Incarceration Nation: America's Unhealthy Obsession with Jailing Its Citizens

May 21, 2014 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Incarceration Nation: America's Unhealthy Obsession with Jailing Its Citizens

image by: Bob Bennett

Over the last 40 years the United States has sacrificed schools and other means of social betterment so as to incarcerate a greater number of nonviolent offenders than ever before. It's a practice that has damaged the fabric of our nation. The question is: Are we ready to change course?

The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other nation on the planet. More than double Mexico's and Canada's rates combined. Forty percent more than Cuba. Fifty percent more than Russia. Four-hundred fifty percent more than Saudi Arabia. Five-hundred eighty percent more than China.

It wasn't always like this. A just-released study by the National Research Council notes that the U.S. prison population increased by more than seven-fold between 1973 and 2009, an "unprecedented and internationally unique rise."

"The unprecedented rise in incarceration rates can be attributed to an increasingly punitive political climate surrounding criminal justice policy formed in a period of rising crime and rapid social change," the report says. "This provided the context for a series of policy choices—across all branches of government—that significantly increased sentence lengths, required prison time for minor offenses, and intensified punishment for drug crimes. […] Given the small crime prevention effects of long prison sentences and the possibly high financial, social, and human costs of incarceration, federal and state policy makers should revise current criminal justice policies to significantly reduce the rate of incarceration in the United States."

As Horatio might have said to Hamlet, there needs no report, my lord, come from a council to tell us this. Anyone with even a middling mixture of compassion and pragmatism has long known that something is rotten in the state of corrections when 65% of inmates are Black or Latino, and half of federal prisoners are behind bars for drug offenses, and the incarceration rate for drug offenders has increased 10-fold since 1980—twice the rate as for other crimes.

A recent Frontline program, "Prison State", elegantly frames the problem by focusing on four individuals from Beecher Terrace, a poor Kentucky community where nearly every single resident ends up spending time as an inmate.

"We're locking up people we're pissed off at," says Louisville Department of Corrections Director Mark Bolton, in no way implying that our reasons for being pissed off at people are always sound. "We ought to be using this space for people that we're afraid of, violent folks, people that are going to hurt me and you." 

Lately the Obama Administration has been giving lip service to changing the paradigm, with Attorney General Eric Holder recently announcing that the White House is looking to reduce the number of non-violent drug offenders behind bars by taking a "new and improved approach will make the criteria for clemency recommendation more expansive."

"In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing unfair disparities in sentences imposed on people for offenses involving different forms of cocaine," Holder said.
 "But there are still too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime—and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime. This is simply not right."

But as we found out a week later, the Obama version of "making it right" only applies to individuals who have already served at least 10 years for their non-violent drug offenses. So if you're someone like Fate Vincent Winslow, who in 2008 was sentenced to life without parole because his facilitation of the sale of $20 worth of marijuana was his fourth non-violent strike (two for simple burglary, one for possession of cocaine), you're going to rot for a good while yet before anyone will consider your plea.

The link between poverty and incarceration rates is both obvious and staggering. "[Going to prison] has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society," Harvard sociologist Bruce Western told the New York Times last year. In the same article the Times points to studies showing that Black men in their 20s and 30s without a high-school diploma are more likely to be in prison than to have a job; and that were it not for the incarceration trend of recent decades, the poverty rate nationwide would be 20 percent lower.

Ironically, the cost of constructing prisons to house the increased inmate population in recent decades has in large part been siphoned from the very programs—such as schools that provide people with help they can use to stay out of prison. (See, for example, this story from last year about how Pennsylvania came up with $400 million to build a new prison in the midst of austerity measures that forced the closing of 23 schools.)

"Creating an infrastructure to house and control hundreds of thousands of people costs billions of dollars," NYU School of Law professor Bryan Stevenson told Frontline. "And what's bizarre is that we've actually taken money away from systems that are designed to help people stay out of jail and prison—education, health and human services, family services, social services—to fund an investment in incarceration. You invest it in jails and prisons, almost conceding that there's a whole community that has to go to jail or prison, that you can't do anything for them other than incarcerate them."

Near the end of his announcement, Attorney General Holder sounded like he gets it. "As a society, we pay much too high a price whenever our system fails to deliver the just outcomes necessary to deter and punish crime, to keep us safe, and to ensure that those who have paid their debts have a chance to become productive citizens," he said.

But for all the rhetoric and cosmetic changes, it's clear that the federal government for which he is the chief legal officer has nowhere near the will to do what it takes seriously to advance these goals.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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