You probably think most people, given the choice, would prefer not living near a prison.  A prison is practically the dictionary definition of something nobody wants in their own backyards.

NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) : opposition to the locating of something considered undesirable (as a prison or incinerator) in one’s neighborhood.”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Definition of NIMBY

Well, you’re wrong.  People like prisons.  They want them.  

We have always wanted to host a prison,” said Patrick W. Burke, Town Supervisor of Chateaugay, New York. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

Who Wants New Prisons? In New York, All of Upstate – New York Times, June 9, 1989

A town with a prison is a “lucky town.”

“So far, 11 lucky towns, all of them in economically depressed rural areas, have made the correction department’s list of acceptable prison sites, and more are hoping to do so.”

Who Wants New Prisons? In New York, All of Upstate – New York Times, June 9, 1989

It’s “easy money,”

“Best of all, it’s easy money according to Folsom, California Finance Director Dave Sanders who is quoted in the Sacramento Bee as stating ‘The prisons are self-contained islands that don’t really cost us anything,’ Sanders said. ‘I don’t see a negative side to having them in the community.'”

Prison Cities Cash in on Census,  Lodi News Sentinel, May 1, 2000

a “permanent windfall.”

“Because state and federal tax revenue is figured per capita, a prison population that puts no strains on village services is a permanent windfall for a little town such as Ina, Hutchens said.”

Towns Put Dreams In Prisons, Chicago Tribune, March 20, 2001

That windfall has nothing to do with creating jobs or producing economic growth.  Prisons are valuable, surprisingly, because of the census. They say “nothing beats having a prison in town when census time rolls around.”

“Some cities go down on their knees during the decennial census, begging their residents to be counted. Folsom, Susanville and Ione do not beg. Those three towns can relax, smug in the knowledge that a big chunk of their population cannot escape enumeration. Or escape, period. Nothing beats having a prison in town when census time rolls around.”

Korber, Dorothy. “Prisoner Undercount Undercuts Coffers.” Sacramento Bee, April 30, 2000, page A1

When the census is taken, the Census Bureau adds the prisoners to the population of the towns in which they are incarcerated, as opposed to their real home towns.  This is a controversial policy for several reasons, mostly having to do with the disproportionately negative effect it has on minority communities.  For now, the important point is that prisoners increase census results, so the more prisoners there are in any given town, the bigger the population is, and the more that town gets of everything distributed based on census results. This can include money, but most importantly, it means more representation in government.

Theoretically, that extra representative-power should go to the prisoners, but it doesn’t, because, in America, prisoners cannot vote.  It’s incarceration without representation.  Because the prisoners can’t vote, they are exploited, not represented.

Because the prisoners cannot vote but are counted as constituents, they are not represented, and they are totally exploited.”

Alice Green, founder of the Center for Law and Justice, quoted in As Census Nears, How to Count Inmates Is Debated –Washington Post,  April 26, 2009

And because district boundaries are based on census numbers, a local prison ends up having an effect similar to gerrymandering.  In fact, it’s called “prison-based gerrymandering.” 

Counting inmates at their correctional institutions encourages prison-based gerrymandering, by which state lawmakers draw legislative districts that consist partly or even mainly of prison populations, even though inmates are denied the right to vote in all but two states. This enhances the political power of the mainly rural districts where prisons are built and undercuts the influence of the urban districts where many inmates came from.”

Prison-Based Gerrymandering – The New York Times, (Sept. 26, 2013).

Because all voting districts are supposed to have the same number of people, the more prisoners there are in one district, the fewer non-prisoners, who do have the right to vote, there will be.  The result is fewer people to whom the lawmakers are held accountable.

“It’s almost the perfect crime. A legislator gets extra influence without having to be accountable to more constituents, and the data says the district is legit.”

Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative, being quoted in What Is Prison-Based Gerrymandering?, Jeff Reichert, Huffington Post, September 3, 2010

Essentially, this lets the lawmakers exploit a large number of people, and also guarantees those people won’t show up on election day to vote them out of office – for any reason.

“Streets that were paved in chipped gravel and oil for generations soon will all be covered with asphalt. An $850,000 community center that doubles as a gym and computer lab for the school across the street is being paid for with prison money, [Mayor Andy] Hutchens said.

Because state and federal tax revenue is figured per capita, a prison population that puts no strains on village services is a permanent windfall for a little town such as Ina, Hutchens said.

