Our Loss, Their Gain: On The Booming, Multibillion Dollar Business of Mass [re: Black Male] Incarceration

This is an ongoing series of extracted readings from various authors we’ve come across who offer unconventional, out-of-the-box thoughts on the social, the political, the religious and everything in between. This column will run each Friday and will feature authors with varying backgrounds and philosophies. The common thread is that their wisdom is sought by some of the most successful and effective people in the world, thus putting you, the reader, in that same elite company. Although this column is for everyone, we have a hunch that it will prove particularly valuable to leaders and individuals — in government, in business, in religion, in the nonprofit sector, etc. — who are on the cutting-edge of making the world a better place. And it all starts in Maywood.

Michelle Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, is the author of widely acclaimed book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), in which Alexander fleshes out a devastating observation: “Today, due to recent declines, U.S. crime rates have dipped below the international norm. Nevertheless, the United States now boasts an incarceration rate that is six to ten times greater than that of other industrialized nations — a development directly traceable to the drug war.” Philosopher and activist Cornel West called it an “instant classic” and since its publication, the book has been widely cited among leaders and experts in a diverse array of fields. In the following excerpt, Alexander delineates the blunt economics of America’s incarceration system:

“If we hope to return to the rate of incarceration of the 1970s — a time when many civil rights activists believed rates of imprisonment were egregiously high — we would need to release approximately four out of five people currently behind bars today. Prisons would have to be closed across America, an event that would likely inspire panic in rural communities that have become dependent on prisons for jobs and economic growth. Hundreds of thousands of people — many of them unionized — would lose their jobs. As Marc Mauer has observed, ‘The more than 700,000 prison and jail guards, administrators, service workers, and other personnel represent a potentially powerful political opposition to any scaling-down of the system. One need only recall the fierce opposition to the closing of military bases in recent years to see how these forces will function over time.’

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Arguably, Mauer underestimates the scope of the challenge by focusing narrowly on the prison system, rather than counting all of the people employed in the criminal justice bureaucracy. According to a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Statistics in 2006, the U.S. spent a record $185 billion for police protection, detention, judicial, and legal activities in 2003. Adjusting for inflation, these figures reflect a tripling of justice expenditures since 1982. The justice system employed almost 2.4 million people in 2003 — 58 percent of them at the local level and 31 percent at the state level. If four out of five people were released from prisons, far more than a million people could lose their jobs.

If four out of five people were released from prisons, far more than a million people could lose their jobs.

There is also the private-sector investment to consider. Prisons are big business and have become deeply entrenched in America’s economic and political system. Rich and powerful people, including former vice president Dick Cheney, have invested millions in private prisons. They are deeply interested in expanding the market — increasing the supply of prisoners — not eliminating the pool of people who can be held captive for a profit. The 2005 annual report for the Corrections Corporation of America explained the vested interests of private prisons matter-of-factly in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission:

‘Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patters in various jurisdictions and acceptance of privatization. The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.’

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In short, the market for private prisons is as good as it has ever been” (pp.230-31).

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