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Imprisoning the Masses:
The Dark Side of
a Prison State

by Jeffrey-John Nunziata, Iconoclast

art/Marty Kelley

There's a place on this planet that is unlike many other nations. It is a dismal place. A place where there are more individuals incarcerated than anywhere else on earth. It's a place where fairness has seemed to fail. It's a place where the streets are the safest they have been in a quarter-century and yet the number of individuals imprisoned continues to rise. You've probably conjured up smoke-colored images of the former Soviet Union, a darkened Communist Chinese prison cell or maybe some nameless dictatorship in a foreign speaking land with lots of palm trees.


This place isn't as far away as you might have thought. Look around you ... you're living in it. The United States of America leads the world in incarceration with imprisonment rates of 6-10 times that of most industrialized nations. We've even passed Russia! (GO AMERICA! USA! USA!) Now this may seem odd but violent crime and murders in the U.S. continue to keep falling and yet our prison population continues to rise. The United States has attained a sort of milestone as of late. We've achieved the highest incarceration rate in human history for non-political offenses.

Traditionally, the relationship between incarceration and crimes is inconsistent. Incarceration rates continue to rise even though crimes are down. When you look at the primary offense categories by percentage for the state of Florida, we see that the largest number of individuals imprisoned in our great state are there for drugs. There are about four times the percentage of people behind bars for drugs than for murder and manslaughter. Three times the number of sexual offenses and double that of forgery, theft and fraud. We can thank former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was the father of mandatory sentencing laws for this current situation. He was the first to "push mandatory sentencing" with all of the other governors following suit.

With mandatory sentencing, we have seen a large increase in the number of people incarcerated for drug related offenses. For the fiscal year 1996-1997, drug offenses in Florida made up over 22 percent of prison admissions by type of offense. As more individuals are getting caught for drug related crimes, in both Florida and the United States, we have to keep building more prisons to house them all. In the past 20 years, America has built about a thousand new prisons. Keep in mind that in other nations of the world, many individuals who are caught with a joint or two have to pay some kind of fine and maybe even do a little community service. Not in the United States though. We throw 'em in jail, "that's the American way."

Jail may be free in that the individual imprisoned doesn't have to pay for their incarceration with cash, but the tax payers do. A 1997 study indicates that the average cost for incarceration is $34,200 an inmate. That's more money than the median income of an average American household. This cost has inflated 716 percent since 1947 and continues to rise with taxpayers paying more each year just to keep up with the growing prison population.

Considering the recidivism rates of drug offenders, the current set up isn't working. We are more or less throwing away human lives by placing productive members of society into prisons with hardened criminals. Imagine some skateboarder dude who had a couple of joints on him locked in a jail cell with some violent criminal. Or maybe some dead-head hippie type locked in with some rapist. I think you get the idea. Many studies show that when people like this come out of prison after long sentences behind bars, they become non-productive dysfunctional members of society. To quote a member of Amnesty International,

"American prisons are places of punishment, not rehabilitation. Casual drug users thrown into a typical prison environment suffer substantial mental damage causing them in many cases to drop out of society."

In a sense, by keeping these individuals imprisoned for long periods of time and not providing appropriate proactive rehabilitation, we are almost guaranteeing that upon release into society, these individuals will probably mess up yet again and wind up back behind bars. It's as if the prison system wants this to happen. Think about it for a moment. They know the current incarceration system doesnąt work, and yet they continue with it. The reason for this is actually quite simplistic when you do a little digging. It's all about money.

Prisons in the United States have become a big business. There is a "prison boom" occurring due to several factors. First of all, we have conservative legislators occupying more positions of power. They are some of the most vocal in regards to mandatory sentencing for drug users. They then work in cooperation with local government officials to bring a boost to local economies by building prisons in mainly suburban and rural areas. Building prisons creates jobs as does staffing them. The latest trend in prisons is privatization.

Prison privatization continues to grow over the objections of labor unions and prisoner advocates. Over 25 states have at least one privatized prison. These new prison businesses have plenty of room for growth since less than 3 percent of all of those in prison are in "private prisons." Analysts predict 25 percent growth in private prisons over the next five years and a growth in prison costs.

When you look at who is imprisoned we see that men are over eight times more likely than women to be incarcerated in prison at least once in their lifetime. Among men, blacks are about twice as likely as Hispanics and about 6 times more likely than whites to be admitted to prison during their life. It's interesting to point out that with a large number of black men imprisoned, one in every 14, many of them are housed in new rural prisons staffed by white guards with little education. Racial tensions continue to grow even in these new-and-improved modern prisons.

To quote President Clinton on Jan. 19, 1999, "The State of the Union is strong and the promise of the future is limitless." Yet there is a dark side to this America. If trends continue in incarceration, an estimated 1 in every 20 persons (5 percent) will serve some time in a prison in their lifetime. Maybe if we have a 51st state, we should call it "the prison state." After all, there are more people living in prison than in some states in the union. •

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