Ah, the United States of America.
The greatest country on earth. The land of the free and the home of the brave.
Well you wouldn’t know it by looking at the United State’s incarcerated population. In the 1980’s, the US prison population was roughly 500,000 people. In just twenty six years, the prison population grew to nearly 2.5 million people, an increase of almost 500%. In that same time period, the general United States population only grew about 24%.
This makes the United States the home of the world’s biggest prison population, with nearly 1 in 100 American adults in jail. Despite having less than five percent of the World’s population (at roughly 300 million people), we imprison 2.3 million people, or a quarter of the world’s prisoners. That’s more than China (a country 4 times more populous than the US), trailing a distant second with 1.6 million in prison.
This gargantuan increase in prison population cannot be attributed to violent crime; the United States’ violent crime rate is at its lowest point in decades. What it can be attributed to, however, is the failed “War on Drugs”.
The War on Drugs has been going on since the early 20th century, with the prohibition of alcohol, but it became an actual war in 1973 with the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency by then-President Richard Nixon. Ever since, the United States has been engulfed in a war against drugs on multiple fronts.
The most serious offense that 51 percent of our 2.3 million prisoners face are drug offenses, such as possession and/or consumption. Possession and consumption of drugs often carry ridiculously lengthy sentences, such as the Louisiana man who got 20 years of hard labor for possession of half an ounce (fifteen grams) of marijuana. Or the Missouri man who got life in prison without the possibility of parole for possession of five pounds of pot. Or another man who got 55 years in prison for selling marijuana to an undercover police officer. You get my point. These men will spend more time in jail than a man who raped a disabled girl (4-8 years) and more than a person who posses child pornography (5 years).
So what part does the CCA and the DEA play in all of this? And why should you care?
For those of you who don’t know, the CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) is a private business that owns and manages prisons and detention centers, with more than 60 facilities throughout the United States. (Note: the CCA has shareholders.) What they essentially do is convert prisons into for-profit businesses. Since many states are having financial woes, the CCA seems like a savior, as they are proposing to buy their prisons and run them in turn for money by the state and federal government. Many of the contracts they sign include lockup quotas, where the states guarantee to keep the prisons anywhere between 80 to 100 percent occupied. Since the CCA operates much like a hotel (they profit off the amount of beds they fill and the duration of the prisoners’ stay), these quotas create a perpetual demand for prison inmates. This demand for prisoners is fueled by the DEA and the sometimes ludicrous laws for petty possession (see above). The CCA itself listed the following as its risk factors to the SEC:
“The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”
Within the past ten years, the CCA has spent $19 million dollars lobbying congress. Where does this money go? In the pockets of conservative politicians, who are more likely to be in favor of stricter prison sentences for petty possessions and oppose legalization of marijuana.
The following video beautifully illustrates what the CCA does.
The CCA also uses these prisoners as a source of cheap (often times free) labor, thus creating further demand for prisoners and thus creating a generation of “new slaves“.
What this demand for prisoners also creates is a prison system that is focused on retribution rather than rehabilitation. In the United States, two thirds of prisoners return to jail within three years of their release, often with a more serious and/or violent offense. This can be traced back to the fact that we tend to hand the hardest punishments possible to our prisoners, unlike many European countries which tend to rehabilitate their prisoners to prevent them from returning to prison. Their tactics include giving their prisoners a surprising amount of liberty, such as having no armed guards or gates. And guess what… it works. The rehabilitation method coupled with other crime prevention systems has led the Netherlands to close eight prisons due to the lack of crime.
I am in no way advocating for the legalization of each and every drug, though the legalization of some (such as marijuana) can be beneficial to our economy. The decriminalization of many drugs would keep otherwise innocent people in prisons so we can use that money and funding for more important social issues, such as more funding for public universities. I am, however, advocating the treatment of addiction as a disease that it is rather than a crime.