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David Ladipo

JAN-FEB 7 2001

Bill Clinton memorably entered the White House over the body of poor, lobotomized Ricky Ray Rector, whose execution he hurried back from the inaugural ceremonies to attend in Arkansas. As he departs, the American prison population stands at two million, an all-time high, up from 1,429,000 in 1992, with a disproportionately soaring rate of incarceration among young African-American men, His administration saw the introduction at the federal level of the "three-strikes-you're-out" sentencing policy, which imposed life prison terms, without parole, on a third conviction, and increased penalties for drug-related crimes in the federal Sentencing Commission's mandatory guidelines. It actively promoted "truth-in-sentencing" provisions by which prisoners were made to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before parole. These policies, in conjunction, lead to an unprecedented increase in federal funding for the states? numerous new prison-building projects.

American incarceration rates are now proportionately six times higher than those of Britain, Canada or France. In addition, another 3.2 million Americans are on probation, and 685,000 on parole.

This surge in prison numbers has not been the result of a sudden crime boom but of deliberate changes in US criminal justice and sentencing practice. The introduction of "three strikes", "truth-in-sentencing" and "zero tolerance" policies across the country hugely increased the number of arrests and prison sentences, and the length of time served.

The number of prisoners doing time for relatively minor, non-violent offenses has also soared, accounting for 70 percent of all new prisoners in US state prisons: in 1996, for example, over 400,000 prisoners are held for drug offenses alone. While the "three strikes" policies are usually assumed to refer to convictions for violent felony, in some states, including California, only the first two offenses need come from a specifically enumerated list of "serious" crimes -- a list which, astonishingly, includes pure property crimes, like burglaries involving no victim contact where the amount of property in question amounts to less than $500. The third strike can be any felony, no matter how trivial, committed at any subsequent time. Juveniles have no right to trial by jury, yet their offenses can also be counted as "strikes." A sixteen-year-old who steals from two neighbors' garages in the same afternoon can get two strikes levied against him as a result of only one guilty plea.

The only justification for these brutalizing sentencing policies, as propounded by Clinton, Bush and Gore (and parroted by their conservative British counterparts) , is the mantra, "prison works" -- that high levels of imprisonment will reduce crime rates and deter serious drug abuse. But do America's harsh new incarceration practices actually achieve this?

The most reliable source of inter-country difference in crime rates, the International Crime Victimization Survey (ICVS) fails to confirm the relationship between high levels off imprisonment and low crime rates. The latest survey shows that America's overall victimization figures remain around average for the sample shown: despite the swollen size of the US prison population, American citizens are just as likely to be victimized as the inhabitants of other countries with far fewer prisons actually run a greater risk of homicide and "aggressive contact crime" (like robbery, sexual assault and other violent attacks).

A closer examination of US Justice Department statistics reveals, in fact, an extraordinary absence of correlation between prison population and crime rates. Between 1977 and 1996, there were two spells (1980-84 and 1991-96) when the rise in incarceration rates did coincide with a fall in crime rates; but there were also periods (1977-80 and 1984-91) when the crime rate rose, despite the growth in the prison population.

Another illustration of the overall failure of America's prison policy to reduce crime can be found by looking at interstate variations in the relationship between crime and incarceration rates. Here, one might expect states with the steepest increases in imprisonment to have the slowest growth in crime. Instead, as UC Berkeley law school?s professor Franklin Zimring has shown, incarceration rates were poor predictors of change in crime rates during the 1980s. Applying Zimring's technique to the available state-level data for 1990-96 shows that, if anything, the correlation was even weaker.

The correlation coefficient between the percentage changes in crime and incarceration rates actually fell, from 0.32 during the period 1980-90, to 0.15 for 1990-96. Thus, interstate variations in prison expansion explain less than 3 percent of the variation in interstate crime rates confounding any attempt to establish a straight line relationship between the two. Of the wide range of social and economic forces that may affect the crime rate, the deterrent effect of tough sentencing policies clearly plays, at best, a limited role.

