The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Incarceration Nation

The U.S. prison system has exploded beyond all reason

By Michael King, March 28, 2014, News

The good folks of Grassroots Leadership and the Sentencing Project were in town this week, delivering a presentation on "race, mass incarceration, and the private prison industry" at Huston-Tillotson Uni­ver­sity. The two organizations somewhat overlap; Grassroots Lead­ership focuses on "ending for-profit incarceration," and the Sentencing Proj­ect publishes research and advocates more generally on the excesses of the entire U.S. prison/criminal justice system. Together, Chris­to­pher Petrel­la and Nicole Porter provided an overview of the current U.S. system of incarceration, its institutionalized racism, and various efforts at reform.

Petrella, who is working on a book on "the private prison state," argued that the term "mass incarceration" is not quite accurate, because it implies that the huge numbers of U.S. prisoners are representative of the broad population. A more accurate term, he suggested, because of the large overrepresentation of poor, minority inmates at every level, would be "hyper-incarceration" – that is, the institutionally selective imprisonment of large numbers of poor black and brown people. An important side effect, he noted, is that there is much less public concern or opposition than there would be if more middle-class people (of all colors) felt threatened by the prospect of prison.

Moreover, Petrella's research has shown that the well-known disparity between minority and white inmates is exacerbated in private institutions; in Texas, for example, where roughly 66% of public prison inmates are minorities, the private prison rate is nearly 71%. Moreover, private prisons generally – by contract – accept much lower levels of elderly prisoners, whose medical needs are much higher and more expensive. That not only skews the numbers to make private prisons house more young, minority inmates, those inmates are also "cheaper" – thereby boosting profit margins while simultaneously enabling private operators to claim they're more cost-effective than public institutions.

Dismal Numbers

The Sentencing Project has always been a reliable source of alarming statistics about U.S. incarceration, and Porter amplified the distressing numbers. The United States – which represents roughly 5% of the world's population – incarcerates 25% of the prison population: about 2.2 million people overall (federal, state, local). That represents a 13% increase between 2000 and 2012, although Porter noted that there was a modest (2.8%) decline from 2009 to 2012. Some of that is frankly attributable to the recession – there was simply less state money available to build prisons – but the speakers also praised grassroots advocacy that somewhat halted the momentum, including closing two particularly abusive private prisons in Texas.

The racial imbalance holds, of course, in those broad numbers: 38% of federal and state prisoners in 2011 were black (35% white, 21% Hispanic), and the proportional numbers for young men (30-34) were even starker: 1 in 13 black men was in prison, 1 in 36 Hispanic men, 1 in 90 white men. Petrella argued that these facts reflect less the incarceration system alone, but a racial, class, and economic classification structure under which certain categories of people are considered more prison-eligible, by definition. Both speakers noted that much of the disparity can also be attributed to a couple of decades of the racially overdetermined "war on drugs."

It's hard to take much comfort in any of these numbers, although both speakers and Grassroots Executive Director Bob Libal exhorted the audience to maintain pressure on public officials, who have seen the light in small ways on the practical limits of the prison-industrial complex, if not its moral outrages. (Even Sen. John Cornyn, remarkably, is promoting a criminal justice reform bill.) Pointing to small but real victories in last year's Lege, Libal urged Tex­ans to maintain the momentum next year.

Payback Overdue

As it happened, the presentation rhymed for me in a curious way with a panel on "sexism in the media" in which I participated earlier in the week. That discussion was primarily aimed at biased coverage of female candidates – notorious cases in point, Dem gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Dav­is, and Hillary Clinton. But it occurred to me in contemplating the matter that a larger consequence of our routinely gendered approach to politics is the "masculinization" of public policy. Not only do we tend to underemphasize (and certainly underfund) issues considered the domain of women – education, health care, child care, etc. – we overemphasize masculinized "power" issues like militarization and "public safety," law and order, border closing, gun deregulation, and, in this context, incarceration.

Over the years I've written regularly about the nature of capital punishment in Texas – arguing that it is primarily a political policy, not a legal one, because it is employed so arbitrarily and unevenly, and is primarily directed not at crime control, but at preserving the authority of the state to determine who lives and who dies. On a less sensational but much broader scale, the same is true of our criminal justice system and especially our sentencing policies. For decades, succeeding generations of politicians have outrun each other on who can be "tougher" on crime, with the inevitable result that generations of young people, especially minorities, have become more or less permanent residents of or semiexiles in the Incarceration State.

Have such practices established either a safer or more just society? Hardly. They have hardened our social stratification on racial and economic lines, they have drained our public resources, and they have badly exacerbated the polarization of our political institutions. As Porter pointed out this week, it's long past time we look to retrieve the treasure wasted on imprisoning a generation, and restore it to the communities carpet-bombed by criminal injustice.

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