Criminal injustice 

U.S. prison system dwarfs other nations', but what does it really cost us?

Among other highlights of the labor history conference at WSU last week was a keynote presentation given by Heather Ann Thompson, an associate professor of history at Philadelphia's Temple University.

A Detroit native, Thompson authored 2001's Whose Detroit: Politics, Labor and Race in a Modern American City, which focuses "in detail on the struggles of Motor City residents during the 1960s and early 1970s and finds that conflict continued to plague the inner city and its workplaces even after Great Society liberals committed themselves to improving conditions."

But for her talk at the conference, Thompson focused on crime and punishment.

In terms of what's going on in America these days, mass incarceration is the "elephant in the room," Thompson said as she began a jaw-dropping presentation.

In terms of throwing people behind bars in the United States, the rates are "internationally unparalleled and historically unprecedented," said Thompson.

In all, more than 7.3 million Americans have been caught up in that system.

The stunning rise in incarceration rates began in the mid-1960s, when President Lyndon B. Johnson launched a national war on crime that was a response not to actual crime, but rather the civil and political unrest that was spilling out into the nation's streets.

In other words, actual crime wasn't the real reason this so-called war began.

"The crime rate was at an all-time low in 1965," Thompson said. With the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War building, "civil unrest was being interpreted as crime."

The process gained momentum in the early '70s, when Johnson's successor, Richard M. Nixon began what he termed a "War on Drugs," which increased the criminalization of addictions that rightly should be viewed as public health issues.

As a result of these changes in national law enforcement priorities, Michigan's prisoner population soared. In 1970, fewer than 8,000 people were locked up in Michigan prisons; today, that number exceeds 40,000 (after hitting a peak of more than 51,000 in 2007).

As Thompson pointed out, "this is overwhelmingly a population of color."

For Detroit, and other cities with large minority populations, the result has been a massive "sucking sound."

"When you remove record numbers of people [from cities] you cause them to collapse," she said.

One result of all this, which Thomson characterizes as the "criminalization of urban space," has been a proliferation of what are called "million-dollar blocks," neighborhoods where so many people have been imprisoned it's costing at least $1 million to keep them behind bars.

The costs and consequences of our tough-on-crime policies are staggering.

For starters, as Thomson pointed out, there's been the creation of an "unemployable class of people." These are ex-felons who, because of their records, are unable to find jobs.

And then there are what Thompson described as the "orphans" mass incarceration has created. Between 1991 and 2007, the number of mothers in prison doubled, she noted.

She explored that issue in some detail in a December 2010 paper published in The Journal of American History.

"The criminalization of urban space and the imposition of lengthy prison terms not only rendered an increasing percentage of urbanites unable to contribute to the cities where they grew up, but it also made it difficult for them to provide for the dependents they left behind. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the close of the 20th century, 'state and federal prisoners were parents to 1,489,800 children under age 18.' By 2002 one in every 45 minor children had at least one parent in a state or federal prison, and by 2008 '52 percent of state inmates and 63 percent of federal inmates reported having an estimated 1,706,600 minor children' — the majority of whom were under the age of 10."

That, in turn, causes other problems.

"Mass incarceration also eroded inner-city viability in ways less obvious than reducing urbanites' incomes and compromising their access to needed welfare resources," she wrote in that 2010 paper. "The fact that one in 10 children in America had one of both parents under correctional supervision by the first decade of the 21st century and the reality that such parents heralded so disproportionately from the nation's urban centers, for example, had vast implications for the educational possibilities of even those city kids who had no connection whatsoever to the criminal justice system. Such statistics meant that most teachers and students in America's urban classrooms would have to contend to some degree with the social and economic fallout of mass incarceration."

What makes all this not just deeply upsetting but also absurd is a chart Thomson presented showing both crime and incarceration rates over time. What the chart showed was that, even though there has been a steady, steep upward climb in the numbers of people being locked up, the actual crime rate rises and falls, rises and falls. 

In other words, imprisoning people doesn't actually affect the crime rate.

What locking people up does do, Thompson said, is provide a boon to industries that feed off incarceration, from the contracting of various services to the outright privatization of prisons.

As for organized labor, Thompson said, it should be concerned about the steadily growing trend of using prison labor to provide goods and services that are in direct competition to the outside workforce.

No matter how you look at it, this nation's nearly 50-year "war" on crime has been an abysmal failure.

"Socially, economically, politically," said Thompson, "it's an utter scourge."

More by Curt Guyette

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