When it comes to the United States, no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens
Nishi Malhotra Washington DC
It was my friend’s brother, Roland, who sparked my interest in doing this story. We had gone to visit him at a State correctional facility in Maryland where he was serving a 20-year sentence. The visiting room of a prison has to be one of the saddest places on earth: little children clinging to parents; wives and husbands facing each other in red plastic chairs under harsh lights in an enormous room decorated, oddly enough, with pictures of sunny landscapes in distant lands; and metal doors, leading off to some unknown innards, clanging open and shutting like the doors in a mortuary.
Roland was in for an armed robbery he committed 20 years ago. Incarcerated as a young boy of 18, he was due to exit soon as an adult past his prime. As my friend sat and talked to her brother, I looked around. Among the 30-odd families in the room, I could spot only two couples who were white.
I came away from the prison puzzled and struggling with two questions. Wasn’t a 20-year term a little too harsh for a robbery? And why was the number of African Americans at the prison so disproportionately high compared to white people? As I started to research the subject, I realized that what I was looking at was only the tip of the iceberg.
These are numbers that defy logic. The United States leads the world in incarcerating its own citizens — five per cent of the world’s population has 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners. Approximately 2.5 million Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. But this is not all. Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, one in every 31 adults, or 3.2 per cent of the population, is under some form of correctional control. According to California Prison Focus, “No other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.”
Only 13 per cent of the American population is black, but more than 60 per cent of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. Nearly one in every three African American males aged 20-29 is under some form of criminal justice supervision, whether imprisoned, on parole or probation. For black males in their 30s, one in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day. Several studies, including one by the Justice Policy Institute, which advocates alternatives to incarceration, have concluded that, overall, more Black males are in prison than are enrolled in colleges and universities.
The leading cause of incarceration of an African American male is a petty non-violent drug offence. About 14 million whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug. Five times as many whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet, African Americans are sent to prison for drug offences at 10 times the rate of whites. African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offence (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).
Nearly one in every three African American males aged 20-29 is under criminal justice supervision — imprisoned, on parole or probation. For black males in their 30s, one in every 10 is in jail on any given day
Do all of these people deserve to be behind bars? If not, what is it about America that makes it oppress its people so much? Why does the US have the largest prison population of any country in the world?
The answer is complex. But it would be good to clarify right away that the numbers do not mean that Americans are in any way more ‘criminally-inclined’ than people elsewhere in the world.
The system has three big flaws, say criminologists. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalizes acts that need not be criminalized. Third, it is unpredictable.
Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them. New laws have removed from judges much of their discretion to set a sentence that takes full account of the circumstances of the offence. Such laws, mandating minimum sentences, are seldom softened. On the contrary, they tend to get harder. These laws were enacted as a result of pressure from politicians who did not want to be seen as being soft on crime.
Some criminals belong behind bars. When a habitual rapist is locked up, the streets are safer. But the same is not necessarily true of petty drug-dealers whose incarceration creates a vacancy for someone else to fill. The number of drug offenders in federal and state lock-ups has increased 13-fold since 1980. Some are scary thugs; many are not. For instance, in Texas, a person may be sentenced to up to two years’ imprisonment for possessing four ounces of marijuana. In New York, the anti-drug law provides for a mandatory prison sentence of 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of any illegal drug.
The passage in 13 states of the ‘three strikes’ laws (life in prison after being convicted of three felonies) made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons. One of the most disturbing cases resulting from this measure was that of a prisoner who, for stealing a car and two bicycles, received three 25-year sentences.