Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
April 28, 2005

Bush Not Putting Enough People in Jail

Despite real efforts in 2003 and 2004, the US prison population has been mostly stagnant under Bushco, as compared to previous periods:



Is Bush soft on crime?

Of course, I am being snarky. The recent news (linked to above) about the renewed growth of the prison population in the past 2 years have not been mentioned widely in the blogosphere as far as I have been able to ascertain, and I thought I would provide these numbers and a few others below.

The scandal is the sheer size of the prison population in the US, and its becoming another chunk of the militaro-industrial complex - or another "complex" on its own right.



With an inflation of around 265% for the period, this means that police and justice budgets were flat or growing very slightly, the corrections budget doubled in real terms, and the prison population tripled. (of course, the Dow Jones was multiplied by 16 during the period)

It's also interesting to note that this is a fairly recent trend:


Source: The Sentencing Project (pdf, 17 pages).

The result is that the US now have the highest incarceration rate in the world, by very far if compared to other Western countries (2002 numbers):


This graph comes again from The Sentencing Project, which thus analyzes these numbers:

The high rate of imprisonment in the United States can be explained by several factors:

  • A higher rate of violent crime than other industrialized nations.
  • Harsher sentencing practices than in other nations, particularly for property and drug offenses.
  • Sentencing policy changes over a period of three decades, particularly the shift toward mandatory and determinate sentencing, restrictions on judicial discretion, and a greater emphasis on imprisonment as a preferred sanction.
  • Policy changes adopted as part of the “war on drugs,” leading to a vastly increased use of the criminal justice system as a means of responding to drug problems.
  • An even more terrifying statistic, provided in the first Yahoo link above, is that

    An estimated 12.6 percent of all black men in their late 20s were in jails or prisons, as were 3.6 percent of Hispanic men and 1.7 percent of white men in that age group

    That's one in 8 in prison, which means that, with those that have been and those that will fall at some other point in the future, one black man in 3 or so will know jail in his twenties. How is that not a major scandal bringing real action? One man in three?

    (Note that I am not claiming that minorities are treated any better in other countries: the Sentencing Project notes that the relative ratio of incarceration for minorities is similar or worse in other countries; but, combined with the high absolute level of incarceration, only the US sees such a high proportion of its young men go to jail)

    Note also that with 2.1 million people in jail (and another 5 million under the control of the penal system), most of them of working age, the US unemployment rate is artificially lowered by at least 1.5 points (if not 5 points, depending on how you evaluate the employment prospects of ex convicts or people on probation).

    The other scandal of course, is the way these people are treated while in jail. Abu Ghraib was not news to US inmates.

    Abu Ghraib .... Shocking? What Happened There Is Commonplace at U.S. Prisons

    in the typical American prison, designed and run to maximize degradation, brutalization, and punishment, overt torture is the norm. Beatings, electric shock, prolonged exposure to heat and even immersion in scalding water, sodomy with riot batons, nightsticks, flashlights, and broom handles, shackled prisoners forced to lie in their own excrement for hours or even days, months of solitary confinement, rape and murder by guards or prisoners instructed by guards--all are everyday occurrences in the American prison system.

    The use of sex and sexual humiliation as torture in Abu Ghraib and the other American prisons in Iraq is endemic to the American prison. Psychological and physical sexual torture is exacerbated by the underlying policy of denying prisoners any volitional sex, making the only two forms of sexual activity that are physically possible--homosexuality and masturbation--both offenses subject to punishment. Strip searches, including invasive and often intentionally painful examination of the mouth, anus, testicles or vagina, frequently accompanied by verbal or physical sexual abuse, are part of the daily routine in most prisons. A 1999 Amnesty International report documented the commonplace rape of prisoners by guards in women's prisons.[2]

    Each year, numerous prisoners are maimed, crippled, and even killed by guards. Photographs could be taken on any day in the American prison system that would match the photographs from Abu Ghraib that shocked the public

    Some US Prisons as Bad as Abu Ghraib

    Prisoner Abuse: How Different are U.S. Prisons? (Human Rights Watch)

    Abu Ghraib, USA (Anne-Maris Cusac, The Progressive - many more links in that article)

    When I first saw the photo, taken at the Abu Ghraib prison, of a hooded and robed figure strung with electrical wiring, I thought of the Sacramento, California, city jail.