If prison growth has had little effect in reducing "victim" crimes, it has made even less of an impact on the rate of serious drug use. The number of prisoners incarcerated annually for drug offenses rose more than twelve fold between 1979 and 1997-from 18,000 to 227,000 -- without any demonstrable effect on the availability of illicit narcotics or the prevalence of "hard-core" use. The percentage of high-school seniors who thought it "fairly easy" (88 percent) or "very easy" (89 percent) to get hold of marijuana remained unchanged between 1975 and 1995, while the number who thought it easy to get hold of hard drugs actually increased. The rising purity of the drugs entering the US market has contributed to a four-fold increase in drug-related deaths over the past twenty years, and the government's irresponsible prohibition of needle possession has helped the expansion of HIV and Hepatitis C epidemics. "We can't incarcerate ourselves out of this problem," Barry McCaffrey, the four-star general who heads the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has admitted. "We have a failed social policy and it has to be re-evaluated."

As a direct crime control mechanism, America's prison boom and soaring incarceration rates clearly fail to work. One reason for this is the sheer buoyancy of the US criminal economy, especially the domestic drug market, offering career opportunities and glamorous lifestyle choices that far outstrip flipping burgers, telesales or stacking shelves. In this sense, each new incarceration merely creates another job vacancy, swiftly filled. To hope that prison bars will staunch the flow of crime here is like using a fishing net to hold back water. A second reason for the prison boom's failure lies in the demographics of crime commission: young men's offense rates for armed robbery and burglary peak by the age of seventeen, and fall to half peak-rate by their twenty-first birthday; in contrast, the average prisoner is thirty years old -- clearly on the downside of their criminal careers. Each succeeding year of incarceration for a typical offender is therefore buying less crime control: the three-strikes life-sentencing policy is particularly egregious in this regard.

Third, in terms of curbing violent crime, there can only be diminishing returns in pushing up sentencing rates. Given that the crimes of the majority of violent offenders were already addressed under existing laws, a significant increase in incarceration rates could only take place through the imprisonment of non-violent, property and drug offenders. The swelling prison population has therefore been made up of ever less serious offenders. Finally, despite the demagogy, and irrespective of the sums invested in law enforcement agencies, the majority of crimes still remain unresolved. In 1994, for example, there were an estimated 3.9 million commissions in the US of rape, robbery, aggravated assault and/or homicide. Just under half of these (1.9 million) were reported to the police and, of these, about 41 percent, or 779,000, resulted in an arrest. In turn, only 18 percent of these arrests led to a felony conviction, of which 82 percent were actually sentenced to prison. In other words, the 117,000 prison sentences represented just 3 percent of all the serious violent offenses originally committed.

Aspects of crime control that really have served the local community for example, the New York Police Department's gun-confiscation policy -- which claims to have taken 50,000 guns off the streets since 1993 -- have not necessarily involved prison sentences. Since 1994, however, one policy had decided impact, when legislation barring confiscated guns from resale at public auction was enacted. Better gun control would clearly be a cheaper and more effective way of reducing violent crime.

Ratcheting up the Hysteria

Given the manifest failure of America's experiment in mass incarceration to reduce the country's crime rates, how can we account for the push to expand the prison rolls still further? The strategy of "retaking the city" was proclaimed in the early nineties by former New York City Police Commissioner and "zero tolerance" hero, William Bratton. But retaking it from whom? The leadership that had once posed a real challenge to the forces of law and order in American cities -- when armed and educated Black Panthers cruised the streets behind police patrol cars, reading out the constitutional rights of young African-Americans whenever an arrest was made -- ¬had largely been wiped out during the Nixon years, going down in a hail of police bullets (as orchestrated by the CIA's nefarious anti-American leftist movement program, or COINTELPRO), or dispatched on doubtful evidence to Death Row. (Since then, community leaders have regularly accused state forces of introducing hard drugs and accelerating gangsterization in the angry and demoralized inner cities.) A turning point came with Reagan's Comprehensive Crime Control Act (1984), a victory for the rightist agenda on policing as a means of coping with the increased social and economic tensions and insecurities that Reaganomic restructuring brought. Two years later, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act vastly extended the field of potential convicts by unleashing, for the first time, proactive strikes against drug users: `The war on drugs', as Tupac put it, "is a war on you and me", and the numbers arrested on drug-related charges-often of the most minor sort-soared from 8oo,ooo in 1985 to 1.4 million by 1989.

Far from restoring "order," aggressive police action has provoked wide scale riots (Rodney King) as well as organized protest (Amadou Diallo).

