America’s Challenge: Reclaiming Souls on Ice

There’s a bomb waiting to go off beneath American society, a bomb set by the mindless get-tough-on-crime rhetoric and laws of the past three decades that fueled an explosive, insane boom in prison-construction—and thus, in the number of Americans in prison or jail.

In the 1990s, a new federal Justice Department report says, states built prisons with a total capacity for 528,000 individuals. At an average construction cost of $50,000 per bed, the boom cost states more than $26 billion. Annual operating costs for state and federal prisons now total $30 billion. These dollar outlays have put a significant financial strain on states’ capacity to provide other services—such as funding for public higher education.

The more dangerous consequence has to do with the future of those who were in prison or who are in prison now.

Thirty years ago, there were a total of 200,000 Americans in jail or prison. Now, there are 1.3 million Americans in state or federal prison. If one adds in the youth in juvenile detention centers, the number rises to just over 2 million people, according to the report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

There is, of course, an indisputable racial facet to this: of the 1.3 million in federal and state prisons, 428,000 are black men 20 to 29 years old. Currently, about 10 percent of black males between 25 and 29 years old are in federal and state prison, compared to 2.9 percent of Latino males, and 1.1 percent of white males in the same age group.

Central to this racial disparity is incarceration for drug usage. Although whites are by far the majority of drug users in the country, and blacks, 12 percent of the population, use drugs in roughly proportional terms, there are currently 50,700 whites in prison for drug offenses, and 144,700 blacks.

Of course, blacks who commit crime ought to be subject to the processes of the criminal justice system. African Americans themselves have spoken loud and clear—most recently in the National Urban League survey published in The State of Black America 2001—about the importance of reducing crime in their communities.


But it is the undeniable element of racism that pervades the criminal justice system from the exercise of police discretion on the street to the imposition of the death penalty that has produced the mistrust between blacks and law enforcement—and set that bomb ticking.

Race was central to the continued feverish expansion of prison construction throughout the 1990s—even as crime rates all over the country dropped sharply. Three significant political forces pushed that expansion: private for-profit prison companies,

and construction companies, correctional guards’ unions, and, not least, economically depressed rural local and county governments desperately seeking financial rescue.

In a recent, brilliant essay in the journal Dissent, Paul Street, director of research for the Chicago Urban League, describes the alarming implications of this ill-considered incarceration policy. He points out that, given the sharply disproportionate number of blacks in prison, it has produced the “spectacle” of the “predominantly white composition of the keepers and the predominantly black composition of the kept in the prison towns that increasingly look to the mass incarceration boom as the solution to their economic problems.

“As everyone knows, but few like to discuss,” he continues, “the mostly white residents of those towns are building their economic ‘dreams’ on the transport and lockdown of unfree African Americans from impoverished inner-city neighborhoods …”

Street also looks at the other side of that perverse equation—the devastating social and economic damage to the poor black communities where some significant number of its men (and increasingly, women) in their prime “workforce-entry years” are in prison.

This results in a loss of both immediate and future earning power to individuals and the community as a whole, since job prospects in the legitimate market for even ex-offenders who have skills and want to “go straight” are virtually non-existent.

Writer Errol Louis provides an equally frightening portrait in the current issue of the Urban League’s Opportunity Journal magazine of the impact the incarceration of young black men has had on Brooklyn’s famed Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.

The Justice Department report bluntly says it’s not clear if the rate of incarceration has stopped growing.

But there are other, small signs that the “fever” for incarceration has broken—such as moves to revamp draconian, counterproductive drug laws in favor of alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders.

To help move the reforms forward, the Bush Administration should appoint a panel of distinguished criminal justice scholars. Their task: to scrutinize every facet of the federal, state and local criminal justice system; assemble and analyze the available studies; identify disparities and dubious practices; and issue findings and recommendations to eradicate discrimination wherever it exists.

As important, America’s prison system needs a massive effort at inmate rehabilitation. We must give inmates the education and the job skills that would give them a real chance to go straight once they’re released.

This is a mammoth task—but it must be undertaken if American society is to defuse the human time bomb beneath it and reclaim a significant part of its citizens.

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