Critical Facts About the Nation’s Prisons

The United States incarcerates more people than any other industrialized country in the world. Between 1975 and 1990, the number of inmates in state and federal prisons increased by almost 200 percent. By 1998, one in every 150 U.S. residents was incarcerated. In 2000, the number of incarcerated men and women reached 2 million.

Shifts in Crime Policy and the Curtailing of Remedies

Even more disturbing than these statistics is the fact that the prison population will continue to grow. This continued growth is the direct result of recent shifts in crime policy. These shifts are reflected, for example, in the proliferation of:

  • “Three strikes” laws, which mandate that any person convicted of three felonies must be sentenced to life without parole;
  • Proposals to end or severely limit parole;
  • The escalation of the war on drugs
  • Mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent crimes; and
  • Increased federalization of certain categories of crime.
There are those who think prisons should ban weights.  “If I didn’t have lifting,” said a prisoner in New Jersey, “I’d be in lockdown every day . . . How would I vent my energy?”

Each of the above factors will ensure that the number of incarcerated people will continue to rise. Yet as the number of incarcerated people increases, remedies for human rights violations are being legislatively and judicially curtailed. This trend was most dramatically demonstrated with the signing of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which severely limits the ability of individuals, non-governmental organizations, and even the Department of Justice to challenge abusive prison conditions through litigation.

Focus on Race and Gender

The growth of the prison population and the curtailing of remedies raises some serious questions with respect to both race and gender. Among the 2 million people who are currently locked up, more than 70 percent are people of color. Black men are 5 percent of the total U.S. population, but the comprise half of the prison inmate population. Although it is rarely acknowledged, women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population, with African-American and Latina women being hardest hit by this increase.

Growth of the Prison Industrial Complex

The trend toward mass incarceration has spurred the creation of a “prison industrial complex,” which refers to the emerging system of government bureaucrats, private industry, and politicians who work together to expand the criminal justice system. Rather than a conspiracy behind closed doors, the prison industrial complex is described as “a confluence of special interests that has given prison construction a seemingly unstoppable momentum.” According to journalist Eric Schlosser, these interests include:

  • Politicians, both liberal and conservative, who have used the fear of crime to gain votes;
  • Impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of economic development;
  • Private companies that regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers, but as a lucrative market;
  • Government officials whose freedoms have expanded along with the inmate population.

Finally, it is significant to note that this push to build new prisons has come at a time when the rate of violent crime has actually FALLEN!