imprisoned. Overall, one out of three African American males and one out of five Hispanic males will most probably be imprisoned in their lifetime.

All of this comes at a huge cost. As Elsner points out, the cost of running the U.S. prison system is now more than $57 billion per year. This compares with the entire federal Department of Education budget of only $42 billion.

The contrast can be seen now more dramatically on the state level. Elsner observes that in the last decade, the State of California university system laid off 10,000 employees, while the state added an additional 10,000 prison guards. California, it appears, spends $6000 per year per student attending university, while spending $34,000 per year for every prisoner it holds behind bars.

The "corrections industry" as it has come to be called, is a rapidly expanding growth industry in the U.S. Increasingly, the system is being privatized with major companies bidding for lucrative contracts to build and run U.S. prisons. As Elsner notes, the U.S.’s "corrections industry" now employs more people than General Motors, Ford and Wal-Mart combined.

But this only defines one aspect of this issue. More disturbing are the shocking details of prison abuse and neglect that define the daily lives of those who are incarcerated. Instead of providing an environment that seeks to "correct" or rehabilitate those who are behind bars, a violent culture of brutality and extremism has been nurtured within the prison system. Violent gangs, often imbued with racist and extremist ideologies run free. Weaker prisoners are violently abused, often sexually, and drugs are, it appears, as available within prison as they are on the outside. According to Elsner, "hundreds of thousands of men are raped each year. . . .Racist and neo-Nazi gangs run drugs, gambling and prostitution rings from inside their prison cells, buying and selling weak and vulnerable fellow inmates as sex slaves, while authorities turn a blind eye." As a result, individual prisoners once released are often more violent, more addicted, angrier and less able to function in society than they were when they entered the system.

Elsner notes the growing problem of abuse of female prisoners. Almost 200,000 women are behind bars. Over two-thirds are mothers. Elsner notes that many are preyed upon by other more violent female inmates, or by their guards.

How did this problems grow to these monstrous proportions? Elsner targets the acceptance by both parties of a "get tough on crime" philosophy that has held sway since the 1970s. During this time, the prison population in the U.S. increased 400%. Almost two-thirds of those arrested were simple drug users, and most of them African American or Hispanic. Meanwhile, law enforcement turned a blind eye to white drug abuse and failed to deal more effectively with stopping the flow of drugs into the U.S.

During this same period, federal budget cuts of needed social services have also fed the problem. Elsner notes, "While gutting much of its social safety net by slashing welfare programs, subsidized housing for the poor and treatment for the mentally ill, the United States turned incarceration into de facto final destination for those unable to find a place for one reason or another in our education-based, high-tech, winner-take-all economy."

Gates of Injustice not only details the problem of a brutal system run amuck, it also provides a wide range of proposals for reform of this broken institution.

Though the release of his book was overshadowed by the revelation of abuse at Abu Ghraib, there is a connection between the two problems. It turns out that some of the more brutal offenders at Abu Ghraib were, in civilian life, guards in U.S. prisons. It appears that the culture of abuse cultivated at home was, in this instance, exported with devastating consequences.

The solution begins with recognizing the magnitude of the problem. In this regard, Elsner’s book makes an invaluable contribution.