War Policy and
The Prison Industrial Complex
By Lisa M. Hammond
www.bhergroup.com - email@example.com
The war around the War on Drugs is a battle
between public health and criminal justice.
It’s a battle between conservatives calling for imprisonment and
progressives calling for public health solutions. It’s the legacy of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Nelson
Rockefeller, and others, who used the fear of crime to build campaigns around
law and order. While these
conservative politicians were pounding the bully pulpit and demanding that every
drug offender is punished, Congress was eliminating mandatory minimum sentences
and mainstream public opinion considered drug addiction to be a public health
problem, not an issue for the criminal courts.
The battle between public health and criminal
justice began to move right with the graphic depiction of drug addicts as
immoral and dangerous criminals. Rockefeller
demonstrated his commitment to law and order when he crushed the Attica prison
uprising, and took the lead in the War on Drugs by proposing the harshest drug
laws in the country. The War on
Drugs rhetoric and Rockefeller drug laws were arguing a correlation between
crime and drug abuse. To further
fuel the debate, the economic recession of 1973-75, saw escalating crime and the
proliferation of criminal drug activity as economic alternatives.
Americans wanted to solve the crime problem and believed that the enemy
was drugs and all who used them. What
started out as a policy to reduce drug abuse has resulted in the mass
incarceration of drug addicted individuals.
Public health lost the battle to treat drug abuse in 1986, with the
passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, and the criminalization of drug addiction.
For the past 25 years, the U.S. has pursued a
drug policy based on prohibition and the application of severe criminal
sanctions for the use and sale of illicit substances. Over this 25-year period, the rate at which criminal
penalties have been imposed has steadily increased resulting in the United
States imprisoning more of its citizens than any other industrialized nation.
Furthermore, the enforcement of drug laws has not always been applied
equally to all groups, despite comparable rates of drug use.
African Americans are disproportionately represented among imprisoned
drug offenders. The War on Drugs
policy has criminalized drug addiction and resulted in mass incarceration for
As of June 30, 1998, more than 1.8 million
people were locked up in the immense network of federal, state, and local
prisons and jails.(1) In total,
more than 5.5 million people ‑‑ including those on probation and
parole ‑‑ were directly under the surveillance of the criminal
justice system.(2) Additionally,
more than 60 percent of the imprisoned population are people of color.(3)
Since 1994, the disparity between white and
non white prisoners as a percentage of the total prison population has widened
dramatically. State prison
incarceration rates for African Americans for drug law violations are almost 20
times those of whites and more than double those of Hispanics.(4)
Although whites account for 69% of drug offense arrestee’s and blacks
29%, blacks are disproportionately convicted and comprise 48% of the U.S. prison
population, while they are only 12.5% of the general population.(5)
From 1990 to 1994, incarceration for drug offenses accounted for 60% of
the increase in the black population in state prisons and 91% of the increase in
Federal prisons. (6) By 1995, 35%
of all African American males ages 25-34 were under the control of the criminal
justice system--behind bars, on probation, or on parole. (7) In 1998, 3% of all black men were in prison on any given
day.(8) And one out of three Black
men aged 20 -29 were under some form of criminal justice control, which are more
black men than were in college.(9) Additionally,
one out of every four Black men will go to prison in his lifetime. (10)
Much of the disparity in incarceration rates
can be attributed to the insidious inequality of the Mandatory Minimum Sentences
(MMS) passed by Congress in 1986. Federal
Mandatory Minimum Sentences are determined solely by the weight of the drug, or
the presence of a firearm during a felony offense.
The prisoner must serve 85% of this sentence, and there is no parole
available. A judge must impose the
sentence, regardless of the defendant’s role in the offense, his likelihood of
rehabilitation or any other mitigating factors.
Possession of 5.01 grams of crack is subject to a mandatory minimum of
five years, while it takes 100 times more cocaine in powder form to receive the
same MMS, despite the fact that the two drugs are similar in chemistry and
physiological effects. As it
happens, crack is predominately used by blacks, while powder is often used by
The drug addict, who has been demonized by
conservatives, is now seen as the source of many of our social ills.
With the perceived escalation of crime, the War on Drugs incarceration
policy has come to dominate the nation’s political agenda.
However, mass incarceration is not a solution to social problems. The 1.8
million people behind bars are not the only ones affected.
Many prisoners leave families, friends, employers, and communities
struggling to cope with the consequences of incarceration.
Furthermore, incarceration can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting
in a future generation of potential criminals.
Children subjected to parental incarceration, financial insecurity, and a
hereditary predisposition to drug abuse are far more likely to engage in
criminality than others.(11) Unfortunately, the great majority of people believe
imprisonment works and it is the key to winning the War on Drugs.
Hence, the focus of state’s policy having shifted from social welfare
to social control is endorsed by the American public.
