The 14 Most F#$%ed Up Things About America's Obsession With Putting People Behind Bars

You may know the U.S. puts more of its citizens behind bars than any other country, but that's just the start.

If being in prison were an occupation, it would be one of the most common jobs in the country. Yup, the U.S. is the world's superpower of incarceration: This country puts more of its citizens behind bars than any other nation. In fact, most states spend more money incarcerating prisoners than educating students. But it wasn't always that way. How did we turn into a nation that addresses its social ills by locking its citizens behind bars... and sometimes throwing away the key? Here's the breakdown of some of the most f#$%ed up things about America's prison obsession.

1. The total prison population has grown by 500 percent over the last 30 years.

The grand result? More than one out of 100 American adults is behind bars (about 2.3 million people, by the end of 2012) -- while a stunning one out of 35 American adults are imprisoned or under probation or parole supervision. That's a total of about 6.94 million people in the U.S. adult correctional systems, and police made nearly double that number of total arrests in 2012.

2. One of the biggest reasons for this spike? There are 12 times more drug offenders in state prisons than there were in 1980.

Drug offenders now make up nearly half of federal inmates and nearly 17 percent of state inmates. As of 2011, there were about half a million Americans serving time for drug offenses, most frequently on low to middle-tier trafficking or possession charges.

Under legal changes like the Rockefeller laws, mandatory sentencing and three-strike rules, America began sentencing thousands of low-income drugs users to decades in prison. These drug crimes don't frequently overlap with homicides: In 2007, FBI reports indicated that 3.9 percent of murders were directly linked to narcotics. What's more, nonviolent crimes are not typically deterred by tougher sentencing laws. While there's a push to lessen the sentences for federal and state drug offenders, many continue to serve the strict sentences of yesteryear. Weldon Angelos of California is just one such example:

weldon angelos

3. We lock people up for life like it's not someone's life.


Life behind bars was once reserved for the most dangerous murderers, for whom rehabilitation did not seem an option. With 159,520 behind bars for life as of 2012, we hand out such sentences with astonishing frequency, and for a wide range of crimes. In 2013, 10,000 Americans were spending their lives in jail for non-violent crimes. Increasingly, these life sentences come without the possibility of being released on parole. For instance, Jeff Mizanskey is just one of many Americans serving life in prison without parole for non-violent drug crimes.


4. Currently, one-third of the world's entire imprisoned female population is awaiting trial or serving sentences in the U.S., mostly for nonviolent crimes. Many are mothers.

The rate of female incarceration is increasing at a rate nearly double that of male incarceration. Notably, 85-90 percent of female inmates have a history of domestic and sexual abuse, while nearly three-quarters of women in state prisons have mental health problems. These numbers are particularly disturbing when you consider what women face in prison: high rates of PTSD and a disproportionate rate of sexual assault, very often at the hands of prison staff.

Though the Prison Rape Elimination Act was passed more than a decade ago, only two states are currently in full compliance with the law, and a number of GOP governors across the U.S. have actually fought federal efforts to combat this epidemic, which affects both male and female prisoners at high rates.

5. We lock up more juveniles than any other developed country.

Of the youths under correctional supervision, 40 percent live in "correctional facilities" under prison-like conditions.

juvenile prison

Research indicates that two-thirds of those juveniles suffer from mental health problems. According to a national survey from 2010, more than two-thirds suffer from substance abuse problems, while seven out of 10 had seen someone killed or severely injured and three out of 10 had attempted suicide. While locked up, many juveniles suffering from these conditions did not receive mental health counseling or substance abuse treatment. Meanwhile, 42 percent live in fear of being physically attacked and 30 percent reported being physically and/or sexually abused. Almost a third say solitary confinement is used as punishment at their facilities. Meanwhile, juvenile inmates lack the educational resources to get prepared for a normal life upon release.

6. And we're one of the only countries that treats some juvenile offenders like adults.

An estimated 10,000 juveniles are housed in adult prisons and jails every day. Children of color are disproportionately incarcerated in these facilities. Juveniles held in adult confinement are twice as likely to be violently attacked in prison, more likely to commit suicide and more likely to commit future crimes once released.

