Published on Tuesday, February 15, 2000 in the Guardian Limited UK
Anger Grows As US Jails Its Two Millionth Inmate
Land of the free is now home to 25% world's prison population
by Duncan Campbell
LOS ANGELES - Vigils are being mounted today in more than 30 major cities in the United States to draw attention to the arrival of the two millionth inmate in American jails. The US comprises 5% of the global population yet it is responsible for 25% of the world's prisoners. It has a higher proportion of its citizens in jail than any other country in history, according to the November Coalition, an alliance of civil rights campaigners, justice policy workers and drug law reformers.
The coalition is co-ordinating protests across the US to draw attention to what they feel is a trend for locking up ever more offenders, most of them non-violent.
"Incarceration should be the last resort of a civilised society, not the first," said Michael Gelacak, a former vice-chairman of the US sentencing commission. "We have it backwards and it's time we realised that."
"Two million is too many," said Nora Callahan of the coalition, which is calling for alternatives to prison for the country's 500,000 non-violent drug offenders.
"We are calling on state and federal governments to stop breaking up families and destroying our communities. Prison is not the solution to every social problem," she said.
In New York city, the Prison Moratorium Project will focus on the fact that one in three black youths is either in custody or on parole. Kevin Pranis, of the project, said: "New York state is diverting millions of dollars from colleges and universities to pay for prisons we can't afford."
Criminal justice is already a campaign issue in the presidential race. The Republican frontrunner George W Bush, governor of Texas, is a staunch supporter of both the death penalty and stiffer sentencing for drug offences.
Since he took over in Texas, the prison population there is up from 41,000 to 150,000, much of this as a result of locking up people for drug possession. This is one of the reasons that commentators have pressed Bush to be more open about his own alleged drug use in the past.
Second biggest employer
Of those held in federal rather than state prisons, 60% are drug offenders with no history of violence. Aminah Muhammad, who is organising the Los Angeles vigil, said: "My husband is doing 23 years for just being present in a house where drugs were found, so my 10-year-old son doesn't have his father."
The vigil also coincides with the publication of Lockdown America, a report by Christian Parenti analysing the US criminal justice system. He notes the expansion of the private prison sector - dubbed by one investment firm the "theme stock for the nineties" - which now runs more than 100 facilities in 27 states, holding more than 100,000 inmates.
A total of 18 private firms are involved in the running of local jails, private prisons and immigration detention centres. It is estimated that firms such as Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch write between $2-3bn in prison constructions bonds every year.
This has led some commentators to suggest that the United States is effectively creating a prison-industrial complex in much the same way as the military-industrial complex operates.
Critics of the system suggest that so much money is invested in incarceration that politicians would find it difficult to reverse the trends against the wishes of their financial backers and lobbyists.
In his study Christian Parenti suggests: "In many ways the incarceration binge is simply the policy byproduct of rightwing electoral rhetoric."
With the economic restructuring of America, politicians found it necessary to address domestic anxieties, Parenti suggests and this "required scapegoats, a role usually filled by new immigrants, the poor and people of colour".
The cost of building jails has averaged $7bn per year for the last decade and the annual bill for incarcerating prisoners is up to $35bn annually. The prison industry employs more than 523,000 people, making it the country's biggest employer after General Motors. Some 5% of the population growth in rural areas between 1980 and 1990 was as a result of prisoners being moved into new rural jails.
The national convention of the American Bar Association, held in Dallas, Texas last weekend, was told there was growing momentum for a moratorium on the death penalty. This follows the recent announcement by the Illinois governor, George Ryan, that the state will suspend executions pending an investigation into the number of death row inmates who turn out to have been wrongly convicted. There are 3,600 people awaiting execution in the US - 463 of them in Texas alone.
Today's vigils are being held near jails, courthouses and prisons and span the US from Spokane in Washington state to Gainesville in Florida, from Austin in Texas to Newhaven in Connecticut.
In 1985, the then Chief Justice Warren Burger said: "What business enterprise could conceivably succeed with the rate of recall of its products that we see in the 'products' of our prisons?"
The demonstrators today are hoping to make the same point count, if not with the politicians, then at least with the voters who will be called in to endorse such penal policies in the coming months.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000