The land of the not-so-free

By Mike Tudoreanu

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Pop quiz: Which country holds the greatest number of people in prison? You might be tempted to say China, because it has a large total population and an authoritarian state that cracks down on dissent. However, China only has the second highest prison population in the world. What about Russia, then? That’s another large country, and it’s a liberal democracy only in theory. Well, Russia is only at No. 3 on the list.

The country with the largest number of people in prison – by far – is none other than the United States of America. The U.S. also holds the record for the highest percentage of prisoners out of the total population. So no matter how you measure it, the “land of the free” actually locks up more people than any other country on the planet.

To be precise, the U.S. has 2,239,751 prisoners or 716 out of every 100,000 people. That means one out of every 140 Americans is in prison. By comparison, China has 1,640,000 prisoners, while Russia has 681,600.

Let that sink in for a moment. The U.S. imprisons a greater percentage of its population than any other country. This means that, statistically speaking, you have a greater chance of being arrested in America than anywhere else – including every oppressive dictatorship you can think of. For example, Iran only imprisons 0.284 percent of its population (less than half the U.S. rate), and Saudi Arabia imprisons 0.162 percent.

It has not always been this way. Up until 1970, the number of inmates in U.S. prisons was under 350,000 – less than one-sixth of what it is today – and it was only growing at about the same rate as the total population. The percentage of Americans in prison hovered between 0.1 and 0.2 percent, putting the U.S. in the same league as most other countries. Then, under presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and especially Ronald Reagan, the incarceration rate and the number of inmates began an astounding exponential growth that continues to this day. Since 1970, the odds of getting locked up have more than quadrupled, and the prison population has grown by almost 700 percent.

So what is going on here? What could be causing such an unprecedented rush to put people behind bars in a country that likes to think of itself as the freest in the world?

For one thing, the laws have become much stricter and the sentences have grown longer. The “War on Drugs” began in the 1970s, and then mandatory minimum sentencing laws were passed in the 1980s, forcing judges to hand out long, harsh sentences for a wide variety of non-violent crimes. None of this really helped to reduce drug use, but it has been very successful at putting people in prison – around half of prisoners are locked up for drug-related offenses – and critics argue that this was its hidden purpose all along.

The picture becomes clearer when we consider the breakdown of prisoners by race. Hispanic and black males are incarcerated at ridiculously disproportionate levels. One in 36 Hispanic males and one in 15 black males over the age of 18 are in prison. African-Americans make up 14 percent of drug users, but they account for 37 percent of drug arrests and a whopping 56 percent of people actually convicted for drug-related offenses. African Americans in the U.S. are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than black people in apartheid South Africa. This is far too extreme to be a mere coincidence or statistical fluke. Let’s call it what it is: systematic, institutionalized racism.

Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” points out that both the “War on Drugs” and the prison population explosion began shortly after the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. As African Americans won the right to vote and segregation ended, the ruling class moved quickly to find a “colorblind” method of enforcing racial inequality. After all, marijuana is equally illegal for everyone, isn’t it? It just so happens that certain people get searched more often than others.

But even that is only part of the story. Even the white majority in the U.S. still gets imprisoned more often than people anywhere else in the world.

It turns out that there is a third factor driving America’s incarceration binge: the spread of private, for-profit prisons. Since the 1980s, normal state and federal facilities haven’t kept up with the skyrocketing number of prisoners. So private corporations – the largest of which is called the “Corrections Corporation of America” – offered to help. And by help, I mean milk the system dry of taxpayer cash while giving the states an incentive to lock up more people.

States agreed to privatize prisons and let these corporations run them as they see fit, claiming it was cheaper than having state-run prisons, though it quickly became more expensive in some cases as fees increased. In exchange for this “public service,” prison corporations demanded occupancy quotas. They wanted the states to guarantee that a certain percentage of the cells in their prisons would always be full. Outrageously, the states agreed.

Almost two-thirds of private prison contracts include occupancy quotas, and these quotas range from 90 percent to a ridiculous 100 percent. Many contracts also impose a penalty to be paid in case any prison beds remain unfilled (the so-called “low-crime tax”). So not only are corporations literally profiting from throwing people behind bars, but they also get to fine the government when it fails to deliver sufficient numbers of prisoners into their maw. As if that wasn’t enough of an incentive to lock up people, prison corporations are also actively campaigning for tougher sentencing laws, to ensure an even bigger supply of prisoners.

So that is where we stand today. The “land of the free” locks up more people than any other country in the world, half of them for non-violent crimes, with minorities being especially targeted for arrest, all in the service of the bottom line of private prison corporations. And most of us don’t even realize that it’s happening.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].