Today, an estimated 2,570 Americans are serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. These crimes are typically committed in group scenarios, often under the direction of an adult. Black juveniles were far more likely to be sentenced to life in prison. It's some consolation that a recent Supreme Court decision discouraged future life sentences for juveniles. That led to the resentencing of some juvenile offenders, such as Kenneth Young.

kenneth young

7. Racism permeates the system: More than 60 percent of those imprisoned are people of color, though they constitute only 30 percent of the total U.S. population.

To put that in perspective, there are currently more black men held within the criminal justice system (prison, jail, parole, probation) than were enslaved at the outbreak of the American Civil War. Much of this is a byproduct of racism in the war on drugs: Black Americans were nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than white Americans -- even though white Americans were just as likely to use marijuana. Similar overall discrepancies occur for the youth population: Black youths are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white youths, while Latino and American Indian youths are two to three times more likely.

A 2003 Bureau of Justice report estimated that at current rates, black men born in 2001 have a 32.2 percent lifetime likelihood of incarceration -- in other words, one in three black men is likely to end up in prison. Meanwhile, some research indicated that black men serve between 14 and 20 percent longer prison terms than white men for the same crimes.

Source: "Imprisonment and Disenfranchisement of Disconnected Low-Income Men" from Race, Place, and Poverty: An Urban Ethnographers' Symposium on Low-Income Men, part of the Low-Income Working Families project.

8. These policies don't only affect those behind bars: One out of every 28 American children has a parent in prison or jail.

And two-thirds of those parents are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. Though research on these children's experiences is scarce, it is clear that having a parent in prison often fractures their home life. (The most recent data shows that approximately half of parents in prison lived with their children before incarceration.) These children often come from at-risk backgrounds of poverty, and research suggests that parental incarceration elevates their risks of drug abuse, school failure, unemployment and mental health problems like depression.

These problems are only exacerbated by the financial stress put on families -- over half of parents incarcerated were the main financial providers for their children. Their families' incomes will continue to suffer even after their parents are released. Federal Judge Mark Bernett reflected on the way the system dooms many of these children to the same fate as their parents, in an interview with the Nation.

"I have seen how they leave hundreds of thousands of young children parentless and thousands of aging, infirm and dying parents childless," he said. "They destroy families and mightily fuel the cycle of poverty and addiction. In fact, I have been at this so long, I am now sentencing the grown children of people I long ago sent to prison."

9. Meanwhile, big corporations are making a killing off of the prison system.

As prison populations grew over time, much of that growth directly fed into privately run, for-profit prisons owned by corporations like the CCA or GEO Group. Between 1999 and 2010, the number of inmates in private prisons grew by 80 percent, while during the same period of time, overall prison populations only grew by 18 percent. As Matt Taibbi wrote in his book, "The Divide," “The big influx of cash impressed investors on Wall Street. Overall, the corrections industry is one of the soundest stock/equity bets in the world, with soaring revenues -- the industry as a whole pulled in more than $5 billion in America in 2011.” Indeed, GEO Group's CEO, George Zoley, has become the wealthiest correctional officer in America, raking in $22 million between 2008 and 2012.

10. This creates financial incentive to put people behind bars... and keep them there.

Most private prison contracts mandate that the state or federal government keep 80 percent to 100 percent of prison beds occupied and institute fines for unused beds. These quotas create financial incentive to keep prisons filled; failure to do so means taxpayers pay the fine.

Private prisons also give lawmakers an easy way out. As Nicole Porter of The Sentencing Project told The Huffington Post, "Private prisons provide a safety valve to state and federal lawmakers dealing with prison overcrowding and prison population issues." Rather than dealing with overcrowded prisons by changing the laws that fill them with nonviolent inmates, lawmakers can funnel these inmates into readily available prison-beds-for-sale.

11. These companies have also discovered another goldmine: building facilities for the mass incarceration of undocumented immigrant detainees.

