Since the 1970s the prison population in the USA has grown by leaps and bounds. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies:
“No country incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States at 716 per 100,000 people”.
This fact stands out in light of our claim to being the "beacon of Freedom”. It is necessary that we ask why... Why do we lock away our people at such an outrageous rate? Unsurprisingly the answer to this question may lie at the very heart of our socio-economic ideal. At the very core of this issue is a version of capitalism ...expressed as unbridled, rapacious greed.
Vicky Pelaez writes the following in an article titled “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?” :
“There are approximately 2 million inmates in state, federal and private prisons throughout the country. According to California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.” The figures show that the United States has locked up more people than any other country: a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. Statistics reveal that the United States holds 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 5% of the world’s people. From less than 300,000 inmates in 1972, the jail population grew to 2 million by the year 2000. In 1990 it was one million. Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are 100, with 62,000 inmates. It is expected that by the coming decade, the number will hit 360,000, according to reports."
Addressing the same issue, Andy Kroll writes the following in an article titled “This Is How Private Prison Companies Make Millions Even When Crime Rates Fall” published in Mother Jones magazine, Sept 2013:
“We are living in boom times for the private prison industry. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation's largest owner of private prisons, has seen its revenue climb by more than 500 percent in the last two decades. And CCA wants to get much, much bigger: Last year, the company made an offer to 48 governors to buy and operate their state-funded prisons. But what made CCA's pitch to those governors so audacious and shocking was that it included a so-called occupancy requirement, a clause demanding the state keep those newly privatized prisons at least 90 percent full at all times, regardless of whether crime was rising or falling.
Occupancy requirements, as it turns out, are common practice within the private prison industry. A new report by In the Public Interest, an anti-privatization group, reviewed 62 contracts for private prisons operating around the country at the local and state level. In the Public Interest found that 41 of those contracts included occupancy requirements mandating that local or state government keep those facilities between 80 and 100 percent full. In other words, whether crime is rising or falling, the state must keep those beds full.”
Stop for a moment and let that sink in... The prison industrial complex wants the jails full even if crimes numbers are in decline. What are the implications of this demand for the way our justice system operates? It is time for a critical examination of the process of what is blatantly an “injustice system”. Can a society that ignores this fact escape its consequences? When our aspiring candidates for political office talk about being “hard on crime”, let us loudly interrupt them and ask them how much money they are getting from this prison industrial complex. Are they and the judges we elect the compliant cronies of the system of injustice which now exists to target the poor and underprivileged in our communities...especially our communities of color? Paul Waldman writing in The American Prospect observes the following:
"... you can't talk about prisons without talking about race. African Americans in particular are over-represented in prisons; though they are 13 percent of the population, they made up 38 percent of the population of state prisons.... The crimes that landed them there, however, are not too different from their white and Hispanic counterparts. Eighteen percent of blacks in state prisons were convicted of drug crimes, compared to 15 percent of whites and 17 percent of Hispanics."
In addition to the disproportionate number of persons of color in our jails, it is also a fact that the US imprisons more women than any other country. This raises other disturbing questions about the political culture being perpetuated here. Think for a moment about the history of the disenfranchisement of women and minorities in this country's politics. In a democracy such as ours one may ask... in fact must ask... who benefits from the disenfranchisement of this part of the potential electorate which is disproportionately affected by our present policies on incarceration? Is the excessive incarceration of women and people of color a way of thwarting the process of democratization? Does it tilt the balance of electoral power in favor of the same influences that historically wanted exactly that state of affairs? These are questions worthy of further examination. Is this in fact jerrimandering via incarceration?
Let us be very clear about what is at stake here. There are inescapable consequences of this kind of injustice. The institutions in our communities must begin to take this issue to heart. We must do more than is being done to conscientize our fellow citizens about this problem.The proliferation of “prison ministries” focusing on saving the proverbial “soul” is unlikely to “change the hearts” of the captives in this new system of slavery. The prisoners are more aware than the preachers that the dichotomy assumed between their physical and spiritual needs is a false one. The “ship” called “Jesus” is not being employed to carry these people away from the degradation and misery and disenfranchisement created by a system of greed and it's corrupted agents. The true “gospel of salvation” that is appropriate in this circumstance is predicated in the powerful, sometimes controversial message of the Prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To grant those who mourn in Zion,
Giving them a garland instead of ashes,
The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting.
So they will be called oaks of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:1-3)
When Yeshua (Jesus) adapted this passage to the goals of his own ministry in Nazareth, the place where he grew up, those representing the status quo were so enraged with him that they attempted to “throw him off a cliff”. It didn't matter that they were “in the synagogue on the sabbath day”. Let us be crystal clear...there must be no collusion between those who stand for Righteousness/Justice and those who facilitate the oppression of the poor. Persons unjustly held and treated like chattel in an industry that predicates it's future success on their dehumanization need us not just to speak up, but to act to bring about the change necessary to set them free.