You are hereTruthout: How the Prison-Industrial Complex Destroys Lives

Truthout: How the Prison-Industrial Complex Destroys Lives

-By Mark Karlin

April 26, 2013- Marc Mauer is the executive director of The Sentencing Project, and the author of "Race to Incarcerate", which has just been released in graphic format, illustrated by Sabrina Jones, as "Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling" (The New Press).

Mauer's knowledge about the prison-industrial complex in the United States - which has the highest percentage of incarcerated individuals in the world - is extensive.  "Race to Incarcerate" is considered a landmark indictment of a system that locks the poor and minorities up with abandon, while largely neglecting support systems for reintegration back to society.

Furthermore, a large percentage of US prisoners are jailed for nonviolent drug "crimes," and they are largely black and Latino males. This creates a perpetual cycle of incarceration and re-incarceration for what one could argue are largely crimes of economic need or committed in environments where the only hope lies in drug use. And the imprisonment is at great cost to the American taxpayer, with funds that could be better spent improving the job prospects of those who are commodities for the prison-industrial complex.

Mark Karlin: In praising your original book "Race to Incarcerate," Julian Bond states that prisoners have become commodities in the United States. In what ways?

Marc Mauer: The question of whether persons convicted of a crime should be imprisoned or not is now increasingly influenced by economic interests. While prisons have long tended to be located in rural communities because of the availability of cheap land, this trend has accelerated in recent decades as a result of lobbying by rural officials. With declining economic prospects in many of these communities, many local leaders have come to view prisons as their best hope of economic opportunity through the jobs that are generated. In practice, this has not proven to be beneficial to these areas, but nonetheless rural legislators continue to seek such opportunities. Perhaps not coincidentally, many of these officials are also strong supporters of harsh sentencing policies.

These developments have taken a perverse direction as some states have managed to reduce their prison populations in recent years. In New York State, for example, despite a 25 percent decline in the prison population over the past decade, state officials trying to close prisons due to excess capacity have been met with great resistance from these same rural interests. Rather than pitting "rural" vs. "urban" interests, to move forward we should be exploring economic development strategies that will provide opportunity both in the urban neighborhoods from which a disproportionate share of the prison population originates and in the rural communities that are searching for reasonable sources of employment.

If we accept that many incarcerated individuals, particularly nonviolent drug offenders, are in prison unnecessarily, how did the US end up with the highest incarceration rate in the world?

In broad terms, this has been due to changes in policy, not crime rates. While rising crime rates from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s (in large part a function of the "baby boom" generation coming of age) helps to explain the early part of this rise, since 1980 the prison expansion has been primarily a result of "get tough" policies. These have been initiatives at both the state and federal level designed to send more people to prison and to keep them there for longer periods of time. Key developments in this regard have been the set of policies under the rubric of the "war on drugs," the expansion of mandatory sentencing and "three strikes" policies and cutbacks on parole release in many states. It is important to note that these policies have been politically inspired, and not necessarily based on research evidence on reducing crime.

The impact of these policies can be seen in a striking manner in examining life imprisonment. One of every 11 people in prison today is serving a life sentence, many of them with no chance of parole. While these individuals have largely been convicted of serious or violent offenses, such prison terms make no accommodation to recognize that the 18-year-old convicted of armed robbery may be a very different person by the age of 40, having "grown up" in prison. Continued incarceration beyond that point is hardly cost-effective for public safety and eliminates any possibility of a second chance in life.

Playing the devil's advocate, aren't there so-called hard-line-on-crime politicians and law enforcement officials who claim that the US crime rate has fallen because we are number one in tossing people in jail?

There's no question that prison has some impact on crime. We are all at least a little bit safer because people like Charles Manson or a serial rapist have been isolated from the community. But such individuals are hardly typical of the prison population.

We are now well past the point of diminishing returns regarding the ability of incarceration to affect crime. There are several reasons for this, with one key aspect being the types of people behind bars. With the growing population of persons convicted of a drug offense since the mid-1980s - the vast majority not the "kingpins" of the drug trade - we have increasingly locked up street-corner sellers and couriers who are quickly replaced on the streets. Unless we address the demand for drugs in significant ways, expanded imprisonment will do little to address substance-abuse problems.

Even to the extent that imprisonment has some impact on the crime rate, this doesn't tell us whether this is the most effective way to achieve these outcomes. In fact, a wealth of research documents that targeted investments in preschool programs, substance-abuse treatment and promoting high school graduation are more cost-effective in the long term.



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