The punitive impact of the War on Drugs
policy can also be seen in the Welfare Reform Act, Section 115, where
legislation has placed a lifetime ban on Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF)
and Food Stamp benefits for all convicted drug felons.
Coincidentally, the Coalition for Federal Sentencing Reform found that
more than 80% of the female prisoner population are mothers, and 70% of these
are single parents. Since 1990 the annual rate of growth of the female inmate
population has averaged 8.8%, higher than the 6.9% average increase in the
number of male inmates.(12) By year
end 1997 women accounted for 6.4% of all prisoners’ nationwide, up from 5.7%
Female incarceration rates, though
substantially lower than male incarceration rates, reveal similar racial and
ethnic disparities. Black females
(with an incarceration rate of 188 per 100,000) were more than twice as likely
as Hispanic females (78 per 100,000) and eight times more likely than white
females (23 per 100,000) to be in prison in 1996. (14)
Inmates at year end 1990 and 1996 reveal differences in the sources of
growth between male and female inmates. During
this period the number of female inmates serving time for drug offenses doubled,
while the number of male inmates in for drug offenses rose 55%.(15)
The number serving time for violent offenses, however, rose at about the
same pace (up 57% for men and 58% for women).(16) Denying TANF benefits and food stamps to convicted drug
felons imposes grave hardship on the children of these individuals and creates
additional barriers to success after imprisonment. A former felon without readily marketable skills will not be
able to seek immediate employment upon release.
Hence, without a social safety net, this individual will have no choice
but to engage in behaviors that may lead to recidivism.
Women with children and inadequate means of financial support will resort
to prostitution and drug dealing to provide for family essentials.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse
estimates the economic cost from alcohol and drug abuse was $276 billion in
1995.(17) Since that time there
have been significant increases in expenditures to incarcerate, but not solve
the social ills that lead to drug abuse. Billions
of dollars are lost in productivity, tax revenues, wages,
social security contributions, and lost life because our public policy
leaders fail to recognize alcoholism and addiction for what they are, chronic
diseases. The prevalence of drug
abuse has created a public health and social community crisis.
Responding with incarceration does not treat the problem, it only
compounds it. The 1994 California
Drug and Alcohol Treatment Assessment, General Report, found that every dollar
spent on addiction treatment saves taxpayers more than $7 in medical and social
costs.(18) However, we continue to
pursue an extraordinarily expensive policy of criminal justice at the expense of
alternative social solutions.
Drug enforcement activities cost more than
$20 billion per year in state and local law enforcement and constitute 68% of
the $17 billion Federal drug budget, compared with the $5.5 billion in
treatment, prevention and research. (19) The
cost of drug enforcement is 50% larger than the entire federal welfare budget of
$16.6 billion, which provides income supports for 8.5 million people.(20)
And represents six times what the federal government will spend on child
care for 1.25 million children.
The most visible part of the War on Drugs is
the development of the Prison Industrial Complex. Short of war, mass incarceration has been one of the most
thoroughly implemented social programs of our time. The dramatic increase in funding for prison expansion and
criminal justice has come at the expense of education.
From 1987 to 1995, general fund expenditures for prisons throughout the
country increased by 30% while general fund expenditures for universities
decreased by 18%. (21) In 1995, the National Crime Bill was passed, resulting
in the construction of 150 new prisons and the expansion of 171 existing
prisons.(22) States around the
country spent more building prisons than colleges and there was nearly a dollar
for dollar tradeoff between corrections and higher education, with university
construction funds decreasing to 2.5 billion while corrections funding increased
to 2.6 billion.(23)
Since 1984 more than 20 new prisons have
opened in California, while only one new campus was added to the California
State University system and none to the University of California system.(24)
For the first time in California’s state history the 1995 budget
allocated more money for prisons than education.
Today, California plans to add six new prisons to its existing 32, and it
is estimated that an additional 11 will be required over the next five years
just to maintain the current level of overcrowding.(25)
According to the California Department of Corrections, it currently costs
$22,000 to imprison one inmate for one year.
With an annual average cost of $4,022 in tuition fees for attendance at
the University of California, the housing of one inmate precludes five students
from obtaining higher education. The
minimum period of incarceration for inmates sentenced to 25 to life under
California’s “Three Strikes” law is 21.75 years (85% of the minimum
sentence). This means that, in 1998
dollars, a defendant sentenced to life will cost a minimum of $467,500.
The current population of California inmates serving life under “Three
Strikes” is 4,318 at a cost of $95 million for one year.(26)
The state could send a number of students to UC or California State
University for that same amount and quite possible find alternative solutions to
our various social ills.
Interestingly, prisons and universities have
the same target audience, young adults. Though
unlike universities, 70% of prisoners nationwide have not completed high school,
and more than 50% are illiterate. (27) At
present, five times as many black men are presently in prison as in
four‑year colleges and universities.
