Sunday, March 02, 2008

Incarceration Nation

United States: Out of Control Prison Population

The greatest threat to our democracy is the increasing incarceration rates in the United States. A report released by the Pew Center last week shows that 1 in 100 Americans are now behind bars. A few facts from the study:
  • 1.6 million adults are now in prison with another 700,000 in local jails.
  • The imprisoned population has tripled in the last 30 years.
  • One in 15 African American males are behind bars
  • The U.S. imprisons more people than any other country in the world (both by percentage and sheer number).
  • The United States imprisons more people than China (1.5 million), a much more populous (and autocratic) country.
  • States now spend $44 billion on corrections (a 127% increase since 1987).
Who cares? Everyone needs to care for the economics, justice, and long term impact on our society. The incarceration economy is bankrupting our society. We cannot afford to take over other countries, educate our public, keep them housed and incarcerate 1 in 100. A bankrupt democracy is a government in its last days. A bankrupt society is easily manipulated by a demagogue. There is no justice with such a sizable population lacking freedom. Some states remove access to democracy for life from those convicted of a felony. Why are there so many behind bars compared to other societies? Why is a free society incarcerating so many, even compared to totalitarian dictatorships? Why are we treating addiction as a criminal offense?

This does have to do with homelessness in Cleveland. Our shelters are swamped with people (both men and women) returning from prison. I was thinking about this after listening to Fresh Air on Tuesday on WCPN featuring a meth addict and his dad. David Sheff and his son Nic each wrote books about their experiences. I understand "tough love" and all that, but it does not seem to work. Addictive personalities must hit bottom and lose everything in order to get help. Why can't we find a better away to address this problem in our society? Are the sky rocketing incarceration rates related to the lack of universal health care? If health care was paid by the government would they be willing to pay for treatment upon demand over jail? Would treatment be readily available to the addicted? Would we be able to shut down the private prisons that make millions off our incarceration nation if we had a better health care system?

What is the tipping point? How long can we sustain this level of incarceration? How long until those imprisoned rise up? 1 in 100 of "we the people" have their freedom stripped and are jailed. They work for pennies a day, and are subject to violence and repeated violations while in prison. We strip people of their liberty and then we cannot even keep them safe while we jail them. How long can we have our African American population tolerate one in fifteen of those between the age of 20 and 34 behind bars? How long do we condemn this group to a life of menial jobs, unstable housing, and sporadic health care? How long do we put mentally ill people behind bars instead of offering counseling to young people who exhibit dangerous behavior? How long can we make these men and women pay for their crimes, before they decide that the government is the enemy? How smart is it to confine a group together to foment anger and dissension against the government for a good part of their life? There are consequences for constructing an incarcerated nation, and they effect all of us.

Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.

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