    When I heard that dogs had been used to intimidate and bite at least one detainee at Abu Ghraib, I thought of the training video shown at the Brazoria County Detention Center in Texas.

    When I learned that the male inmates at Abu Ghraib were forced to wear women's underwear, I thought of the Maricopa County jails in Phoenix, Arizona.

    And when I saw the photos of the naked bodies restrained in grotesque and clearly uncomfortable positions, I thought of the Utah prison system.

    Donald Rumsfeld said of the abuse when he visited Abu Ghraib on May 13, "It doesn't represent American values."

    But the images from Iraq looked all too American to me.

    I've been reporting on abuse and mistreatment in our nation's jails and prisons for the last eight years. What I have found is widespread disregard for human rights. Sadism, in some locations, is casual and almost routine.

    Reporters and commentators keep asking, how could this happen? My question is, why are we surprised when many of these same practices are occurring at home?

    A Visit to Valley State Prison for Women (Amnesty International, 1999)

    Recommendations to address human rights violations in the USA (Amnesty, 2004)

    But of course, inmates cannot vote. So maybe it is a good thing that prison populations have not grown so much in recent years...

    Posted by Jérôme à Paris on April 28, 2005 at 14:15 UTC | Permalink


    There are economic and political interests to keep the prisoner rate high:

    - There is an implicit incentives for the private companies that do run prisons to keep their business growing. Given that such companies lobby for their interests and that any rehabilitation of convicts is naturally opposed to their business interest, this is not a business were market rules can per se deliver the best outcome for the society. A similar problem can be seen with high union organization rates of correctional officers and those unions role in politics. The privatization advocates as well as the unions do, of course, express a different view.

    - The Census does count prisoners as inhabitants (Prisoners of the Census (PDF)) of the districts where they are incarcerated, not in the communities where the come from or where they committed a criminal offense. These census numbers are relevant for the numbers of representatives a county may have in state and federal representations and in the allocation of monies flowing to such counties. Prisoners do not cost these counties, but they bring a warm rain of money that is spend on issues not relvant for those imprisoned. This money would probably better allocated to those districts with a high crime rate where these prisoners do come from.

    Posted by: b | Apr 28 2005 14:37 utc | 1

    I am unable to get a text link but last month on NPR's "This American Life", the whole program was devoted to life aboard the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea. One sailor who was interviewed said he was convicted of a drug crime and the judge gave him a choice of jail or military service. So maybe we are just storehousing future "recruits".

    Posted by: beq | Apr 28 2005 14:53 utc | 2

    one thing to realize about the mass imprisonment of members of a particular class is that authority is hedging that civil unrest is more likely to start w/i these segments of the population. the middle class & other privileged peoples are less likely to stand up for injustice and oppression, their privilege gives the option of ignoring the direct effects of the govts policies and overall trajectory.

    Posted by: b real | Apr 28 2005 15:01 utc | 3

    "stand up against injustice and oppression"

    esp when that focus is on "others"

    Posted by: b real | Apr 28 2005 15:03 utc | 4

    And then, of course, felons get wiped from the voting rolls (as if a vote meant anything, anymore).

    Posted by: beq | Apr 28 2005 15:11 utc | 5

    One reason I think the incarceration rate is flat lately is precisely because of the mandatory minimum sentences. We may have reached a critical mass of people with any deviant tendencies being in jail/prison. Of course that means only one thing, more things need to be illegal to keep the market growing. And hence what do we have now but an increase in collaboration between the christian right and the business elite in the republican party. And they are working overtime to increase government intervention in all of our lives, both for their own reasons.

    This is of course fanciful on my part. However I feel an ounce of truth lurking.

    In terms of the mandatory minimums, I have always wondered what happened 20-50 years later, when DiIulio's Superpredators were released from prison after serving the best years of their lives in prison? What then does a 50 year old, who has been in jail since 18 and has no education and perhaps even functionally illiterate do? In my darker hours, I wonder if perhaps a reason why prisons in the US forment rape and sexual abuse is to allow the spread of HIV/AIDS so that this question really answers itself. Every prison term is thus expected to be a life sentence.

