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The Obama administration has recently announced plans to cut the prison population. It’s high time. There were almost 1.6 million prisoners in America in 2012, which represents a quarter of the world’s inmates. The incarceration rate is the highest in the world, over 700 prisoners per 100,000 people. Australia has 130, Germany 80 and Sweden less than 70. Even Russia has a smaller rate with about 480.  

Are Americans more violent? Well, no. Less than half of all prisoners are behind bars because of violent crimes. Furthermore before 1980 the number of prisoners was less than 500,000. The increase in the prison population has occurred after 1980. The reason for this dramatic change is bad policy.  

The “war on drugs” is largely responsible for the increase. The percentage of state and federal prisoners sentenced for drug-offences was only 10.4% in 1974 but by 1997 it had shot up to 26.9%. In 2010 the number had gone down a bit to 21.7%.

A major driving force behind this bad policy is the prison-lobby. About 8% of the prison population, or 130,000, are being held in private prisons. The private prison population has grown the fastest and it’s no wonder why. It’s good business.

The two largest prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, had almost 3 billion dollars in revenue in 2010. The prison-industry’s lobby organization, ALEC, has been instrumental in making sure that the number of prisoners in private prisons keeps growing. Prison lobbyists have spent 45 million dollars in lobbying over 10 years. And they’ve gotten a good return on their investment. For example SB 1070, Arizona’s immigration law, which sends immigrant detainees to private prisons. Other examples include mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, “three strikes” laws and “truth in sentencing” laws.

CCA sent a letter in 2012 to prison officials in 48 states with a proposition to buy prisons in exchange for a 20-year management contract and a guaranteed occupancy rate of 90%!  That’s right, the prison industry wants the state to guarantee a minimum number of prisoners. They also cherry-pick prisoners. They want prisoners that are healthy and not violent. That way they make more money but it doesn’t stop there. Prison companies have even paid judges to send them prisoners. In Pennsylvania, two judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, received kickbacks for sending kids to prisons. They were paid 2.6 million dollars by prisons for jailing 5000 people. One kid sent to prison for fighting on a school bus. In another case a 17-year old was sent to prison for 6 months for a minor drug charge and committed suicide after he got out.

Another aspect of the prison industry is the fact that prisoners are used as cheap labor, which outcompetes ordinary business.  Take for example Federal Prison Industries, FPI. They use prisoners in the manufacturing of parts of Patriot missiles and F-16 fighter jets. They also make army uniforms, which led to problems for their Atlanta based competitor, American Apparel, which hires ordinary non-prison workers. American Apparel had to lay off hundreds of workers even though their uniforms cost 29$, which is 5$ less than for FPI uniforms. Firms like FPI have priority because they use prisoners.

Prisoners are used in the production of motorcycles, canoes, license plates, jeans, and waterbeds. They’re even used as firefighters, like in California, where they received 1$ per hour and reduction on their sentences. What does it take to get a job these days? Go to prison?

About 74 billion dollars a year are spent on corrections and nearly 800,000 people work in the prison industry. That’s more than the auto industry. This is one of the reasons why America is going bankrupt.  Texas for example was headed for financial disaster which made the state reassess its prison polies. As a result Texas has stopped building new prisons.

The idea to make profits off of prisoners in nothing new. The Soviet put millions of people in the Gulag and then forced them to work in industries such as mining, timber, arms and railroad construction.

It’s a good thing that the Obama administration wants to cut the prison population but let’s not get our hopes up just yet because cutting the prison population means going against the prison lobby and Obama has shown in the past that he is all too willing to compromise.


Should the prison population be reduced?

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