Mumia on the Prisonhouse of Nations

With the release of the Pew Center on the States report, comes news that proves, without question, that the U.S. is the world’s champion when it comes to incarceration rates. One out of 100 American adults are in prison today.

According to news reports detailing the Pew Center research, the year 2008 began with 2,319,258 people in U.S. prisons and jails. No other nation can boast such a raw number, or per capita rate, of incarceration. Not India, which has 3 times the population; nor China, which has over 4 times the U.S. population. That’s because the U.S. transformed its prisons into a job-making program, and a business.

The 50 states have spent over $49 billion on its 2007 prisons budget, up from $11 billion spent in the 1987 prisons budget. Over a decade ago, I warned of precisely this outcome in my book, “Live From Death Row” (1995).

That’s because we were then in the midst of the incarceration boom, due to tougher and tougher sentencing.

The so-called drug war has fed this binge, and only now, over a decade after the rash and harsh imprisonment of many, many people, the Sentencing Commission is easing the rules on sentencing for possession of crack cocaine vs. powder.

Why would the government ease up? It may be because the states are drowning in red ink over burgeoning prison costs. Because, decades after the onset of the drug war, in 2005, over 33.6 million Americans over 12 years old used cocaine. As for crack, some 8 million people reported usage of the drug in their lifetime. If we look at U.S. high school seniors, we find an astonishing figure. In 1975, 1.9% of these students reported cocaine use. In 2005, that number was 2.5% (see note). So much for the so-called drug war.

For these figures show, after billions of dollars were spent on prisons, and an incredible number of people were imprisoned in rates that no other nation has yet faced, the rate of drug use has not only not declined, it has increased.

Guess who’s winning?


Note: Wright, John W., ed., 2008: “The New York Times Almanac ” (New York: Penguin Books, 2007). p.389.

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