5/3/2012 10:12:00 AM EDITORIAL: Prison system a source of shame for this country
Indiana Pacers star David West had some interesting things to say when he visited the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility on April 20. West told the kids about the 11 members of his New Jersey family who had been incarcerated, including one for murder. He urged the kids to find something about themselves they like.
Then he said this: There are people in the U.S. who are benefiting from having people in prisons. “One of the tenets of capitalism is that you capitalize on another man’s mistakes.”
In other words, there are people who profit from incarceration and would like nothing more for the juveniles who listened to West to pursue a life of crime so they can land in lengthy prison sentences.
That sounds crazy, but West knows what he is talking about.
The U.S. prison system incarcerates more people than any country in the world. More than 2 million prisoners are in the U.S. or 753 inmates per 100,000 of the population. This is far ahead of the 607 per 100,000 at No. 2 Russia. There is also a vast racial disparity in prisons. Whites make up 69.1 percent of the population and blacks make up 12.3 percent. In prison, however, whites are incarcerated at a rate of 34.7 percent while blacks make up 43.9 percent of the prison population.
Theses figures come from an article by Nake M. Kamrany, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California. Kamrany attributes the disparity to racism. He also notes that 25 percent of those in prisons are nonviolent drug offenders. They are in prison, Kamrany says, because the U.S. emphasis is on punishment and not rehabilitation. This emphasis stems from laws passed in the 1980s to ensure long periods of incarceration such as three-strikes and mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Since those laws are in place, for-profit prisons have exploded in growth. Those who run them know there will be a steady supply of inmates to add to their profitably.
The for-profit prison industry is a $5 billion a year enterprise with major players such as Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut. These companies offer to buy prisons from cash-strapped states and then run them with tax money based on the number incarcerated.
As a result, the companies lobby state legislatures to pass stricter laws so more people will be incarcerated, which is good for the bottom line. In fact, states have to agree to keep the for-profit prisons at 90 percent capacity or better. Some of the prisons are grotesque. According to the ACLU, a judge in Mississippi called a for-profit prison, “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.” Another for-profit prison in Idaho was nicknamed the “gladiator school” for its level of violence.
The U.S. prison system and the judicial system that feeds it is source of shame for this country and each state. It’s bad enough that we advocate punishment for an increasing variety of nonviolent crimes, but that we pay dearly to keep profits fattened for companies running prisons. We also pay dearly for the human beings locked up like animals where all they really learn is how to be better criminals. This is the supreme irony of a nation that values freedom above all else.
David West knows what he’s talking about, and the youths at Pendleton Juvenile could be on a hard road to oblivion. If they do land in prison, the state seems intent on keeping them there as long as possible. No civilized nation should accept this lock-more-of-them-up attitude.