Yet opportunist politicians have consistently ratcheted up the odds, cynically inflaming and exploiting racist sentiments for their own narrow electoral ends. George Bush Sr. fought the 1988 Presidential election on "getting tough" with the likes of paroled African-American convict Willie Horton while Clinton, as we have seen, took the practice to greater heights with the execution of the unfortunate Ricky Ray Rector, who was clearly unaware of what was happening to him, and who had told his attorney just hours before he died that he was "going to vote for Clinton in the fall."

Political Pork and Bad Economics

If base political opportunism and a willingness to exploit and exacerbate punitive, racist responses to social fears is one major cause of the incarceration boom, another is the desperate economic blight that has affected large swaths of small-town America. Capital flight overseas of the 80s and 90s brought particular economic devastation upon such communities, causing a dramatic shift in attitudes toward prison-building. Historically, small towns and municipalities have been reluctant to build large carceral institutions, preferring instead to cut off their relief outlay and drive their ?vagrants and criminals? out, which in turn caused a swell in migrant populations of the great metropolitan cities. Only a few decades ago, small-town America found the notion of prisons in its backyard so unacceptable that many communities sued their state governments to keep them out. Declining local economies have seen an upending of this previous stance, which has morphed into an intense competition for prisons-siting where the local factory used to reside.

Cameron, Missouri, is a typical case. One of the state's most economically unstable towns, it was hit harder still in the 1980s: stores were going out of business, no homes had been built in years and the popu¬lation was slipping away. Attempts to attract other industries came to nothing. Then town leaders heard that the Missouri state government was looking for a site for a medium-security prison, and began rallying support to lure the 2,000-bed facility to their town. They won the con¬tract, securing 250 jobs and increasing Cameron's population by 1,000, swelling tax revenues in the process.

As the town's development officer put it, "We went fishing for perch and came up with catfish. But I'll tell you this, we're not going to throw it back." Soon a prison feeding frenzy began, with twelve more towns vying for contracts to house Missouri's next three prisons.

Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Del Norte County, California, proved an even more dramatic example. By the mid-eighties, only four of the area's seventeen sawmills were still in operation, the salmon fishing industry was dead and over a hundred local businesses had closed down; unemployment was over 20 percent. In 1989, the local politicos clinched a deal with the California Department of Corrections, providing cheap, unincorporated land, laying on water, sewage and power lines, and soothing local anxieties. Today, the sprawling $277.5 million Pelican Bay prison provides 1,500 jobs, an annual payroll of $50 million and a budget of over $90 million. As noted by author Christian Parenti in his book, Lockdown America:

Indirectly, the prison has created work in everything from construction arid pumping gas to domestic violence counseling. The contract for hauling away the prison's garbage alone is worth $130,000 a year-big money in California's poorest county. Following the employment boom came almost 6,000 new residents: Del Norte's population (including 4,000 prisoners) is now 28,000. In the last ten years, the average rate of housing starts has doubled, as has the value of local real estate. Also cashing in is a huge Ace Hardware, a private hospital, a 90,000-square-foot K-Mart and an equally mammoth Safeway. "In 1986, the county collected $73 million in sales tax; last year [1995] it was $142 million," says the County Assessor. On top of that, local government is saving money by using low-security, 'level one' prisoners in place of public-works crews. Between 1990 and 1996, Pelican Bay inmates worked almost 150,000 hours on everything from school grounds to public buildings.

In this respect, the prison-building boom has served as a latter day Keynesian infrastructural investment programme for these blight-struck local communities, creating jobs and boosting local services. Indeed, it has been phenomenally successful in terms of creating relatively secure, decently paid and often unionized jobs. The numbers employed by US

Justice Department corrections agencies soared from 299,000 in 1982 to 723,000 in 1998, and if police officers, judicial and legal staff are included, the total increase in criminal justice employment has been over 860,000. The cost has been an increase in real dollar expenditures from $58 billion in 1982 to $127 billion in 1998 -- soaring, for example, from 20 percent to nearly 50 percent of defense spending.

Keynes, of course, left the choice of public-works project-whether ditch digging, pyramid-building, missile-making or prison-construction-up to the politicians (It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing). Unfortunately for those who are incarcerated, and for vulnerable populations likely to be incarcerated, prison-building requires a steady supply of bodies to survive. To accommodate the complex web of services required necessitated the birth of the prison-industrial complex, or the builders and operators, state and local officials, subcontractors and suppliers of prison and its industries. This disparate, yet tremendously powerful consortium of similar interests form a powerful lobby in support of prison expansion, and for tougher sentencing policies to fill the prisons. By the mid 1990s the Chair of the New York State Assembly's Committee on Correction reported "a stream of letters, telegrams and resolutions to my office, from numerous upstate rural communities, enthusiastically requesting prisons in their districts." Prison expansion in the state, he said, was increasingly fed by a combination of "political pork and bad economics."

