A recent report by the Pew Center on the States reveals that in 2007 a record 7.3 million Americans — 1 in every 31 adults — served time in jail, prison, on probation or parole. This according to Justice Department and Census Bureau statistics.  The report found that the United States, which has 5 percent of the world population, has 25% of all the world’s prison inmates, based on comparative studies.  The U.S. — the “land of the free” — locks away far more of its own citizens than Russia and China or any of the tyrannies that the U.S. props up around the world; and the problem is only getting worse!

In 1999, statistics placed the number of Americans incarcerated at 1 in 149.  By 2008, the Pew Center reported that the number had skyrocketed to 1 in 100.  It should come as no surprise that, in a nation founded on the enslavement of Blacks and the near extermination of the Native population, the prison population is primarily made up of minorities.  Since the 1990s, over 50% of those incarcerated have been non-white.  Consider that Black men are 4 times as likely as whites to be locked up.  One in 3 Black men are in the corrections system when you include those on probation or parole, and 1 in 11 are in jail or prison each year.  The rate of incarceration for women also continues to grow, but is outpaced by men of all races at a rate of 5 to 1.

The comparison to slavery doesn’t stop there.  While some states still field chain-gangs for forced hard-labor, most states have legalized forced prison labor; 37 states to date have made it legal to contract prison labor to private corporations like Boeing, AT&T, Target and Microsoft.  Prison laborers routinely make pennies per hour and profits on prison labor have reached into the billions of dollars.  Since prisoners have no rights to form a union or struggle for better labor conditions under U.S. law, it is no wonder that companies that once exploited sweat shops in Mexico, China and S.E. Asia are returning to exploit the prison labor available in the U.S. penal system.

When you consider that crime has been on a two-decade long decline, it seems strange that incarceration rates have increased by over 300% in the past 30 years.  Not coincidentally, an explosive growth in for-profit prisons and privatization of the prison systems parallels the increase in rate of incarceration.  Because a private prison cannot turn a profit unless it is kept full, the prison industrial complex has a vested interest in keeping prisons overcrowded and pressuring lawmakers and judges to increase the rate of convictions and enforce more harsh “mandatory minimum sentences” for minor offenses.  Over 70% of U.S. prisoners are locked up for non-violent, drug related offenses, and 79% of the growth in drug-related convictions in the 1990s came from arrests for marijuana possession.

Michael Moore’s recent hit documentary Capitalism: A Love Story further exposed the lengths to which privately owned corrections centers will go to guarantee their profits.  In Wilkes-Barre, PA, Luzerne County judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan are awaiting trial after admitting to accepting $2.6 million in kickbacks from two privately run detention facilities in exchange for helping secure $30 million in county contracts and wrongly convicting and sentencing hundreds of juveniles to serve time at the facilities.  The case has made national headlines as a federal corruption investigation has now expanded to members of local school boards, and a class action law suit has been organized on behalf of the scheme’s juvenile victims.

These and many other examples have become typical in an age of the dismantling of the public sector and the social safety net.  In the current crisis of capitalism — and for decades before — massive cuts and privatization schemes, the capitalist class’ answer to the decreasing rate of profits, have ravaged the “welfare state” and all the concessions won by the American working class through organized struggle in the post-war period of economic growth.

Even as both major political parties pour billions in taxpayer dollars into wars on poor people in foreign lands, and into our domestic prison industrial complex, they are carrying out a slash and burn policy toward funding for public education, health care, public works, job creation, infrastructure, and social investment; the very factors essential to changing the conditions which lead to crime in the first place.

It may seem as though some lawmakers are beginning to soften their “tough on crime” stance. For example, in California, where, in February, a federal judge ordered that the state must reduce the number of inmates in its prisons by 40% to put an end to the violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights. However, this has little to do with any “change of heart” and far more to do with the crushing financial burden on the state in keeping these people locked up in the midst of epic budget crises.  As America learned in the 1980s under the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, the state turning desperate people out onto the streets does nothing to solve the bigger problems which lead them there to begin with.

To eliminate crime we first have to address the conditions which lead to crime: unemployment, desperation, poverty and despair.  We must fight for quality, stimulating jobs at a living wage, free cradle-to-grave education, affordable-quality housing and free, quality health care and access to healthful, nutritious food for all. We must struggle to put an end to the exploitation of labor in the prison system, as well as in the work place.

Ultimately, we must put an end to the greatest crime of all; the appropriation of the wealth created by the working class by the capitalists and their laws, police, troops, political parties, courts and prison system.  Of course, only by fighting for and achieving Socialism can we truly put an end to this state of affairs and build a better world for all humanity.

September 14 2009

Originally posted at SocialistAppeal.org