It really figures out this way: This little town of 450 people is getting the tax money of a town of 2,700,’ Hutchens said, and then adds with a grin, ‘And those people in that prison can’t vote me out of office.'”

Towns Put Dreams In Prisons -Chicago Tribune, March 20, 2001

In other words, prisoners are a source of political power.

The prisons are also a source of political power to upstate Republicans because the inmates are counted as permanent residents when legislative districts are drawn — even though they cannot vote and their actual homes may be hundreds of miles away.”

Less Crime: No Reason to Shut Prisons, New York Times, April 12, 2008

Which makes them a “coveted constituency,

“As state lawmakers prepare to redraw the boundaries of Congressional and state legislative districts, one segment of the population is quickly becoming a coveted constituency: prisoners.”

Inmates’ Stock Is Rising in Albany District Fight JEREMY W. PETERS,  New York Times,   (Jan. 28, 2010)

a “hot commodity that everyone wants to claim.”

“That’s because the Census Bureau counts prisoners as residents of the towns they are incarcerated in, instead of the neighborhoods they lived in before being locked up. The result: Every calculation that uses Census data–from federal funding formulas to drawing state legislative districts–gives more money and representation to communities with prisons than they would get if reckoning were based solely on their non-incarcerated populations. That makes prisoners a hot commodity that everyone wants to claim.

“Down for the (re) count: the Census counts prisoners in their cells, not their neighborhoods. Now a move is afoot to change their addresses.” City Limits. City Limits Community Information Service, Inc. 2004

But prisons aren’t easy to get.  There’s too much competition.

“But Mr. Poland does not expect Chesterfield, an Adirondack town almost 150 miles north of Albany, to have a prison handed to it. No, sir. There is too much competition from other towns.”

Who Wants New Prisons? In New York, All of Upstate – New York Times, June 9, 1989

People go to great lengths to get a prison.  They give up a lot.

“Rural counties and small towns give up a lot to gain what they hope will be more: offering financial assistance and concessions such as donated land, upgraded sewer and water systems, housing subsidies, and, in the case of private prisons, property and other tax abatements.”

Building a Prison Economy in Rural America

They lobby hard.

Susanville City Administrator J. Newell…had “lobbied hard for those prisons, eager for the population boost – and accompanying tax dollars – inmates bring to a city.”

Korber, Dorothy. “Prisoner Undercount Undercuts Coffers.” Sacramento Bee, December 4, 2001, page A3

They lobby frantically.

“Although Governor Cuomo and New York legislative leaders are not expected to decide for several days how many prisons the state will build, several towns have begun frantic lobbying efforts to secure one.”

Who Wants New Prisons? In New York, All of Upstate – New York Times, June 9, 1989

They beg and plead for prisons,

“Hundreds of small rural towns and several whole regions,” writes Tracy Huling, author of several books and articles about incarceration, “…are now begging for prisons to be built in their backyards.”

Building a Prison Economy in Rural America, by Tracy Huling, from Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, The New Press. 2002

“Romulus, a town in the Finger Lakes region that recently made the list of possible sites, has sent scores of postcards to the state correction commissioner pleading for a prison. And Chateaugay, a town near the Canadian border, has sent several hundred form letters with a similar message.”

Who Wants New Prisons? In New York, All of Upstate – New York Times  June 9, 1989

because a prison is a “blessing.”

They’re fairly well blessed,” says Chesterfield, New York’s town Supervisor, Roger Poland, of neighboring city’s two prisons. “Now the  blessing’s due in another town.

Who Wants New Prisons? In New York, All of Upstate – New York Times  June 9, 1989

A prison is “salvation.”

“Once the state’s Five Points prison opens here in August, Romulus will be home to 3,200 free-ranging souls and 2,200 inmates. The free-rangers aren’t complaining. ”It’s a salvation to us,” said Mr. Zajac, who has run this Finger Lakes town as the elected supervisor for 29 years.”

Our Towns; One Community’s Lawbreakers Are Another’s Growth Industry – New York Times, June 25, 2000

And once you get a prison, all you need is a few hundred rapists or car thieves and it’s party time.

“So when Hardin officials announced this week that they had signed a deal with a California company to fill the empty jail, it was naturally a cause for celebration.  Town officials talked about throwing a party to mark the occasion.”

Montana jail deal raises questions – San Jose Mercury News, September 12, 2009

But the lure of a prison is intoxicating, and it can be hard to stop at just one.

