The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world. While the U.S. has less than five percent of the world’s population, it has about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners – half a million more than China, which has five times as many people as the U.S. There are about 2.3 million prisoners in this country, and about seven million either locked up or on parole or probation. No other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its citizens.
Domination and Exploitation
Under capitalism, prison has always been used as tool of the ruling class to both dominate and exploit the working class population. In early British capitalism, as the factory owners needed more laborers, they created what have become known as “the poor laws.” These were laws that punished people for being poor, by sentencing them to work in factories in slave-like conditions, the earliest versions of modern-day prisons.
And in the U.S., immediately after the Civil War, former slaves and poor whites in the South organized a government that reflected their interests – this period was known as Reconstruction. They passed laws to improve their lives, ensured equal rights of whites and blacks, and set up some of the first systems of public education. But quickly the former slave owners needed to get people back on their farms to be agricultural workers. They were able to break down the Reconstruction government through violence and terror, and eventually pass laws all over the south known as “Jim Crow” laws. These laws imposed many restrictions on the black population. The purpose of these laws was to terrorize the ex-slaves, slowly deprive them of land and jobs. These laws forced ex-slaves and the black population in the south into two horrible paths – to go back to work on the farms of the former slave owners in order to survive, or resist and be thrown into prison and do forced labor.
From Poverty to Prison
Today, the role of mass incarceration is a little different. The reason the U.S. has such a high prison population has nothing to do with crime. U.S. crime rates are about equal to most other European countries, which have much lower prison populations. For the U.S., prison is the dumping ground for the unemployed and the poor.
The massive increase in the prison population happened at the same time as record numbers of job losses and long-term poverty throughout the country. Since the 1970s, millions of workers either lost their jobs or were forced to get paid less as factories closed all across the country and many companies moved production to countries with cheaper labor. Since this time, workers have had to take on multiple jobs to get by. The wages were so low that most families needed both parents to be working. But also the only way working families could survive was to take on huge debts.
But there remained millions of people in some of the worst conditions, unable to find work, living in extreme poverty. For this section of the working class, often the poorest and the least educated – there weren’t many options. People could either join the military or try to make a living any way they could, turning to the streets, drugs, and crime.
At this point, the U.S. government had to come up with a system to control this growing section of society that there were no longer any jobs for. For the poorest sections of the working class – they were thrown into prison. First starting in the 1970s under President Nixon, and then continuing ever since, the government launched what it called, “The War On Drugs” – a tool to police and imprison the unemployed and poorest sections of society, overwhelmingly black and Latino.
Between 1972 to 2006, the prison population grew from 300,000 inmates to over 2.3 million – a 760 percent increase. Today, about 30 percent of federal prisoners were currently unemployed during the time of their arrest, and over 70 percent had an income of less than $24,000 per year. About 70 percent of all prisoners have not completed high school. The vast majority of these new prisoners were convicted for non-violent or drug-related crimes. Overwhelmingly, the rise in the prison population has been nothing more than a dumping ground of the poor and the unemployed. As James Hyman, head of a private prison company, told his investors: “We do not believe we will see a decline in the need for detention beds in an economy with rising unemployment among American workers.”
A Residue of Racism
The growing mass incarceration is far worse for the black population. Black men are sentenced to prison seven times more than white men. More than half of all black men without a high school diploma go to prison at some point in their lives. One out of every three black men are expected to go to prison at some point in their lifetime. There are now more black men in prison, on probation or on parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.
Going to prison means being subjected to torturous conditions. Most prisons are way overcrowded, housing double or triple the capacity. Throughout the country an average of 80,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement, many of them for multiple years, enduring conditions of torture. It is not surprising that for every year spent behind bars, a person’s life expectancy decreases by two years.
A Necessity of Capitalism
The mass media and politicians paint a picture that incarceration is the result of bad decisions made by individuals – this way they can ignore the conditions in our society that push people down paths that lead to their incarceration. When corporations employ as few people as possible, and keep our wages low – they create a permanent mass of people living in poverty and unemployed. And mass incarceration is nothing more than the place to dump these sections of society that have been denied employment and any legal means of survival.
In order to make profits, capitalism needs poverty and unemployment. And so it will always have crimes of need and survival – and prison will always be the dumping ground of the poor and unemployed.