    Posted by: Bubb Rubb | Apr 28 2005 19:04 utc | 7

    Well what the hell do you expect us to do? With >6B people on our planet with only a carrying capacity of maybe 2B after the fossil energy slaves expire, we need to pre-consider the disposition of the excess 4B. Any and every attrition vehicle is appropriate. Snark, snark, snark.

    Do I want to be an acquiescing part of this unspeakable atrocity? I guess so. I’m still participating on an daily basis. God help my soul.

    Posted by: Juannie | Apr 29 2005 2:17 utc | 8

    This flat spot may just be calm before the storm. The changes to bankruptcy laws make some form of debtors prison inevitable. If people can't wipe debt when things get really bad; as soon as they find out that their wages/welfare will be garnisheed by corporations, then they will cease participating in the legit economy. When millions move into the 'black' economy the corporations will demand 'justice'. Very soon after that mainstream media will run stories on how these parasites are now living off the taxpayer in the prison system. Then we will see the construction of work camps following the Chinese model. Then globalisation will pay off! US work camps can be just as efficient as chinese and the corporations will start building factories in the US again.
    This scenario gives a whole new raft of powers to the monetarists. Short of workers? loosen money supply for a short while then tighten it up jacking up interest rates on 'high risk' loans. See the new workers pour into the factories. It will be very 'humane' women and children will be encouraged to co-habit with the prisoner and assist in paying his debt to society er...debt to corporations.

    Posted by: Debs is dead | Apr 29 2005 5:14 utc | 9

    @debs -- hi ho, hi ho, it's back to the 18th century we go. dust off your Hogarth etchings.

    loosen money supply for a short while then tighten it up jacking up interest rates on 'high risk' loans

    is that not just about what we're in the middle of right now? as soon as the prime starts to rise, isn't the squeeze on?

    Posted by: DeAnander | Apr 29 2005 5:17 utc | 10

    With >6B people on our planet with only a carrying capacity of maybe 2B after the fossil energy slaves expire, we need to pre-consider the disposition of the excess 4B.

    What do you know? This is crap.

    Posted by: DM | Apr 29 2005 5:53 utc | 11

    NYT Editorial A Simple Way to Fight H.I.V. and AIDS

    In any given year, perhaps a third of the people infected with hepatitis C and more than 15 percent of those with AIDS spend time behind bars. With infection levels far higher than in the outside world, the jails and prisons are a potential public health menace. Officials have a special duty to curb the spread of disease among the more than 11 million people who pass through the system each year.

    No one knows for sure how many people pick up H.I.V. while incarcerated. But a 2002 survey of prisoners' own estimates found that about 44 percent of the inmates were probably participating in sex acts. Researchers suspect that about 70 percent had their first same-sex experiences in prison. If those estimates are anywhere near accurate, the risk of infection behind bars is substantial, and the men who contract H.I.V. in prison return home to infect wives and girlfriends. Still, condoms are barred or unavailable in 95 percent of the country's prisons.

    Posted by: b | Apr 29 2005 6:07 utc | 12


    Did you not understand that your quote from my post was total irony? I thought and intended the second paragraph as well as the triple snark to convey that context.

    Or do you not believe there minds and souls in the present administration capable of such thoughts?

    I intended my use of “we” to express some personal sense of shame and perhaps even guilt at being a citizen of such an Empire. I was reflecting on “the good life” that I had enjoyed yesterday up to the point I read Jérôme’s post and then seeing the price that others in both the world and even America are paying for what is my good fortune.

    To try to make myself clear, I find the callous, reckless and brutal ways our ruling culture is dealing with most everything in their purview, abhorrent and an affront to the more highly and humanely evolved social norms of our species.

    Posted by: Juannie | Apr 29 2005 16:20 utc | 13


    Sorry. I may have been a little tired (although I did see the /snark caveat).

    I am just a little touchy on this 'carrying capacity' meme. Even Joe Bageant is getting on my nerves.

