Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1975

US prison system targets blacks and poor whites

This article is over 16 years, 7 months old
The consequences of Britain’s draconian prison policies can be glimpsed by looking at the US, writes Matthew Cookson
Issue 1975
An armed guard oversees a chain gang in the US
An armed guard oversees a chain gang in the US

The US prison system today incarcerates some 2.1 million adults. That prison population has increased sevenfold from 300,000 since 1980.

That year the right wing Republican Ronald Reagan became president. He launched a “law and order” crackdown and a “war on drugs” that ruthlessly targeted black people and poor whites.

Harsh laws against drug use led to a massive increase in the number of people in prison. And every US administration since has continued with these draconian policies.

Democrat president Bill Clinton was desperate to show he was “tough on crime” in order to win the confidence of the US media and ruling class.

In the run up to the 1992 presidential election, Clinton, who was then governor of Arkansas, refused clemency for Ricky Rector, a brain damaged man who was about to be executed. Rector was executed and Clinton went on to win the election.

During his presidency California introduced the “three strikes and you’re out” policy. This means that people are sentenced to between 25 years and life imprisonment if they commit three crimes, however trivial.

There were almost 1.3 million people in prison when Clinton became president in 1992. That had increased to two million by the time he left office in 2000.

The US penal system discriminates against black people. Some 12.6 percent of black men in their late 20s are behind bars, compared to 3.6 percent for Hispanic men and 1.6 percent for white.

The ethnic make-up of prisons also displays the deep racism that characterises US society. Black men in the US are more likely to go to prison than to university.

Some 52 percent of black men aged between 20 and 34 in 1999 who had not finished school had been to prison. This compares to 13 percent of white men of the same age who hadn’t finished school.

The number of women in prison has also increased, from 12,000 in 1980 to 103,000 today. Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population.

As well as the 2.1 million adults in prison, there are 700,000 young people in correctional facilities such as detention centres, training camps, ranches or farms.

Life inside has become much harder for people. Prisons have not been built in sufficient numbers to keep up with the increase in prisoners, leading inevitably to massive overcrowding.

A large proportion of prisoners have little chance of parole, which fuels increasing violence and frustration in prison — leading in turn to ever harsher punishment from the guards.

Sexual abuse is also rife. Between 14 and 23 percent of released prisoners say they were raped in prison. That means that between 280,000 and 460,000 men currently in prison have been raped.

George Bush has continued with his predecessors’ racist and anti-poor prisons policy. Between June 2003 and June 2004 the US prison population grew by about 920 inmates a week, adding another 48,000 people. That works out as a growth rate of 2.3 percent a year.

The number of admissions that year exceeded the number of releases by over 8,000 — and this is despite the crime rate falling.

The US has 726 prisoners per 100,000 residents, nearly ten times that of many other Western states. There are 166,000 people in Texas prisons, the state George Bush used to govern — a rate of imprisonment only matched by the state of California.

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