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US Prisons as Strategic Hamlets



As we settle into the twenty-first century, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Although the fear of “terrorism” has significantly weighted US laws in the police’s favor, the primary reasons for the high incarceration rate remain the war on drug users and a change in penological philosophy from one of rehabilitation (or even punishment) to one of banishment. It is this philosophy that lies behind the so-called “three-strikes and you’re out” laws and initiatives like Oregon’s Measure 11 that established mandatory minimums for certain crimes. There is no attempt involved in these endeavors to seek justice, only a desire for revenge and a pretense that these prisoners are less than human and therefore deserve only a life behind bars or, in some cases, death by the state.

Underlying the current philosophy of imprisonment is the control of demographic groups considered surplus by the corporate world order. This means, among other things, a move away from interest in the individual offender and a shift of focus to what many penologists call “control of aggregates”. These aggregates, or groups, are primarily composed of young men of color, although the number of women from these same groups continues to grow. In the wake of industrial job flight from their neighborhoods, these groups’ presence outside of prison has become increasingly threatening to the ruling structures. As members of these groups turn toward other endeavors to make a living–endeavors often illegal such as drug dealing–the punishment for their actions has become increasingly harsher. In addition, new laws enacted to either enhance current legislation or to make even more actions illegal encourage police to concentrate their enforcement efforts on these groups. This trend is not worldwide, however. In fact, with the exception of the US and the United Kingdom, most other western countries have softened their penalties (or decriminalized them completely) for drug possession and other victimless crimes. In addition, these countries are attempting to find other means of dealing with persons convicted of crime that do not involve incarceration.

In the United States however, the population and practices of prisons reflect the new concerns of those who imprison. It is the belief of the justice system and the legislators who write the laws regulating crime that the only way to stop crime is to lock up as many perpetrators as possible. If these concerns could be portrayed with one image, that image would be the well-armed drug dealer. Furthermore, that drug dealer would be either an African-American, a Latino immigrant, young and usually male, although in recent years, the incarceration rate of women has increased dramatically. The fact that this image has come to represent imprisonment and criminality to the population proves the effectiveness of the prevalent approach to penology as the 20th century ends.

Within the prisons themselves, alarming changes have been made as a result of the aforementioned philosophical change in penology. Perhaps foremost among these changes are longer prison sentences which are often the result of mandatory sentencing and, in many locales, a “three strikes” policy which mandates life imprisonment for a third conviction on a felony. This has led to vast overcrowding in the United States despite an unprecedented surge in prison construction, and the highest incarceration rate in the world. The tangential effects of this practice are seen in the reduction in public funding for education and social welfare programs as policing and imprisonment take a higher and higher percentage of said funds. For example, in California, where the prison population is six times larger than it was in the late 1970s, recent state budgets have called for more spending on prisons and punishment than on higher education. This trend is replicated across the country. In fact, between 1968 and 2000 the percentage increase in state spending on prisons was 6 times the percentage increase of spending on higher education. The total change in spending on higher education by states was 24%, compared with 166% for corrections.

Architecturally, this mission of control has meant the creation of what American prison administrators and prisoners commonly refer to as “super-max” prisoners. Super-max means super-maximum-security and such institutions can now be found in several states and in the federal prison system. Although not completely new to the U.S. system–Alcatraz was a super-max prison in its time–the current version utilizes the most advanced security technology, constant psychological intimidation, and some of the most brutal guards. Prisoners’ movements are severely restricted and the time they spend outside of their individual cells is minimal if at all. Once in, it is very difficult for a prisoner to leave such a unit until his/her sentence is up.

Part of the reason for the upsurge in prison populations is simple: somebody is making money from incarceration. In addition to the drug war dynamic, which perpetuates not only the need for a higher number of drug arrests but also the need for the continued violation of the drug laws in order to justify its existence, prisons themselves are a growing business. Whether it is a company that manufactures or provides equipment used in corrections, a company whose business is building prisons, or the growing industry of staffing privatized prisons, there is money to be made. In addition, the growing contracting of inmates in manufacturing and services by outside industry has created a need for this new element of the labor force. Like death row prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal wrote in one of his many commentaries, “Under a regime where more bodies equal more profits, prisons take one big step closer to their historical ancestor, the slave pen.” Another aspect to the privatization of prisons (and the use of prisoners as labor) is the question of whether the role of these institutions is rehabilitation, punishment or merely the assurance that taxpayer subsidized labor will continue to be provided. Corporations who do contract prison labor range from Starbucks Coffee to the Boeing Corporation. The work is presented to prisoners, legislators and the public as work experience and job opportunities for the inmates when in reality they are nothing but cheap labor opportunities for the participating corporations. With the government assuming costs for all living expenses and a workforce unwilling to challenge labor abuse and other questionable practices for fear of retaliation by prison officials, it is a near perfect environment for the corporation.

As corporate globalism continues to precipitate a shift of more and more capital to the financial capitals of the north, immigration from the poorer countries follows. This has created a problem of controlling these population flows for the receiving countries. The preferred solution seems to be imprisonment in detention centers and/or the cordoning off of neighborhoods where most of the residents are immigrants (usually of Latino or Asian origin). This separation of the immigrant population, while nominally temporary, has in reality created a whole new policing apparatus within the U.S., which has fewer limitations on its enforcement capabilities than the rest of the prison system. This lack of protections is due to the uncertain legal status of some of its subjects. There are enough tales of immigrants who have landed in an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention center only to get lost in a Kafkaesque legal maze for years to safely state that these incidents are not accidents of the system but part of its process. Add to this scenario the ongoing abridgement of rights for citizen and non-citizen alike in the wake of 911, and the tribulations of Kafka’s character “K” in his novel The Trial, seem inconsequential.

In the United States, one of the primary reasons (before the PATRIOT ACT and the creation of Homeland Security) for such tales of distress is the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. A major aspect of this law is the denial of asylum to immigrants convicted of a crime, no matter how small, and no matter how long ago in their past the violation occurred. Previously, many of these immigrants were eligible for parole. Now they are assigned to a prison, oftentimes after being discovered during a workplace raid by INS officials. Like prisons for citizens, monetary reasons motivate the rise in imprisonment of immigrants, as well. Many county and city budgets receive large sums of money from the INS, as do private prisons. This dynamic, just as in the rest of the prison world, does not encourage administrators to seek out alternatives to imprisonment. Add to this the desire to control behavior which threatens the middle-class quality of life and the subsequent desire to exile those who exhibit said behavior, and one has another part of the equation that drives the current imprisonment philosophy.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.

He can be reached at:


Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at:

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