The criminal justice policies adopted, and then ratcheted up by Reagan, Bush and Clinton contain a central contradiction: on the one hand, the free-marketeers urge cutting taxes and public expenditure, "a more managerialist, businesslike ethos ... economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the use of criminal justice resources"; on the other, their socially authoritarian language seems to demand a forceful intervention from above. Privately built and run prisons have been operating under state and federal government contracts since the early years of the Reagan administration, when two Tennessee entrepreneurs set up the Corrections Corporation of America, using money from Kentucky Fried Chicken.

CCA now leads the powerful and fast growing US private prison industry, running 52 percent of all privatized American prison beds. Between 1992 and 1996, at the height of Clinton's incarceration boom, CCA share prices rose from $1 to $42, outperforming the Dow Jones Industrial Average by 936 percent.

Naturally, the private prison firms are energetic lobbyists for tough sentencing laws. CCA President Robert Crants has the distinction of having handed out more money to Tennessee politicians than any other businessman, no doubt facilitated by the contacts of his CCA co¬founder and old West Point roommate Tom Beasley, ex-chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, while fellow board member T. Don Hutto is a former Commissioner of the Virginia and Arkansas Departments of Corrections.
America's second largest private prison firm, Wackenhut Corrections, has included Frank Carlucci (former Reagan NSA advi¬sor), Bobby Inman (ex-deputy director of the CIA), a former Marine Corps commander, a pair of retired Air Force generals, a former Air Force undersecretary, an ex-Attorney General, the former chair of Allied Signal and the late Jorge Mas Canosa, caudillo of Cuban Miami and longtime Clinton intimate.

The private prison companies have had some troubled times of late, with reports of prisoner violence, frequent escapes and prisoners rioting against unbearable conditions.

Cost-cutting measures have led to guards hired at the age of eighteen or nineteen, who are virtually untrained and with no previous corrections experience. Chronically ill prisoners have been left unattended. In addition, the private companies have encountered a powerful enemy, in the form of the prison guards' trade unions. In the forefront of the struggle against prison privatization are groups like the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, led for many years by the pugnacious, fedora-toting Don Novey, who served in the US Army's 503rd Counter Intelligence Division in Europe from 1969 to 1971.

Novey "cut his teeth as a rank-and-file bull, walking the tiers in Folsom from 1971 through 1986." Under his leadership, prison officers' num¬bers in California have leapt from 1,600 to more than 28,000 and their salaries have doubled to an average of $41,000. The CCPOA has twenty-two in-house lawyers and a budget of $17 million with which to oppose prison privatization, with its concomitant lower wages and penchant for untrained staff. Both prison officers' unions and private prison firms can unite, however, in lobbying for harsher sentencing policies, together with all the other interests which stand to make a profit out of expanding prison capacity-among them, formidable entities like telephone companies that profit enormously from prisoners? phone calls to loved ones.

Finally, among those with an interest in lobbying for an expanded carceral system must be included the companies that employ prison labour. A compromise had been reached on this issue in the 1950s, between prison authorities, unions and private companies: it was agreed that prisoners should work only as a means of `rehabilitation'; prisoner¬-produced goods would be used inside prisons or sold only to government agencies, and would not compete with private businesses or labour. This consensus has now broken down: from 1980 to 1994, the number of prisoners employed in prison industries jumped by 358 percent and prison industry sales-both to government departments and on the open market-rocketed from $392 million to $1.31 billion, with convicts sewing jeans and T-shirts, booking flights for TWA, working the phones in prison-based telemarketing campaigns and packaging products for Microsoft and Starbucks.

These, then, are some of the interests whose lobbying funds and expertise have helped push through the ballot initiatives and referenda for tougher sentencing policies in state after state. Here, the legislative drive has undoubtedly been helped by the semi-hysterical and heavily racialized treatment of crime by the US news media. Crime stories now outstrip all other issues on the TV network news and Americans' nightly viewing of cartoons and sitcoms is regularly interrupted by ?late¬breaking? news flashes, often broadcast live from helicopters circling above the scene of the crime, bursting in on scheduled programmes. This is not a climate conducive to approaching the many social causes of violent crime with reason, but rather one in which a retributive and reactionary agenda dominates.