    Posted by: DM | Apr 29 2005 22:50 utc | 14

    This flat spot is just demographics. The boomers are aging and in prison for long-terms. The folks coming after them are not as numerous.

    The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, excluding maybe N. Korea and China.

    The incarceration rate for black men is higher than South Africa's during apartheid.

    The numbers are truly staggering.

    Posted by: benr | Apr 30 2005 8:08 utc | 15


    I can appreciate your touchiness after reading Joe’s most recent screed. It scares the shit out of me probably because I can’t discount or ignore his, or more appropriately Duncan’s, Olduvai theory. Everything’s continuity is dependent on energy and the more abundant our lifestyles the more dependent and vulnerable we are. The faith based belief that technology will come to our rescue doesn’t alleviate my concerns. I am personally moving toward a more self sufficient and “primitive” lifestyle that is less dependent on the existing corporately owned infrastructure and goods and services.

    Relating this to my views on Jérôme’s post, I find it incredulous to not believe that the likes of Cheney-Wolfawitz-Pearl et al. have both the intelligence and data to arrive at the same conclusions as Joe & myself. The petri is scarce and becoming scarcer and we human bacteria are still gobbling it up at an ever accelerating rate. Something has got to give if the 1st & 2nd laws of thermodynamics still hold. I feel somewhat desperate to find a niche where survival is possible based on the natural daily flow of energy through our system, sunlight, before the supply of stored sunlight becomes unavailable.

    I cannot but believe that those elites with far greater assumed needs than I are not desperate as well. And I have seen no signs that their personal mores will dissuade them from any final solutions to further their own ends. The prison industrial complex is but one, probably in their greater scheme of things, minor solution (minor unless expanded to the same degree as their predecessors and role models of early 1940's.)

    I haven’t yet let go of the hope that those who have managed to evolve beyond limbic system of responses to threat will somehow thwart the reptilians before they destroy both themselves and the rest of us but the present inertia is not in our favor. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up or that I suggest that any of us do, but I think it behooves us to prepare for the worst while we still have any chance at all to do so.

    Posted by: Juannie | Apr 30 2005 19:08 utc | 16

    @DM, if you don't believe there is such a thing as "carrying capacity" then you believe in infinite resources on a finite planet, which is to say, in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. So I find it hard to believe that this is really what you're saying :-)

    We can disagree -- there's plenty of wiggle room in the numbers -- on whether we're at capacity yet; we can debate hotly what our carrying capacity would be if resource distribution were less grotesquely skewed, if there were social/economic justice, etc. We can disagree about how catastrophic the peak oil event will be, what mitigating factors may come into play, etc.

    But the concept of carrying capacity, and the many indicators that we are pushing its limits, are to me impossible to deny without an act of wilful faith. I don't see how -- in the absence of a religious belief in miracles -- one can believe that one finite planet, with finite amounts of topsoil, arable flatland, potable water, a finite evap/cond water cycle, a finite atmosphere, a finite amount of sunlight falling on its finite surface area, can possibly support an infinite number of any life forms -- human or otherwise. Field biology, lab biology, and the Laws of Thermo all tell us otherwise, and a survey of human history reinforces the lesson.

    I share (I suspect) some of your irritation. I have contempt for those in the West (and there are many of them, whether they will cop to it or not) who smugly assume that "the Die Off" is coming but it will only be other people who die -- poor people, brown people, third world people, "stupid" people -- so it doesn't matter all that much, the balance will reassert itself and we lucky few (White and affluent) survivors will get all the resources, just as God intended. I despise the Montana Survivalist school of fantasy, that imagines holing up with cases and cases of MREs and a lot of ballistic weapons, and emerging as rulers of the post-crash world. I am not thrilled with the fatalistic attitude of those who say that die-off is inevitable, so we may as well just party-hearty while we can, and do nothing to soften the landing.

    I worry about the simpletons who imagine that "Hooray, the oil will run out, the smog will go away, life will be better", as if somehow we will make a painless, violence-free, easy transition to some Norman Rockwell or Rousseauvian world of imagined pastoral bliss; or those who imagine happily hunting/gathering across the desolate megahectares of America's poisoned, blasted agricultural lands. I think they're in for a shock. I'm appalled by the stock "Mad Max" fantasy of a post-apocalyptic world in which, miraculously, there is always food and water for crowds of extras whose main interest is not in shelter, food and clothing but in roaring around in improvised 4wds.

