Here’s an arresting statistic, courtesy of Vox.com: from 1811 and 1979, state and federal governments built 711 prisons in the U.S. Between 1980 and 2004, they built 936. Granted, the U.S. population grew quite a bit during that time so it’s natural to assume we may have needed to increase the rate of prison construction. Furthermore, increased population density generally correlates with a disproportionate increase in crime rate. But goodness.
The 1980s were a huge turning point in U.S. crime-fighting strategy. We adopted many different “tough-on-crime” policies at the state and federal level in an effort to solve what was a significant public problem. While they were publicly credited with the dramatic decreases in crime we’ve seen since the mid-90s, sociologists disagree on the actual cause(s). Theories range from the Donohue-Levitt abortion hypothesis to Kevin Drum’s report that lead exposure corrupted so many brains. Whatever the causal mechanisms, one of the consequences of many 80s crime laws is a gigantic prison population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (B.J.S.) in 2011, almost one percent of the nation is behind bars, a total of nearly 2.3 million people. Including those on probation and parole, nearly seven million Americans are caught up in the penal system. This is a massive number that dwarfs those of our international peers. Incarceration has become a one-size-fits-all solution to a very complex problem, despite studies that show it has very little ability to rehabilitate offenders.
Furthermore, we know by now that prison is a toxic environment. Many who enter as non-violent offenders leave thoroughly conditioned to use deadly force. Mental health care is a disaster and guards (who in fairness have poor training, woeful resources, and an impossible job) frequently abuse their powers, to put it lightly. The recent New York Times expose on a Rikers Island prison reveals the full scope of public policy gone horrifyingly wrong. Another sobering statistic:
The [New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene] study, which the health department refused to release under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, found that over an 11-month period last year, 129 inmates suffered “serious injuries” — ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat — in altercations with correction department staff members.
129 “serious injuries” as a result of run-ins with prison guards. In 11 months. That’s over 10 injuries per month, or approximately one every three days. I’m sure some of those occurred after inmates resisted violently and left the guards little other choice, but that happened once every three days?
Besides guard-on-prisoner violence, there’s prisoner-on-prisoner violence. Tasteless jokes aside, the last B.J.S. survey in 2007 reported that 60,500 inmates were raped in the previous year alone (probably an understatement given general reluctance to admit being sexually assaulted). Many public health experts are calling prison rape a problem of epidemic proportions.
All of this has to be too high a price to pay for a lower crime rate and again, there’s not much proof these two things are even related at all. We haven’t simply “solved” our crime problem, we’ve outsourced it elsewhere. Somewhere behind the curtain and conveniently out of the way.
For more stats and info, read an eye-opening report from Human Rights Watch here.