“Most of the towns that are seeking new prisons are not strangers to the world of ”correctional facilities.” Some of the towns, like Wawarsing in the Catskills, already have one prison and are hoping to attract another. “

Who Wants New Prisons? In New York, All of Upstate – New York Times  June 9, 1989

Or twelve.

“Some environmentalists, like Michael G. DiNunzio of the Adirondack Council, even question whether it is constitutional for the state to build prisons on sites it acquires inside the park, like the one proposed in Chesterfield.  ”I’m very concerned,” he said. There are already a half-dozen prisons inside the park and another half dozen around the perimeter.”

Who Wants New Prisons? In New York, All of Upstate – New York Times  June 9, 1989

Of course, it’s not really the prisons that these people are after.  What they want are the prisoners.  A prison with no prisoners is no good.  Consider the town of Hardin, Montana.  They didn’t beg or plead for a prison, they just went ahead and built one.

The $27 million facility, which was built with revenue bonds, went into default last year. Bond payments are being made out of a reserve fund, which will have to be replenished and payments made, once revenue starts.”

Hardin prison drawing media attention from around globe, The Billings Gazette, May 11, 2009

“Hardin, a dusty town of 3,400 people so desperate that it built a $27 million jail a couple of years ago in the vain hope it would be a moneymaker.

Small Montana Town Offers to Take Guantanamo Prisoners | Associated Press,  May 29, 2009

Then they realized they didn’t have any prisoners to put in the prison.  That’s when they started begging.

“Even before the prison was completed, Hardin begged state officials to send them prisoners from everywhere and anywhere.”

Hardin Needs Prisoners, Not Political Posturing | Bob Wire | Community Blogs | NewWest.Net

They looked under every rock,

Smith said it is his job to ‘uncover every rock’ to find ways to get the detention center operating. He knows there are options available, it’s just a matter for finding them and seeking out contracts. People who don’t like the idea of alleged enemy combatants coming to town can help, he said. ‘To those who don’t want it, help us find something so we can fill it,’ Smith said.”

Hardin jail tries for detainees from Gitmo, Billings Gazette, April 23, 2009

from Vermont to Alaska,”

“City officials have searched from Vermont to Alaska for inmate contracts to fill the jail, only to be turned down at every turn and see the bonds that financed its construction fall into default. “

“American Police Force” to manage Hardin Montana prison | Suzie-Que’s Truth and Justice Blog

but they couldn’t find any prisoners.  They even requested terrorists from Guantanamo Bay

“Two Rivers Detention Facility has been in media headlines from Chile to Norway and across the United States since its owners announced in late April that they were seeking to hold alleged terrorists being held at Guantanamo Bay.”

Hardin prison drawing media attention from around globe, The Billings Gazette, May 11, 2009

to put in their “dormitory-style,” medium security jail built to hold drunks

“State corrections officials have balked at the dormitory-style housing provided by the Hardin jail. Rather, the state standard is a style with a maximum of two beds to a cell, Smith said.”

Hardin prison drawing media attention from around globe, The Billings Gazette, May 11, 2009

“The medium-security jail was conceived as a holding facility for drunks and other scofflaws, but town leaders said it could be fortified with a couple of guard towers and some more concertina wire.”

Small Montana Town Offers to Take Guantanamo Prisoners | Associated Press,  May 29, 2009

(a Hardin official said “unofficial redneck patrol” would protect them from terrorism).

“The jail’s No. 1 promoter, Greg Smith, executive director of Hardin’s economic development agency, said the Two Rivers Detention Center could easily be retrofitted to increase security. And while the town hasn’t had its own police force since the 1970s, Smith said the jail’s well-armed neighbors would constitute an “unofficial redneck patrol.””

Small Montana Town Offers to Take Guantanamo Prisoners | Associated Press,  May 29, 2009

Unfortunately, the terrorists weren’t available. And all the sex offenders were taken.

“The Montana Department of Corrections wasn’t interested in using the prison, nor were neighboring counties. Hardin’s attempt to house sex offenders at the facility also fell flat. “

Improbable Private Prison Scam Plays Out in Hardin, Montana | Prison Legal News.

No matter who they asked, nobody would share their prisoners with Hardin.  Not very Christian of you, America!

“The bonds were declared to be in technical default in 2008, and there followed years of sometimes-desperate attempts to find some sort of paying use for the jail. Hardin tried contracting with counties, states, tribal organizations and the federal government, all to no avail.”