    But monitoring the research and the trends as I do, I find it incontrovertible at this point that
    (a) human activity, from agriculture to industrialism, has altered the global climate and continues to alter it in an accelerating way (cf>the latest NASA study on planetary heat retention vs heat dissipation),
    (b) world production of staple grains is flattening out, but population growth continues,
    (c) we have turbocharged our productivity per person (not per acre) by vast infusions of fossil fuel which is now becoming more expensive and scarcer,
    (d) we are losing topsoil to erosion and to overpaving, in other words, further reducing our agricultural capacity
    (e) we are losing forest cover faster than a mangy dog loses hair,
    (f) potable water is becoming scarcer and increasingly privatised, i.e. controlled by profiteers,
    (g) most of the world's traditional fishing grounds have been stripmined to "commercial extinction" or near that point.

    Any one of these indicators would be a "dashboard light" if we were driving a car. To have them all lit up at once is, to say the least, deeply troubling. To continue in denial, pretending that somewhere there are infinite stocks of additional fish, topsoil, trees, grain, light sweet crude, potable water etc., just waiting for us to "discover" them, seems to me delusional. Humans are certainly very adaptable, very ingenious, I don't underestimate the species -- but we are not infinitely malleable, Protean, in our specific time and place. We have at times died off in spectacular numbers. It's not like it's never happened before. I don't regard the Big Die Off as inevitable, but I do regard it as a non-zero possibility -- and one that we should be working earnestly, passionately to prevent.

    Years ago (as a kid) I read an anecdotal novel or series of stories about a military doctor in WWII -- it was called Captain Newman MD iirc and in retrospect it was a nasty bit of US war propaganda, though as a kid this went right over my head. Anyway, one passage from this mediocre work has stayed with me ever since. One character tells another a story about a civilisation under threat -- Atlantis with the big flood on the way, something like that. All the "wise men" are in despair, the people are running about in panic, the king is doing whatever kings do when kingdoms crumble; but one of the "wise men" keeps insisting that they meet, discuss, think. If the flood is coming, he says, then "we must work, we must think, we must plan -- we must find a way, if it comes to that, to live under water." I think we can and must "find a way to live" without cheap oil -- a way other than allowing millions of people to starve or be slaughtered in petty, criminal wars over the diminishing supply. I don't accept Die Off as inevitable, let alone desirable. I do fear it as a statistical probability.

    Posted by: DeAnander | Apr 30 2005 19:59 utc | 17

    Dr. Martin L. King had the guts to stand up against oppression in the face of death, but did he die in vain??? I say, "Yes, he did!"; those who are possessed with the desire and spirit to oppress prior to 1865 (Civil War) still live today. They are thirsty for the profit produced by the sweat of those enslaved within our current federal prison system (45 years to life for victimless crime). More then 2.2 million Americans, primarily African-American men (65%), work within our prison industry complex. Most of earn less than 10 cents per hour. These men have families and babies to support. The largest majority, (100%) are accused of "victimless crimes" under drug war crimes. The drug war is an excuse to desecrate the constitution and pursue "victimless crime." To put it in true terms, it victimizes rich white females while demonizing poor black males. It holds white people irresponsible for their own behavior while blaming "so-called" black "pushers." I've never, in my whole 42 years, been approached by a black "pusher", but as a white female from upper suburban, I have ridden in a car and witnessed as "rich white" kids actively pursued contacts. The drug war within itself, not drugs, create crime, violence, and ultimately death. Our approach to this problem is extremely ignorant and primitive. The only "good" it accomplishes is in promoting and maintaining slavery and holding "white" people irresponsible for their own behavior. These types of laws have no place in a republican-democracy. Please educate yourself on this subject before responding. You will be surprised to find the plantation lords are alive and well, they are only out for their own well being, and my opinion may very well be supported by physical evidence

    Posted by: Iris | Aug 12 2005 4:58 utc | 18

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