By Larry Hales, Workers World, March 9, 2008
On Feb. 28 the Pew Center on the States released a report detailing that 1 in 99.1 adults in the U.S. is locked up. That comes to 2,319,258 prisoners for a population of 230,000,000.
The growth of the prison population has skyrocketed, nearly tripling from 1987 to 2007. The total U.S. prison population is higher than the 26 European nations with the highest prison populations, yet these nations combined have two-and-a-half times the total population of the U.S.
All told there are 750 prisoners per 100,000 people in the U.S.—the highest incarceration rate in the world. This prison population accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
Although crime has dropped 25 percent from 1987 to 2007 (New York Times, Feb. 28), incarceration continues to climb. The lowest level of violent crime was reached in 2005, according to the Bureau of Justice.
The climb in incarceration rates is mostly due to the explosion in arrests attributed to drug offenses. In those same 20 years, arrests for drug offenses have increased by 50 percent. In addition, according to the Bureau of Justice, more than 17 percent of people locked up in local jails and state and federal prisons committed a crime to obtain drugs.
To filter the total number of prisoners through race, ethnicity and class, and to look at the incarceration rates based on the same factors, illuminates the effects of national oppression and the criminalization of poor and dispossessed workers.
Official data on the poverty of individuals who commit crimes are difficult to come by, yet it is easy to infer since the Bureau of Justice reports that depressed urban areas account for the highest percentage of crimes and arrests.
One in nine Black males between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, compared to one in 30 for the general population; one in 100 Black women in their 30s is incarcerated, versus 1 in 265 for all women.
The rate of imprisonment for all men above age 18 is one in 54; for Latinos it is one in 36; and for Blacks it is one in 15.
Since the late 1970s urban centers have been faced with deindustrialization, white flight, underfunded schools, the dismantling of welfare and a general decline in social services. While the needs of people have not been met, the police forces have been bolstered.
Inner city areas are faced with a neoliberal form of ethnic cleansing that has generally become known as gentrification. From San Diego to Los Angeles and San Francisco, to Harlem and New Orleans, inner city areas are being gobbled up by developers. Katrina was the excuse in New Orleans, “blight” in Detroit and other cities.
To pull it off, city administrators beef up police forces in poor, oppressed neighborhoods and institute “zero tolerance” or “broken window” ordinances, such as that in New York under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The theory of “broken windows” was authored by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. Wilson, a right-wing policy advisor under Reagan and the first Bush, also believes in dismantling Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and further privatizing public schools.
The “broken windows” theory is classic: blame the victim for the ravages of the capitalist system. It postulates that ignoring a broken window invites more windows to be broken; in other words, cracking down on petty offenses “decreases crime” and “cleans up the neighborhood.”
In general, most cops placed in oppressed communities are not people from the community, and many times are white.
The inhabitants of the community do not dictate the conditions of the community; the conditions are forced on the inhabitants. Poverty, joblessness, homelessness, the lack of health care, underfunded public education, the lack of after-school activities, poor housing choices, slum lords and the history of racist oppression in the U.S. are to blame.
It is capitalism and the culture that comes with it that are the culprits when it comes to “broken windows;” in fact the imperialist U.S. ruling class is constantly, actively engaged in breaking windows all over the world.
Prisoners super exploited
As prisons are warehouses for the poor and disposed, they are also depositories of a reserve of superexploitable labor.
Not only does the prison industry provide money and jobs to impoverished areas, but it also provide opportunities for industries to take advantage of the prisoners by putting them to work at superlow wages. In turn, the money prisoners earn is shuffled back into the prison system as prisoners purchase necessities and pay exorbitant fees for telephone usage.
Private prison companies house more than 100,000 U.S. prisoners. According to a Centre for Research on Globalization report in 2001, prisoners make on the average $.22 per hour and can work up to 40 hours per week.
The growth of prison labor continues, along with growth in the prison industrial complex as a whole, which is more and more privatized. This crime is perpetrated against workers and oppressed nationalities at alarming rates, and in an era of capitalist decline it will only grow worse.