Hardin jail—at long last—is open, slowly expanding | Last Best News,  October 3, 2014.

Of course nobody would share their prisoners.  This is more than just dollars.

“And there in the middle of the parade is a float carrying a giant banner that reads ‘Save Camp Gabriels.’ Gabriels is a minimum-security prison camp, one of four state facilities slated for closure. Mary Ellen Keith, a local government official and activist, urged for keeping the prison open at a rally last month. ‘We can’t lose this — this is more than just dollars! This is life. This is our heritage,’ she said.”

Prison Closings Trouble Upstate New York, NPR, All Things Considered, March 4, 2008

The lawmakers – the people in charge, that is – of the communities that have lots of prisoners, can’t be giving them out to people – they need to keep them where they are.  They need the power they generate.  It’s like The Matrix. 

prisonbatcell matrix

If the local prisons started closing down, those elected officials would lose the prison-based gerrymandering effect they covet so highly. Worse yet, the local area may no longer have enough people in it to qualify as a legislative district at all, in which case, these powerful people lose their jobs – because the jobs don’t exist anymore.

Elizabeth O’C. Little, a Republican state senator, represents a rural Upstate district larger in square miles than Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. But more than 13,500 of her constituents are not living there by choice, they could not vote for her if they wanted to, and most will leave the first chance they get.  Those unwilling constituents are incarcerated in one of 13 prisons — 12 state and one federal — that have given her district the nickname “Little Siberia.” Without the prisoners, the district, which stretches to the Canadian border, may not have the minimum population required to earn a seat in the state Senate.

As Census Nears, How to Count Inmates Is Debated, Washington Post, April 26, 2009

Lawmakers in that position don’t want you to even think about taking their prisoners.  

“Moving to reverse decades of expansion, Gov. Eliot Spitzer is proposing a commission to study closing some of New York State’s dozens of prisons…Behind Mr. Spitzer’s proposal lies a recognition that New York’s prison population, which peaked in 1999 at more than 71,000 inmates, has rapidly declined since….But a powerful alliance of upstate lawmakers and correction officers’ unions guard their constituents’ and members’ state-financed jobs and are likely to resist any effort to downsize the system…”I’m very concerned about the commission,” said Senator Elizabeth O’C. Little, a Republican whose Adirondacks district includes 12 prisons and prison camps. Five of them are in Franklin County, which has roughly one inmate for every 10 residents, according to census figures, the highest concentration in the state.”

Spitzer Seeks Way to Find State Prisons He Can Close New York Times, February 5, 2007

There are a lot of lawmakers in that position. In upstate New York alone there are seven districts that only meet the population requirements because the prisoners are there.

“A startling analysis by Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative found seven upstate New York Senate districts meeting the population requirements only because inmates were included in the count.” 

Phantom Voters, Thanks to the Census New York Times, December 27, 2005

“In many rural county and city governments, substantial portions of individual districts consist of incarcerated people, not actual residents. In a number of places, we’ve found elected officials who owe a majority of their clout to prison populations.”

Prison Policy Initiative

How do you think lawmakers in that position would feel on issues of criminal Justice? Would you expect them to be pro, against, or neutral on things like mandatory minimum sentences, or “three-strikes and you’re out” laws?  How about legal aid? Appellate rights? Evidentiary burdens? What kind of drug laws would you expect from a lawmaker whose job security goes up and down with the prison population?

And what would you expect to happen to a country where the lawmakers can generate political power for themselves by putting people in prison?

While you’ve got those questions in the back of your mind, let’s change the subject, and talk about one of the world’s most famously unsolvable mysteries: 

The Mysterious Deterioration of the American Criminal Justice System



Let me tell you what we do and don’t know about mass incarceration in the U.S.  Most people know the U.S. prison population grew exponentially for a long time, leaving America with more prisoners than any virtually any other country.   And most people know American incarceration grew in a racially disparate way, resulting in a large and rapidly growing overrepresentation of African Americans throughout the penal system.  For those people who don’t know that, here’s somebody saying it.

We will indeed see in this chapter that the massive and rapidly growing over-representation of African Americans at all levels of the penal system expresses the new role that the latter has assumed in the panoply of instruments of racial domination since the ghetto uprisings of the 1960s.”

“The Great Penal Leap Backward: Incarceration in America from Nixon to Clinton.” Loic Wacquant, page 7, in John Pratt et al. (eds.), The New Punitiveness: Current Trends, Theories, Perspectives, London: Willan, 2005

As for what caused these changes, well, that we kinda know.

