The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. With 2.2 million people behind bars, and millions more on probation or parole, 1 in 35 American adults is caught up in the prison system. AJ+ teamed up with The Marshall Project to examine why…
The United State is exceptional, at least when it comes to being the world’s biggest jailer, 2.2 million people are imprisoned in the U.S.; more than in any country in the world. More than even China, who dwarfs America population-wise. When you count the people who aren’t just incarcerated, but on probation or parole the number sky-rockets to 6.9million that’s 1 in 35 American adults caught up in the prison system.
And for people of colour, it’s even worse. One out of every three African American men born today will go to jail or prison at some points in their lives, but why?
How did the so called Land of the Free put so many of its own citizens behind bars?
If you think it was always like this, it wasn’t.
Back in the 1960s US’s incarceration rates were the same as Europe’s, and if you think there’s just more crime in the United States, that’s not true either. The country’s crime rates are pretty much on par with the rest of the western world.
Alysia Santo, a writer at the Marshall Project, gave some insight: “The reason that America has the highest incarceration rate to put it simply, is ‘tough on crime’ policies.
“Over the past few decades, a number of very harsh policies have been enacted in state and federal legislatures. A lot of these had to do with longer sentences. Some of these have to do with so-called three-strikes-laws, which basically said that if you got in trouble three times, you have to be in prison, regardless, often of how petty those crimes were,” she said.
To get a sense of how prison-happy Americans are, consider that in Germany, only 6 percent of people convicted get locked up. Compare that to 70 percent of people convicted in the U.S and Americans wind up behind bars for longer. The average sentence in the U.S is three years, that’s three times longer than in Germany.
Harsh drug laws are also part of the problem
The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act instituted a mandatory minimum sentence of 5years without parole for possession of 5grams of crack.
Guess how much cocaine you had to possess to trigger the same minimum sentence? 500 grams! Interesting when you look at who consumes each drug more. Even though the law was recently relaxed, we’re still dealing with its effects.
And overall, black and white people use drugs at the same rate, but black men are almost 12 times more likely than white men to go to prison on drug offences.
When it comes to US soaring prison population, mental health also plays a role
About half of all incarcerated people suffer mental-health problems. For 10 to 25 percent of all prisoners, that means serious mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder drug and alcohol dependence is also common. And instead of getting help, many mentally ill people cycle through the system over and over again.
But it is not just the mentally ill who struggle to escape the cycle. Being convicted of a felony can follow someone long after their time is served. It can make getting a job, housing and an education even harder- and it also often means losing the right to vote. In Florida and Virginia, both key swing states in national elections, more than 1 in 5 black people are disenfranchised.
But the prison boom hasn’t been so bad for everyone.
Private prisons corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO group are actually profiting from it. The Corrections Corporation of America made $1.6 billion in revenue in 2014 alone. This is all part of what’s called a Prison Industrial Complex. And when 1 in 35 of Americans are directly caught up in it you’ve got to ask; just how free are the citizens are?
What Americans are saying
J.J. Lowery said: “Our prison systems are built on the premise of punishment not rehabilitation. We have some of the highest recidivism rates in the world and it’s certainly not by accident. The drug war disproportionately targets minorities in low income areas and companies have made it clear that they are unwilling to hire those with criminal records which perpetuates the cycle of crime.”
“Once it became profitable to incarcerate American citizens here in the United States the system was compromised and the system began to feed on itself i.e. judges, lawyers, probation and parole officers, wardens and correction officers as well as businesses build specifically on the backs of the inmate population, i.e. concessions and phone vendors. The conflict of interest is shamefully glaring. This isn’t about justice it’s about profit and greed and millions of lives are wasting away because of it, “Lespencer Roberts said.
“Add to that, prisons are owned and managed by private companies. The more prisoners, the more they get from government. This should explode one day.” – Nader