Prisoners of Ideology

For the past thirty years, the United States has been on an imprisonment binge unprecedented in world history. In 1980, the total number of people incarcerated in the U.S. was 500,000. Today the number stands at 2.2 million, with a further 4.8 million on probation or parole. The total U.S. prison budget increased from $9 billion in 1980 to $61 billion by 2003.

While the U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it now has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In other words, the country that often proclaims itself the freest in the world, imprisons its population at a rate over six times higher than the rest of the planet. The U.S. incarceration rate stands at 737 per 100,000, over five times higher than Great Britain and over twelve times higher than Norway. The statistics for minority populations are even more shocking. For Latinos, the imprisonment rate is twice the national average. For Blacks it is four times the national average, with over one million African-American men in prison or jail. In 2002, 10.4 percent of all Black males between the ages of 25 and 29 were imprisoned, and the numbers have not improved since then.

In a report presented to Congress last year, the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons concluded, “We should be astonished by the size of the prisoner population, troubled by the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos, and saddened by the waste of human potential.” The report found medical and mental health care in prisons to be grossly inadequate, and noted a “desperate need for the kind of productive activities that discourage violence and make rehabilitation possible.”

Another report, issued in February by the Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts, predicted that the prison population alone (not including jails, juvenile institutions, and other detention facilities) will rise by 13 percent, or another 192,000 people, over the next five years, at an increased cost of $27.5 billion. The report identified long mandatory minimum prison sentences, reduced use of parole, and harsh parole and probation rules, which often send people to prison for minor violations, as mainly responsible for the increase. “Every additional dollar spent on prisons,” it pointed out, “is one dollar less that can go for preparing for the next Hurricane Katrina, educating young people, providing health care to the elderly or repairing roads and bridges.”

Nowhere is the crisis worse than in California. In 1977, the state had fewer than 20,000 prisoners. Thirty years later the number stands at 173,000. In its first 130 years as a state, California built twelve prisons. Between 1980 and 2005 it added another twenty-one, at enormous cost. Today, California spends $35,000 a year for every prisoner, compared to $7,000 for K-12 students and only $4,500 in support for college and university students.

Yet despite billions spent on new facilities, California’s prisons and jails are bursting at the seams, with many crammed to twice their intended capacity. In nearly every state prison, the gym and every other available space is packed with triple bunk beds, squeezing out opportunities for recreation, education, and rehabilitation. Most California prisons are in a permanent state of lockdown, which confines prisoners to their cramped cells for all but an hour or two a day, while essential services are in a state of collapse. In 2005, a federal court put the California prison health care system under outside control because of its shocking level of deterioration.

While some states have experimented successfully with drug rehabilitation and parole diversion programs, California has failed to reform its parole system and has the highest recidivism rate in the country, with 70 percent returning to prison within three years, often for minor violations such as missing a court appearance. This revolving door costs the state $1.5 billion a year and makes the overcrowding problem even worse.

The situation is so bad, that last October Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the prisons, and began making arrangements to move thousands of inmates to private prisons in Arizona, Tennessee, and elsewhere. Prison wardens are screening a video trying to persuade prisoners to transfer voluntarily, although so far only a few hundred have agreed. The film includes interviews with prisoners who have already been moved. “They talk to us like humans [here],” says one, “not like animals.” In reality, the private prisons have their own long record of brutality and abuse.

The predictable result of massive overcrowding has been frequent violence and rioting, with Black and Latino prison gangs frequently pitted against each other. In 2006, for example, the Los Angeles County jails were rocked by a series of riots. “There’s no question this city has turned its back on incarcerated youth and turned our jails into a byproduct of such neglect,” said Lita Herron, director of Mothers on the March. “Now we’ve seen the consequences of what happens if we continue to do nothing about it.”

But the situation is similar in many other states. “The explosions of violence we are seeing in Los Angeles are systemic nationwide,” Terry Jungel, past president of the National Sheriffs Association told the media at the time. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Jungel blamed “Years of get-tough-on-crime policies [that] have emphasized rhetoric over funding, and strict confinement instead of programs to address prisoner problems or conditions.”

“Truth in sentencing, three strikes and you’re out-it looks great on paper, but try to make it work,” Connecticut state Representative Michael Lawlor, a former prosecutor, told the Associated Press.

The huge expansion of the U.S. prison population has little to do with the level of crime. According to the most reliable data, U.S. crime rates have been stable or in decline since the mid-1970s. With the notable exception of homicide, crime rates in the U.S. are comparable to those of other developed countries that imprison their inhabitants at a much lower rate. Moreover, public concern about crime is not closely correlated with the actual crime rate, but shifts in relation to the amount of attention given to crime in the media and to the level of political rhetoric.

