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Stone Walls and Steel Bars: America's War on its Own Keeps Raging

by Chris Floyd
First published in Empire Burlesque earlier today, 5 November 2009

The size and the harshness of the America's domestic gulag have very little to do with the actual level of dangerous crime; they are instead tied far more closely to the agenda of money and power than any reality.

The cruel and unusual punitiveness of American society is a frequent topic on these page. (The most recent piece is here.) No nation on earth puts as many of its people in jail -- both in real numbers and as a percentage of the population. And few if any have "justice" systems so savagely targeted at racial minorities. For the past 30 years -- concurrent with the organized effort by the monied, militarized elite to destroy any and all restraints on their predatory appetites -- the United States has waged an unrelenting war on its black population, and on other minority and marginalized groups as well.

Punitive incarceration has been turned into a lucrative resource for private profit (and public corruption), and a political tool by which ambitious poltroons in both major parties establish their "toughness," their fitness for power in an aggressive empire. The size and the harshness of the America's domestic gulag have very little to do with the actual level of dangerous crime; they are instead tied far more closely to the agenda of money and power than any reality.

David Cole lays out the details at the New York Review of Books, looking at three new books on the subject:

With approximately 2.3 million people in prison or jail, the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world—by far. Our per capita rate is six times greater than Canada's, eight times greater than France's, and twelve times greater than Japan's. Here, at least, we are an undisputed world leader; we have a 40 percent lead on our closest competitors—Russia and Belarus.

...For one group in particular, however, these figures have concrete and deep-rooted implications—African-Americans, especially young black men, and especially poor young black men. African-Americans are 13 percent of the general population, but over 50 percent of the prison population. Blacks are incarcerated at a rate eight times higher than that of whites—a disparity that dwarfs other racial disparities. (Black–white disparities in unemployment, for example, are 2–1; in nonmarital childbirth, 3–1; in infant mortality, 2–1; and in net worth, 1–5).

In the 1950s, when segregation was still legal, African-Americans comprised 30 percent of the prison population. Sixty years later, African-Americans and Latinos make up 70 percent of the incarcerated population, and that population has skyrocketed. The disparities are greatest where race and class intersect—nearly 60 percent of all young black men born between 1965 and 1969 who dropped out of high school went to prison at least once on a felony conviction before they turned thirty-five. And the incarceration rate for this group—black male high school dropouts—is nearly fifty times the national average.

These disparities in turn have extraordinary ripple effects. For an entire cohort of young black men in America's inner cities, incarceration has become the more-likely-than-not norm, not the unthinkable exception. And in part because prisons today offer inmates little or nothing in the way of job training, education, or counseling regarding their return to society, ex-offenders' prospects for employment, housing, and marriage upon release drop precipitously from their already low levels before incarceration.

That in turn makes it far more likely that these ex-offenders will return to criminal behavior—and then to prison. Meanwhile, the incarceration of so many young men means more single-parent households, and more children whose fathers are in prison. Children with parents in prison are in turn seven times more likely to be imprisoned at some point in their lives than other children. As Brown professor Glenn Loury puts it in Race, Incarceration, and American Values, we are "creating a racially defined pariah class in the middle of our great cities."

...Until 1975, the United States' criminal justice system was roughly in line with much of Europe's. For fifty years preceding 1975, the US incarceration rate consistently hovered around 100 inmates per 100,000; criminologists made careers out of theorizing that the incarceration rate would never change. Around 1975, however, they were proved wrong, as the United States became radically more punitive. In thirty-five years, the incarceration rate ballooned to over 700 per 100,000, far outstripping all other countries.

This growth is not attributable to increased offending rates, but to increased punitiveness. Being "tough on crime" became a political mandate. State and federal legislatures imposed mandatory minimum sentences; abolished or radically restricted parole; and adopted "three strikes" laws that exact life imprisonment for a third offense, even when the offense is as minor as stealing a slice of pizza. Comparing the ratio of convictions to "index crimes" such as murder, rape, and burglary between 1975 and 1999 reveals that, holding crime constant, the United States became five times more punitive. Harvard sociologist Bruce Western estimates that the increase in incarceration rates since 1975 can take credit for only about 10 percent of the drop in crime over the same period.

Much of the extraordinary growth in the prison and jail population is attributable to a dramatic increase in prosecution and imprisonment for drug offenses. President Reagan declared a "war on drugs" in 1982, and the states eagerly followed suit. From 1980 to 1997, Loury tells us, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased by 1,100 percent. Drug convictions alone account for more than 80 percent of the total increase in the federal prison population from 1985 to 1995. In 2008, four of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one in five was for distribution; fully half of all drug arrests were for marijuana offenses.

African-Americans have borne the brunt of this war. From 1985 to 1991, the number of white drug offenders in state prisons increased by 110 percent; the number of black drug offenders grew by 465 percent. The average time served by African-Americans for drug crimes grew by 62 percent between 1994 and 2003, while white drug offenders served 17 percent more time. Though 14 percent of monthly drug users are black, roughly equal to their proportion of the general population, they are arrested and imprisoned at vastly disproportionate rates: 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses are black as well as 56 percent of those in state prisons for drug offenses. Blacks serve almost as much time in prison for drug offenses (average of 58.7 months) as whites do for violent crimes (average of 61.7 months)

...If white male babies faced anything like such prospects, the politics of crime would look very different. We would almost certainly see this as an urgent national calamity, and demand a collective investment of public resources to forestall so many going to prison. Politicians would insist that we reduce criminal penalties, decriminalize nonviolent drug offenses, and promote alternatives to incarceration.

...The war on drugs has by most accounts been a failure, and we are all paying the bill. In 2008, 1.7 million people were arrested for drug crimes.[12] Since 1989, more people have been incarcerated for drug offenses than for all violent crimes combined. Yet much like Prohibition, the war on drugs has not ended or even significantly diminished drug use. It has made drugs more expensive, and fostered a multibillion-dollar criminal industry in drug delivery and sales. Drugs have become more concentrated and deadly; twice as many people die from drugs today than before the war on drugs was declared. If anything, the war on drugs has probably increased the incidence of crime; about half of property crime, robberies, and burglaries are attributable to the inflated cost of drugs caused by criminalizing them.

Cole also outlines some of the fitful steps being taken at reforming this monstrous system -- most of them being driven by the financial crisis, as states find they can no longer maintain vast hordes of their own citizens behind bars. And a few officials are dimly beginning to ponder the broader social (and economic -- always economic!) consequences of consigning generation after generation of American citizens to lives of incarceration, poverty, hopelessness and injustice. But as Cole concludes:

Our addiction to punishment should be troubling not only because it is costly and often counterproductive, but because its race and class disparities are morally unacceptable. The most promising arguments for reform, therefore, must appeal simultaneously to considerations of pragmatism and principle. The very fact that the US record is so much worse than that of the rest of the world should tell us that we are doing something wrong, and the sheer waste of public dollars and human lives should impel us toward reform. But as the authors of these three books make clear, we will not understand the problem fully until we candidly confront the fact that our criminal justice system would not be tolerable to the majority if its impact were felt more broadly by the general population, and not concentrated on the most deprived among us.

Chris Floyd at his deskChris Floyd has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years, working in the United States, Great Britain and Russia for various newspapers, magazines, the U.S. government and Oxford University. Floyd co-founded the blog Empire Burlesque, and is also chief editor of Atlantic Free Press. He can be reached at

This column is republished here with the permission of the author.

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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on November 5, 2009.