In about half the people entering state prison were violent offenders; in less than a third had been convicted of a violent crime. The enormous increase in America's inmate population can be explained in large part by the sentences given to people who have committed nonviolent offenses. Crimes that in other countries would usually lead to community service, fines, or drug treatment—or would not be considered crimes at all—in the United States now lead to a prison term, by far the most expensive form of punishment.
Zimring, the director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute, "prison has been the answer. On January 17, , President Dwight D. Eisenhower used his farewell address to issue a warning, as the United States continued its cold war with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower knew that no missile gap existed and that fear of one might lead to a costly, unnecessary response. Three decades after the war on crime began, the United States has developed a prison-industrial complex—a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need.
The prison-industrial complex is not a conspiracy, guiding the nation's criminal-justice policy behind closed doors. It is a confluence of special interests that has given prison construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum. Since the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by about 20 percent, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50 percent.
The prison boom has its own inexorable logic. Steven R. Donziger, a young attorney who headed the National Criminal Justice Commission in , explains the thinking: "If crime is going up, then we need to build more prisons; and if crime is going down, it's because we built more prisons—and building even more prisons will therefore drive crime down even lower.
The raw material of the prison-industrial complex is its inmates: the poor, the homeless, and the mentally ill; drug dealers, drug addicts, alcoholics, and a wide assortment of violent sociopaths. About 70 percent of the prison inmates in the United States are illiterate. Perhaps , of the country's inmates suffer from a serious mental illness. A generation ago such people were handled primarily by the mental-health, not the criminal-justice, system.
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Sixty to 80 percent of the American inmate population has a history of substance abuse. Meanwhile, the number of drug-treatment slots in American prisons has declined by more than half since Drug treatment is now available to just one in ten of the inmates who need it.
Part II: Intake and Classification
Among those arrested for violent crimes, the proportion who are African-American men has changed little over the past twenty years. Among those arrested for drug crimes, the proportion who are African-American men has tripled. Although the prevalence of illegal drug use among white men is approximately the same as that among black men, black men are five times as likely to be arrested for a drug offense.
As a result, about half the inmates in the United States are African-American. One out of every fourteen black men is now in prison or jail. One out of every four black men is likely to be imprisoned at some point during his lifetime. The number of women sentenced to a year or more of prison has grown twelvefold since Of the 80, women now imprisoned, about 70 percent are nonviolent offenders.
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About 75 percent have children. The prison-industrial complex is not only a set of interest groups and institutions. It is also a state of mind. The lure of big money is corrupting the nation's criminal-justice system, replacing notions of public service with a drive for higher profits. The eagerness of elected officials to pass "tough-on-crime" legislation—combined with their unwillingness to disclose the true costs of these laws—has encouraged all sorts of financial improprieties.
The inner workings of the prison-industrial complex can be observed in the state of New York, where the prison boom started, transforming the economy of an entire region; in Texas and Tennessee, where private prison companies have thrived; and in California, where the correctional trends of the past two decades have converged and reached extremes. In the realm of psychology a complex is an overreaction to some perceived threat. Eisenhower no doubt had that meaning in mind when, during his farewell address, he urged the nation to resist "a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.
The origins of the prison-industrial complex can be dated to January of Senator Barry Goldwater had used the fear of crime to attract white middle-class voters a decade earlier, and Richard Nixon had revived the theme during the presidential campaign, but little that was concrete emerged from their demands for law and order.
The Prison Book Club by Ann Walmsley
On the contrary, Congress voted decisively in to eliminate almost all federal mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenders. Leading members of both political parties applauded the move. Mainstream opinion considered drug addiction to be largely a public-health problem, not an issue for the criminal courts.
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From to the number of inmates in California had declined by more than a fourth, despite the state's growing population. The number of inmates in New York had fallen to its lowest level since at least Prisons were widely viewed as a barbaric and ineffective means of controlling deviant behavior. Then, on January 3, , Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, gave a State of the State address demanding that every illegal-drug dealer be punished with a mandatory prison sentence of life without parole.
Rockefeller was a liberal Republican who for a dozen years had governed New York with policies more closely resembling those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt than those of Ronald Reagan. He had been booed at the Republican Convention by conservative delegates; he still harbored grand political ambitions; and President Nixon would be ineligible for a third term in Rockefeller demonstrated his newfound commitment to law and order in , when he crushed the Attica prison uprising.
By proposing the harshest drug laws in the United States, he took the lead on an issue that would soon dominate the nation's political agenda.
In his State of the State address Rockefeller argued not only that all drug dealers should be imprisoned for life but also that plea-bargaining should be forbidden in such cases and that even juvenile offenders should receive life sentences. The Rockefeller drug laws, enacted a few months later by the state legislature, were somewhat less draconian: the penalty for possessing four ounces of an illegal drug, or for selling two ounces, was a mandatory prison term of fifteen years to life. The legislation also included a provision that established a mandatory prison sentence for many second felony convictions, regardless of the crime or its circumstances.
Rockefeller proudly declared that his state had enacted "the toughest anti-drug program in the country. Nelson Rockefeller had set in motion a profound shift in American sentencing policy, but he never had to deal with the consequences. Nineteen months after the passage of his drug laws Rockefeller became Vice President of the United States.
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When Mario Cuomo was first elected governor of New York, in , he confronted some difficult choices. The state government was in a precarious fiscal condition, the inmate population had more than doubled since the passage of the Rockefeller drug laws, and the prison system had grown dangerously overcrowded.
A week after Cuomo took office, inmates rioted at Sing Sing, an aging prison in Ossining.
Cuomo was an old-fashioned liberal who opposed mandatory-minimum drug sentences. But the national mood seemed to be calling for harsher drug laws, not sympathy for drug addicts. President Reagan had just launched the War on Drugs; it was an inauspicious moment to buck the tide. Unable to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws, Cuomo decided to build more prisons.
The rhetoric of the drug war, however, was proving more popular than the financial reality. Cuomo searched for an alternate source of financing, and decided to use the state's Urban Development Corporation to build prisons. The corporation was a public agency that had been created in to build housing for the poor.
Despite strong opposition from upstate Republicans, among others, it had been legislated into existence on the day of Martin Luther King Jr. The corporation was an attractive means of financing prison construction for one simple reason: it had the authority to issue state bonds without gaining approval from the voters. Over the next twelve years Mario Cuomo added more prison beds in New York than all the previous governors in the state's history combined.
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Cuomo's use of the Urban Development Corporation drew criticism from both liberals and conservatives. Robert Gangi, the head of the Correctional Association of New York, argued that Cuomo was building altogether the wrong sort of housing for the poor. The state comptroller, Edward V. Regan, a Republican, said that Cuomo was defying the wishes of the electorate, which had voted not to spend money on prisons, and that his financing scheme was costly and improper.
Bonds issued by the Urban Development Corporation carried a higher rate of interest than the state's general-issue bonds. Legally the state's new prisons were owned by the Urban Development Corporation and leased to the Department of Corrections. In order to buy the prison, the corporation had to issue more bonds.