Conservative politicians first began making crime a major political issue as part of a strategy to roll back the reforms won by social activists in the 1960s. The civil rights movement made it no longer respectable to make openly racist arguments, so political figures declared a war on crime to send a coded racial message to the voters. One of the first was Richard Nixon. In notes taken at an Oval Office meeting shortly after Nixon’s election, H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, wrote, “[the President] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Ronald Reagan pushed these policies further in the 1980s. At a time when social spending was being slashed and inequality and poverty were increasing, conservatives blamed bad individuals rather than underlying social conditions for crime.

The policies that created the current crisis were pushed not just by Republicans, but by many Democrats too. In California, it was Democratic Governor Jerry Brown who in 1977 eliminated indeterminate sentencing laws, which had allowed parole boards the option of releasing prisoners after serving relatively short sentences. Soon afterwards, the Democratic-controlled legislature eliminated rehabilitation and treatment as goals of the prison system, and passed legislation defining its purpose as only punishment.

During the 1980s, the Democratic legislature in California passed over 1,000 laws increasing the length of mandatory prison terms. According to a study by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, many of these changes were “enacted as knee-jerk responses by lawmakers to horrific, high-profile and frequently isolated crimes.” They laid the ground for the 1994 passage of Proposition 184, the most draconian “three strikes” law in the country, which mandates life sentences for offenders with two prior serious convictions. Hundreds of people in the state are now serving life sentences for offenses such as petty theft or filing a false DMV application.

The American ruling class is well aware that it needs to solve its major prison crisis, but it finds itself unable to abandon the ideological framework that it has relied on for over thirty years. Once again, California provides a clear example. When Schwarzenegger assumed office in late 2003, he set a goal of reducing California’s prison population by 15,000, renamed the state’s correction department the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and set up a prison review panel headed by former Republican Governor George Deukmejian. “The key to reforming the system,” the panel concluded, “lies in reducing the numbers.”

Within a few months, however, the new governor began to reverse himself. In 2004 he played a crucial role in defeating Proposition 66, which would have reformed California’s “three strikes” law to make the third strike a serious or violent crime. Last year, Schwarzenegger also backed Proposition 83, which increases sentences for sex offenders. Rehabilitation programs have been scaled back and as a result, instead of declining, the California prison population has risen by another 12,000.

When progressive reforms have been passed, they have not been given the funds to succeed fully. In 2000, California voters approved Proposition 36, which requires probation and treatment for first-time drug offenders, rather than prison. Researchers say that the law has saved hundreds of millions in incarceration costs since it was enacted, but lack of money means that demand far outruns availability, increasing the likelihood that participants will suffer a relapse while waiting for treatment.

Two-thirds of California’s prisoners read below a ninth-grade level, and over half are functionally illiterate. Despite the fact that education is one of the best ways of reducing recidivism, only 6 percent of prisoners are in academic classes and 5 percent in vocational training. Moreover, many of the work programs are a joke. According to the Washington Post, “they often consist of having an inmate sweep or mop a small section of a hall over and over and over, for six hours.”

In the first half of 2006, two successive secretaries of the corrections department appointed by Schwarzenegger resigned, saying that their attempts to introduce changes had been blocked. One of them, Jeanne Woodford (the former warden of San Quentin), testifying recently in federal court before a judge who is considering whether to put the whole system into receivership, said that her proposals for parole and sentencing reform were derailed by Schwarzenegger’s aides, who told him, “Governor, it’s an election year.” By the end of last year, Schwarzenegger was proposing to borrow almost $11 billion to build two new prisons and expand the capacity of California’s prisons and jails by 80,000. The Governor has proposed a commission to reexamine the state’s sentencing laws, but he also declared that he will oppose any changes to California’s “three strikes” law.

But in February, Schwarzenegger started swinging back in the opposite direction. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the had “quietly dropped a call he made last year to build new prisons in the same style the state had built in the past,” and backed a plan to move thousands of prisoners to smaller facilities closer to the big cities, with increased resources to help them reenter society on their release. Whether these new plans will come to fruition, and whether they will be adequately funded, remains highly doubtful. More likely, in the next few months Schwarzenegger will again begin to feel the pull of the “tough on crime” ideology on which politicians in both major parties have come to rely.

Meanwhile, the human cost of these policies continues to mount. “It’s always prison, prison, prison. It just corrupts you more,” Rodolfo Salcido, a drug addict who has been in and out of jail for years, told the Los Angeles Times last Christmas. “We need help. We’re sick. It shouldn’t just be back to prison.”

PHIL GASPER teaches philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur University in California and writes the bimonthly “Critical Thinking” column for International Socialist Review. He can be reached at