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Could Sending People to Prison Actually Cause Crime?
By Ed Mead
According to the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the nation's state and federal prison population increased by 42,862 prisoners, or six percent, during the first half of 1990. BJS director Steve Dilligham said: "the annual increase of more than 80,000 inmates from midyear 1989 to midyear 1990 was the largest annual growth in 65 years of prison population statistics." The increase in the percentage of women being sent to prison continued to outpace that of men, reaching 7.1 percent for the first half of the year. In Washington State, from mid-1989 t mid-1990, the percent of increase in the state's prison population was a whopping 16.0 percent. Nationally, the number of prisoners per capita reached a record 289 persons incarcerated in state and federal prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents.
Columnist Herb Robinson, writing for the Seattle Times, reports that the percentage of felons sentenced to alternatives to confinement has decreased form 25% in 1982 to only 7% of all felons in 1988. Robinson said, "If present policy directions were correct, there'd be less pressure for building...more prison space. Plainly, the policies now in place are not working."
How do we measure whether the existing correctional policies are working? One good means is by checking the crime rates. If locking more and more people up for longer and longer periods of time had some positive benefit there might be some justification for arguing for a continuation of a failing system of corrections. But are people in fact any safer today? The latest FBI statistics show that murders in the largest U.S. cities jumped by 20% during the first six months of 1990, and the percentage in Seattle was considerably above the national average. The Uniform Crime Rate Report also shows that during the same period rape and assault were up by 10%, and robbery was up by 9%. These increases boosted the overall violent crime index rate to 8% higher than the same period last year.
An argument could be made for the ridiculous proposition that prisons are the cause of crime. The more people you put in them the more crime there is! Today we have some 1.2 million Americans, more than the population of Sand Diego (the nation's sixth largest city), locked up behind bars. And the count is jumping at record rates.
At the present rate of growth in the national prison population, warns Warren Cikins of the Brookings Institution, more than half of all Americans will be in prison by the year 2053. [U.S. News & World Report, 10-22-90, p. 22] The other half of the population will presumably be working in the burgeoning corrections industry.
Crime is not of course caused by prisons, even if these institutions do work to perpetuate it. Crime is rooted in a decaying social system and the poverty, discrimination and rage it creates. Collapsing social systems, from slave-holding Rome to feudal London, have traditionally relied upon more and more repression as the means to maintain their order. They could not see crime as a mere symptom of deeper malady.
In seventeenth century England the intensity of repression grew until at one point such modest offenses as chopping down a tree on a public lane, killing a rabbit, or the picking of a pocket were all capital crimes. The fact that such intense levels of repression were not at all effective was lost on the feudal ruling class. Indeed, pickpockets would be diligently picking the pockets of the crowd who had gathered to witness the execution of a pickpocket.
Our capitalist ruling class, like its feudal predecessor, will ultimately pass into the dustbin of history. But between now and then there is much work to be done in the direction of educating the public. We on the inside, and our loved ones on the streets, are the only people capable and positioned to communicate these realities. Yesterday the forces of repression were targeting sex offenders. Today they are doing the same thing to us. Tomorrow they will be doing to the community what they are doing to us. We must put people on their guard.
When people walk on each other, when disharmony is the norm, when organisms start falling apart, it is the fault of those whose responsibility it is to govern. They're doing something wrong. They shouldn't have been trusted with the responsibility. And long-range political activity isn't going to help the man who will die tomorrow or tonight...
-- George Jackson
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