Caging America

Mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex have harmed far too many Americans and need to end.

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Jason Hernandez was sentenced to life without parole and 320 years in prison for a low-level drug crime at age 21 in 1998. Mandatory minimums prevented the judge from giving Hernandez a second chance. Lavette Mayes, a single mother, got into a physical fight with her mother-in-law that hospitalized them both. Mayes was charged with aggravated battery against a senior and had to wait 14 months in jail for her court date because she could not afford the $250 thousand cash bail.

Though these stories may seem shocking, they are the norm. The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with roughly 2.3 million people incarcerated. It’s home to only 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Mass incarceration and the rapid growth of the U.S. inmate population can be attributed to the prison industrial complex, which is the overlap between the government and industries that use policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, political, and social issues. Through the prison industrial complex, the private prison industry capitalizes on mass incarceration.

The rapid increase in incarceration can be traced to policies initiated by President Richard Nixon, instituted by President Ronald Reagan, and continued by Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. They declared a War on Drugs, pushed for policies centered around law and order, and claimed to be tough on crime. The War on Drugs ultimately failed and resulted in an explosion in the prison population. When Reagan first took office, there were 329 thousand prisoners. By the time he left, it had almost doubled, with 627 thousand people serving time.

Mass incarceration hits communities of color the hardest. Despite equal substance use rates, Black Americans are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses and four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than their white counterparts. The War on Drugs further increased racial disparities as people of color were targeted, and its consequences still disproportionately impact these communities.

The prison industrial complex is not complete without the “industrial” aspect of it, therefore making prison labor an inherent part of the complex and a major contributor to mass incarceration. The most common agents of prison labor are large corporations that sign contracts to receive cheap prison labor. Federal prisoner wages range from $0.12 to $0.40 per hour, far lower than minimum wage. The lack of livable wages contributes to the high profits the private prison industry makes; as of 2015, the largest private prison corporations had made $3.5 billion. These corporations have found that exploiting incarcerated people is much easier than using other means of labor and generates a greater profit. Hence, they lobby for policies that contribute to mass incarceration.

One politician the private prison industry successfully lobbied is Marco Rubio, who has a history of close ties to the GEO Group, the U.S.’s second largest for-profit prison company. When Rubio was the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, he hired a consultant who had been a trustee for a GEO real estate trust. The GEO Group was given a state government contract for a more than $100 million prison, allowing more people to be locked up. Additionally, Rubio received about $40 thousand in donations from GEO for his electoral campaigns.

Private prison companies also indirectly support policies that incarcerate more Americans and immigrants by lobbying and donating to campaigns of politicians who back them. Some of the aforementioned policies are California’s “Three Strikes” Law and Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law, both of which have resulted in increased prison populations. The private prison industry has spent over $26.2 million on lobbying in 16 states since 2012.

The objectives of incarceration include not only punishment and justice, but also public safety. However, mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex have failed to achieve those goals. Time spent in prisons rarely rehabilitates inmates, and the majority of criminals return to a life of crime after they’re released from jail. In fact, 71 percent of incarcerated people released in 34 states in 2012 were rearrested within five years, and recidivism rates are still high. Public safety cannot be achieved by putting humans in jails where corporations can profit off their labor and where they are not rehabilitated.

Additionally, it is difficult for those who were formerly incarcerated to find jobs, making it harder for them to readjust to and reenter society. On average, there are 123 mandatory bans and restrictions per state ranging from employment in occupations or industries to obtaining certain types of occupational licenses for those with convictions. Even if they find jobs, they receive extremely low or no wages; only 55 percent of former inmates report any earnings, and the median income is merely $10,090.

To achieve a fairer prison system, states’ sentence minimums and maximums should be reduced. There is little evidence indicating that staying in prison for decades will rehabilitate an individual. In fact, offenders serving longer sentences often have an increased risk of recidivism. Prison for lower level crimes, though often the default, does not change behavior and should not be the standard. Moreover, it’s difficult to address problems concerning crimes without addressing where they stem from. There should be more investment in low-income communities through increasing funding of schools, reentry programs for prisoners, public health initiatives, youth employment programs, and mental health initiatives, which would in turn help tackle crime rates. For example, when communities have community organizations which aid in improving mental health, increasing youth employment, and helping prisoners return to society via reentry programs, there are decreases in property crime rates, homicide rates, and violent crime rates.

Far too many families and vulnerable communities have been ripped apart, and too many individuals have been wronged because of the private prison industry and its exploitation of prisoners. As long as mass incarceration continues and injustices are perpetuated, America’s prison and justice system will continue to fail Americans.