Costs of Incarceration

How should we measure the costs of America's carceral boom? First, there are the effects on the prisoners themselves. Often incarcerated, under the zero tolerance and three strikes sentencing policies, for minor drug, credit card or property offenses, the new breed of convicts enter a regime of instant, institutionalized brutalization in which violence and rape are common tools of intimidation. A 1994 survey of a Midwestern state prison revealed that 22 percent of adult male respondents had been forced or pressured into sexual contact during their time in prison. From this and other studies, we can extrapolate a figure of roughly 200,000 males raped every year in American prisons; many of these men will be raped daily. The Stop Prisoner Rape group puts the figure at around 290,000, arguing that most investigations ignore the plight of prisoners who pair off with another man for protection, and take no account of the far higher instances of rape at juvenile prisons.

Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1994, in Farmer vs. Brennan, that prison officers are responsible for protecting prisoners from sexual assault, a number of prisoners who have contracted HIV in the course of jailhouse rapes since then have had their claims for damages refused. The youngest and most vulnerable can easily be targeted here. The Boston Globe reports that "several prisoners at Shirley [State Prison] said that Slade [a notorious prison rapist] has had a long history of attacks there, but that he is typically reshuffled by the guards into cells with ?fresh fish?, or new inmates."

Complaining of convicts' "easy living",--citing gyms, books, conjugal visiting rights -- some neo-conservative victims' rights' groups wage successful campaigns against the improvement of typically dismal, if not unconstitutionally inadequate prison conditions. As a result, in many jurisdictions exercise hours have been cut back, prison libraries shuttered and many other ?privileges? retracted. Hampered by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, prisoners? are severely restricted from bringing civil cases to challenge the conditions of their confinement. Efffors to curtail prisoner speech has found footing, too: California, Pennsylvania and Virginia have now outlawed media interviews with prisoners. Stunning even in the context of prison, several states have reintroduced that sadistic nineteenth-century fetish, the chain gang, including Indiana, Wisconsin, Washington State, Georgia, Alabama and Arizona. Shackled convicts in striped prison uniforms can now be seen toiling by the roadsides, clearing trash and cutting weeds, a stark reminder that the US? efforts in the direction of real social progress has a ways to go.

America has been paying the cost for its incarceration boom in many other ways. A prison population of 2 million creates a huge layer of angry, humiliated and damaged people that includes not just the prisoners and ex-prisoners, but their families, lovers, friends and work colleagues. The regime of brutalization, and the reign of barely controlled criminal gangs within US prisons, produces, as Christian Parenti has argued, "a predator class" which, when returned to the street, frightens and disorganizes communities of poor and working people, dividing, if not destroying, any resistance. Taking into account the 2 million currently in jail, an additional 3.2 million adults on probation and a further 685,000 on parole, the ?total correctional population? of the US currently stands at 5.7 million.

The billions of dollars spent on prisons have been denied to housing, hospitals and education. Civil rights have been severely curtailed: ten states now disenfranchise all former convicts and 3.9 million Americans have currently lost their voting rights as a result of felony convictions --a disenfranchisement that, once again, has been heavily racialized in its effects: 13 percent of all African-American men are now stripped of their electoral rights, and there are seven states in which one in four off all African-American men have been permanently disqualified to vote-a bitter aftermath to the expansion of voting rights secured, at such cost, by the freedom marches of the fifties and sixties. The Fourth Amendment might never have been written, the "right of the people to be secure against unreason¬able searches and seizures" being violated on an hourly basis by schools drug-testing students, police searching of cars without a warrant, and home-searches on tip-offs from unnamed informants.

Against a backdrop of social division as highlighted by the OJ Simpson trial and the Million Man March, in 1995 President Clinton gave a lecture at the University of Texas at Austin. During his address he urged white America to understand and acknowledge the roots of African-American pain. African-Americans were right, he exclaimed, to think that "something was terribly wrong" when "almost one in three African-American men in their twenties are either in jail, on parole or otherwise under the supervision of the criminal justice system." It remains to be seen whether his successor can equal him in this level of hypocrisy.

Reprinted with permission NEW LEFT REVIEW

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