At first glance Richard Viguerie’s New York Times article, “The Conservative Case for Prison Reform,” is a reasonable argument for prison reform. But Viguerie is certainly not an abolitionist. Still, he cites a few statistics that, at the very least, every American should be made aware of.
The United States now has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of its prisoners. Nearly one in every 33 American adults is in some form of correctional control. When Ronald Reagan was president, the total correctional control rate — everyone in prison or jail or on probation or parole — was less than half that: 1 in every 77 adults.
The prison system now costs states more than $50 billion a year, up from about $9 billion in 1985. It’s the second-fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid. Conservatives should be leading the way by asking tough questions about the expansion in prison spending over the past three decades.
Right On Crime, an influential and well-funded conservative “imagine” tank headed by Newt Gingrich, believes the only thing really wrong with the prison state is how much it costs.
- In the period after WWII the female incarceration rate was 8 per 100,000. Today it is 51 per 100,000.
- There will be more women in U.S. prisons in 2010 than there were inmates of both sexes in 1970.
- In Montana Native Americans constitute 6% of the general population but 17.3% of the imprisoned population. Native American women represent 25% of all women imprisoned in Montana.
And Michelle Alexander’s, “The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste.”
- There are more African Americans under correctional control today that enslaved in 1850.
- As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised than in 1870, the year the Fifth Amendment was ratified.
- A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born in slavery, due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.
There are too many cases of long sentences in solitary confinement. In Massachusetts and Arkansas prisoners can be sentenced to solitary confinement for up to ten years. Many prisoners are isolated in their cells for up to 21 hours a day.
Last week Massachusetts lawmakers,
together with activists, lawyers, and medical professionals at a State House briefing Thursday to heighten awareness and promote an easing of solitary confinement policies. Those policies, they said, harm rather than rehabilitate prisoners who feel alienated from the community to which they are striving to return.
Roughly 500 of the 11,000 state prisoners are in segregation units on a given day. Solitary confinement cells differ between institutions, but in most cases the inmates are kept under lock and key for all but a few hours a day.
Lighting and ventilation in the cells can be poor, and prisoners are rarely allowed to keep books or watch television.
Senator James Eldridge and Representative Elizabeth Malia are “spearheading a bill that would allow for inmates facing severe isolation sentences to be given more rehabilitation and a chance for early release.” Inmates awaiting trial are kept in isolation for 15 days in what is called “administrative segregation” but the 15 day rule does not apply to inmates who face “disciplinary segregation.” The bill Eldridge and Malia sponsored requires that inmates facing disciplinary segregation to have a hearing within 15 days and every 90 days after that to evaluate the inmates behavior. Certainly this does not go far enough.
Solitary confinement sentences would be limited to six months for all but the most extraordinary circumstances.
Radical reform needs to be implemented so that prisons practice rehabilitation and not rely on solitary confinement.
Bruce Dixon, editor at Black Agenda Report, criticizes Obama and black leadership in Washington for not being “willing to handcuff themselves to the White House fence, or go on a hunger strike” on the issue of “mass incarceration – the rise of the current prison state.”
A new House Judiciary Committee Task Force on Overcriminalization will look into ways to reduce prison sentences. But, Dixon warns,
[p]ushing the rock of the prison state uphill will take a lot more, including some profound disrespect of the authority that led us where we are today. It would be a great good thing to see local and national organizations composed of and led by the formerly incarcerated and the families of the imprisoned involved in aggressive, insistent and impolite advocacy for justice.
My guess, however, is that the traditional civil rights leaders – funded by corporations and feeling a lot more responsibility to the White House and their funders than they do to the people and communities affected by the prison state – will cut a series of bad, lazy deals. Their top priority will be not embarrassing the president by demanding that he act like a leader on this issue.