It’s not bad people, it’s bad Law

We know, first of all, that mass incarceration is not the result of mass crime.  Most of the experts believe the increases in incarceration were due to changes in law designed to increase incarceration, not changes in crime rates.

“While the U.S. has a higher rate of violent crime than many comparable nations, most scholars in the field attribute the dramatic increase in the use of prison almost entirely to changes in policy, and not crime rates. That is, policymakers at all levels of government have enacted laws and procedures designed to send more people to prison and to keep them in prison for longer periods of time.

Lessons of the “Get Tough” Movement in the United States” Marc Mauer. The Sentencing Project. Washington, D.C., Presented at the International Corrections and Prison Association, 6th Annual Conference. Beijing, China 25 October 2004, page 2

In other words, increasing incarceration was the goal of these changes in law.  But they weren’t trying to fight crime. The tougher laws were pursued for political reasons. That much is well understood.

It is well understood that the shifting crime control policies that led to these patterns in imprisonment were products of political decisions by elected officials to be ‘tougher’ on crime generally…”

Explaining State Black Imprisonment Rates 1983-1999” Pamela E. Oliver and James E. Yocom University of Wisconsin, page 3

Some experts say the lawmakers knew the new laws would not reduce crime, but pursued them anyway because they expected to get some political benefit by doing so.

“Tonry’s (1997) account of the late 1980s “war on drugs” argues that policy makers knew the “war” would have no effect on drug use and would be racially disparate, but chose to do it anyway because of the potential political benefits in announcing a policy that would be popular.”

Tracking the Causes and Consequences of Racial Disparities in Imprisonment, A proposal to the National Science Foundation. Pamela Oliver, Marino Bruce, page 6

They say the evidence is overwhelming.

The evidence is overwhelming that the spiraling imprisonment of African Americans is due largely to the political decisions and organizational incentives around the drug war.  Nationally, the policies were put in place because the people advocating them expected to benefit from the policies.

Tracking the Causes and Consequences of Racial Disparities in Imprisonment, A proposal to the National Science Foundation. Pamela Oliver, Marino Bruce, page 6-7

So that’s what we do know.  What don’t we know?  What we don’t know is what is it that perpetually motivates American policymakers to get tougher and tougher on crime?

“In the simplest sense, we know what happened and why.  Between 1975 and 1995, policymakers enacted a wide range of laws meant to make punishments severer, and practitioners applied those laws. These included three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws requiring minimum 25-year sentences; 10-, 20- and 30-year minimum sentences for violent, firearms and drug offenses; LWOPs; laws permitting prosecutions of tens of thousands of young people each year as adults; and laws extending the reach of capital punishment. Independently of policy changes, practitioners became more punitive and risk-averse: prosecutors charged and bargained more aggressively, judges sent more people to prison and for longer, parole boards released fewer prisoners, and later, and returned parolees to prison more often.  What we don’t know is why American policymakers, nearly alone among leaders of western governments, chose to enact such harsh policies and Laws, or why practitioners became so much tougher.”

Explanations of American punishment policies: A national history.” Michael Tonry. Punishment & Society July 2009 vol. 11 no. 3 377-394

We’ve been trying to figure this out for a long time, without success.

Unfortunately, decades of research have not brought us any closer to solutions or increased our understanding of why the problem persists.

 Adding Color to a Black and White Picture: Using Qualitative Data to Explain Racial Disproportionality in the Juvenile Justice System, Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 31, No. 2, 135-148 (1994)

So, decade after decade the tougher laws piled up, gradually turning a system designed to administer justice into a system designed to put people in prison whether they deserve it or not. And it changed the United States. The Land of the Free became a “nation of jailers,” a “leviathan unmatched in human history.

“Simply put, we have become a nation of jailers and, arguably, racist jailers at that. The past four decades have witnessed a truly historic expansion, and transformation, of penal institutions in the United States — at every level of government, and in all regions of the country. We have, by any measure, become a vastly more punitive society. Measured in constant dollars and taking account of all levels of government, spending on corrections and law enforcement in the United States has more than quadrupled over the last quarter century. As a result, the American prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history. This development should be deeply troubling to anyone who professes to love liberty.”

A Nation of Jailers, Glenn Loury, Cato Unbound.

America used to serve as a model for the rest of the world.

It used to be that Europeans came to the United States to study its prison systems. They came away impressed. ‘In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States,’ Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured American penitentiaries in 1831, wrote in ‘Democracy in America.’”

Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations’, New York Times, April 23, 2008

Now it is seen as a “rogue state,”

“Indeed, said Vivien Stern, a research fellow at the prison studies center in London, the American incarceration rate has made the United States ‘a rogue state, a country that has made a decision not to follow what is a normal Western approach.’”

Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations’, New York Times, April 23, 2008

viewed with horror” by the rest of the world.

“’Far from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is viewed with horror,‘ James Q. Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, wrote last year in Social Research. ‘Certainly there are no European governments sending delegations to learn from us about how to manage prisons.’”

Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations’, New York Times, April 23, 2008

Mass incarceration did not start in the 1970s or 80s with the war on drugs, as many people think.  This is a myth.  Just like with all exponential growth, only the recent increases are noticeable.  But if you focus on the earlier years, as in the picture below, you can see that the American prison population grew exponentially in both halves of the 20th century.

two mass

Scholars writing in the 1950s about the dramatic rise in incarceration that happened in the 20s and 30s, said the same things that modern scholars say about the more recent increases – that it was due to changes in law.

Characterizing the trends in imprisonment in the United States, Barnes and Teeters wrote, in 1959: ‘in 1931, 76 per cent of all the inmates of federal and state prisons had been incarcerated for committing acts that had not been crimes 15 years earlier.’ The authors noted that, since 1900, 500,000 new state laws had been enacted in the United States, and they characterized this country as an ‘over criminalized society,’ with the recently enacted ‘victimless crimes’ contributing significantly to the high rates of incarceration.

Trends in Incarceration in the United States since 1880: A Summary of Reported Rates and the Distribution of Offenses. Margaret Cahalan. Crime Delinquency 1979, at 9.

So, in both halves of the 20th century, the United States experienced an exponential increase in incarceration, and both times it was the result of changes in law, particularly laws relating to drug crimes, or other crimes often considered “victimless.”  It’s obviously the same phenomenon. We just don’t know what motivated the lawmakers to pass these laws.  That is the first great mystery about the deterioration of the American criminal justice system.

The Four Mysteries

Actually, there are four big mysteries about the deterioration of the American criminal justice system.  You know the first. The second is, why did imprisonment grow exponentially? Exponential growth requires a positive feedback mechanism of some kind.  So, what’s the feedback mechanism?

Positive feedbacks in the system as a whole are the most reasonable explanation for spiraling imprisonment rates. Standard “rationalist” crime-control theories predict that crime and punishment would come into a steady state equilibrium, while standard “deprivation causes crime” theories predict crime cycles associated with economic cycles, but neither can account for exponential growth in imprisonment as violent crime rates stabilized or declined. “

Tracking the Causes and Consequences of Racial Disparities in Imprisonment Pamela E. Oliver Marino A. Bruce A proposal to the National Science Foundation, August 2001

The third mystery is where is the racial disparity coming from? Why did the system become increasingly targeted on African Americans?

“Yet, in this society to an extent unlike virtually any other, those bearing the heavy burden of order-enforcement belong, in numbers far exceeding their presence in the population at large, to racially defined and historically marginalized groups. Why should this be so?

Cato Unbound » Blog Archive » A Nation of Jailers

Why would the Black-White disparity in imprisonment grow over time?  Why would the prison system become increasingly targeted on Black people?

Explaining State Black Imprisonment Rates 1983-1999” Pamela E. Oliver and James E. Yocom University of Wisconsin – Madison at 2 (their underlining)

And the fourth mystery, which I’ve really already mentioned, is why isn’t this happening anywhere other than the U.S.? What does the U.S. do differently from everybody else?

“With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different–and vastly counterproductive.”

Senator Jim Webb, Why We Must Fix Our Prisons, Parade Magazine, March 29, 2009 

I’ll answer this question right now.  What the U.S. does differently from everybody else is disenfranchise prisoners.  Only a couple of democratic countries come close to the U.S. in that regard, and those countries are experiencing the same exact consequences.  The closer a country comes to the U.S. in terms of prisoner disenfranchisement, the higher its incarceration rate.  But before I show that to you, I want you to see how lawmakers who benefit from incarceration make the prison population go up.

Next up – Part 2 – Rotten Boroughs 


One Response to “Part 1 – Backyard Prisoners”

  1. Graciela Huth says:

    Shame on the politicians and shame on the American people that allowed this abuse of human values!

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