In recent years, the federal government's "Operation Streamline" policy offers "zero-tolerance" for undocumented immigrants. Under it, the number of non-citizens locked up in the U.S. has skyrocketed. Over 75 percent of those imprisoned have no criminal record.


In 2009, more prisoners entered federal prisons for immigration violations than for violent offenses, weapon offenses and property offenses combined. Over half of non-citizen detainees, approximately 25,000 people, are living in privately owned facilities.

In private detention centers, detainees face physical abuse and mistreatment, including inadequate health care, threats of physical violence, overcrowding and conditions of squalor. There are sometimes arbitrary quotas for the solitary confinement units which are "reportedly kept so full that some people must sleep on the floor of a small cell they share with two strangers for 23 hours," according to the ACLU report. These facilities are geographically isolated, often far away from their families.

Many detainees lack the money to hire a lawyer and remain trapped in a seemingly endless legal process. As one detainee told the ACLU, "You lose your memory in this place. You keep counting days until you give up hope."

Meanwhile, private prison corporations found another way to profit off these people living in purgatory: They use detainees as cheap labor employing thousands to cook and clean the facilities. Some earn $1 a day; some earn candy bars, and some earn nothing. Last year, at least 60,000 detainees labored at these detention centers.

12. Private prisons try to cut costs by employing less-experienced staff and slashing prisoner resources.

Porter said private prisons make cuts that "compromise public safety, ranging from lower rates of pay, to not investing resources toward training, to reducing programs and rehabilitation efforts for prisoners." As a result, private prisons can have an assault rate double that of what is seen at publicly run prisons. And these facilities disproportionately hold young Americans: Nearly 40 percent of incarcerated juveniles will serve their time in private facilities, which have been plagued by physical and sexual abuse.


13. The system perpetuates a cycle of crime: More than two-thirds of people released from prison will be arrested again within three years.

That's according to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Among juveniles released, 70 to 80 percent will be arrested again within two to three years, according to a number of state studies. Contrary to what "tough on crime" politicians of the 80s and 90s once told voters, prison does not reduce crime and may actually produce future criminals.

While crime rates have declined over the past decades, don't thank our prison obsession. When Harvard Professor Bruce Western studied the decline in crime from 1993-2001, he found that just one-tenth of the decline was due to rising prison populations. The rest, he says, stemmed from factors like increased local police force presence.

california prisons

14. It's become increasingly clear that we're more focused on locking people up than actually rehabilitating them.

As the Women's Prison Association President Georgia Lerner told the Guardian, this stigma lasts a lifetime. "We lock people up, strip them of all authority over themselves, disempower them in a very real way –- and then expect them to be able to function in the community after they are released," she said. "It simply doesn't work. Prisons were designed to confine people and keep them alive, and not much else."

Indeed, while more Americans are spending more time in prison, many lack access to drug education programs and mental health programs, both of which could help address the problems that got them locked up in the first place. And while a U.S. Department of Justice/RAND corporation joint study found that inmates given educational opportunities are 43 percent less likely to commit a future crime, only six percent of inmates were actually enrolled in such programs. Inmates with inadequate education face a daunting challenge of finding employment upon release, a challenge substantially magnified by the stigma of having a criminal record. It's not surprising, then, that former inmates face rampant unemployment and lower wages.

But released inmates face more than just the new financial burdens of the real world: Many leave prison with overwhelming debt due to legal fees. Though rules vary depending on the state, inmates can be charged for everything from court costs to public defender reimbursements, in-prison electricity bills, in-prison telephone bills, drug testing and parole supervision. In Texas, the average cost of being released on parole ranges from $500 to $2,000. Sometimes, the "crime" of not being able to pay off that debt lands former inmates back behind bars.

But Alabama, Georgia, and other Southern states have found a disturbing way to expedite that process: They allow former inmates to literally pay off their debt by spending more time in prison.

As the incomparable Stephen Colbert summed up this outrageous system in a recent segment, "Some may say that jailing people over their debts makes poverty into a crime. Well if that's true, maybe we should just cut out the middle man and put all poor people in jail. Of course, this will require new prison facilities, which we can build using people who can't pay their prison fees. Not as workers, as the bricks."

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