The War on Drugs promotion of incarceration has not only affected funding
for education, but has inadvertently created a population in grave need of
learning and skill development. The War on
Drugs and resultant prison industrial system has devoured the social wealth
needed to address the very problems that have led to spiraling numbers of
prisoners. As prisons take up
more and more resources, other government programs that have previously sought
to respond to social needs ‑‑ such as Temporary Assistance to Needy
Families ‑‑ are being squeezed out of existence.
The deterioration of public education is directly related to the prison
Drug abuse is a problem with many social
ramifications. There are 26 million
Americans who abuse or are addicted to drugs and alcohol.(28)
There are 10.5 million victims of drug related crimes each year.(29)
There are 700,000 infants exposed in utero to illicit drugs each
year.(30) There are 132,000 premature deaths as a consequence of drug and
alcohol problems.(31) Drug abuse is
a problem. Addiction is a disease
with bio-psycho-social causes(32), whose prevalence has created a social crisis.
However, the solution is not to lock them up and throw away the key.
People who support incarceration, vote for
new prison bonds and give their tacit assent to a proliferating network of
prisons and jails. But prisons do
not solve social problems. Without
addressing the underlying social issue, a burgeoning penal infrastructure will
continue to grow in order to accommodate an exponentially increasing population
of caged people. However, the
economics of the private prison industry are in many respects similar to those
of the lodging industry. An inmate
at a private prison is like a guest at a hotel and the economic incentive is to
book every available room and encourage every guest to stay as long as possible.
Prisons are becoming increasingly important
to the U.S. economy. Prison
privatization is the most obvious example of opportunistic capitalism in the
current development of the prison industry.
Prison Realty Trust (PZN), the largest private prison company in the
U.S., builds and manages prisons in Australia, Puerto Rico, the U.K., and the
U.S. It owns 50 prisons, 49 in the
U.S., and it manages more than 70,000 prison beds in more than 80 facilities.
The company recently identified California as its "new
frontier."(34) Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (WHC), the second largest
developer and operator of private prisons in the U.S., has contracts to manage
more than 40 facilities in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. It boasts more
than 30,000 beds as well as contracts for prisoner healthcare services,
transportation and security.(35) Currently, the stocks of both PZN and WHC
publicly trade on the New York Stock Exchange and are doing extremely well.
Between 1996 and 1998, PZN's revenues increased by 126 percent, from $293
million to $662 million. WHC raised
its revenues from $138 million in 1996 to $313 million in 1998. Unlike public
correctional facilities, the vast profits of these private facilities rely, in
part, on the employment of prison
labor. But PZN and WHC are
not alone in exploiting the burgeoning new industry of prison privatization.
When an offender enters a California prison, he is surveyed for more than
50 skills and placed in a facility with targeted skill needs according to his
ability. Corporations ranging from
J.C. Penny and Victoria’s Secret to IBM and Toys R Us utilize prison labor to
cut costs and increase profits.
Private prison companies are only the most
visible component of the increasing corporatization of punishment. Government
contracts to build prisons have bolstered the construction industry.
The architectural community has identified prison design as a major new
niche. Technology developed for the
military, such as “Night Enforcer” goggles and “Hot Wire” fencing, by
companies like Westinghouse are being marketed for use in law enforcement and
punishment. Moreover, corporations that appear to be far removed from the
business of punishment are intimately involved in the expansion of
the prison industrial complex. Prison construction bonds are one of the
many sources of profitable investment for leading financiers such as Merrill
Lynch. MCI charges prisoners and
their families outrageous prices for telephone calls by adding a $3.00 surcharge
to every call.(36) A pay phone at a
prison can generate as much as $15,000 per year.(37)
The business is so lucrative that MCI installed its inmate phone system,
Maximum Security, throughout the California prison system at no charge. (38)
As part of the deal MCI provides the California Department of Corrections
a 32% share of all revenues from inmates’ phone calls.(39)
Financiers and high‑tech industries are
not the only ones reaping profits from incarceration. Nordstrom’s department stores sell jeans that are marketed
as "Prison Blues," as well as T‑shirts and jackets made in
Oregon prisons. The advertising
slogan for these clothes is "made on the inside to be worn on the
outside." Maryland prisoners
inspect glass bottles and jars used by Revlon and Pierre Cardin, and schools throughout
the world buy graduation caps and gowns made for Jostens by South Carolina
"For private business," writes Eve
Goldberg and Linda Evans "prison labor is like a pot of gold.
No strikes. No union
organizing. No health benefits,
unemployment insurance, or workers' compensation to pay.
No language barriers, as in foreign countries.
Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA,
raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds and
lingerie for Victoria's
Secret ‑‑ all at a fraction of the cost of 'free labor.' " (41)
Although prison labor is quite profitable for
the private companies that use it, incarceration does not produce wealth for the
public sector. On the contrary, it
devours wealth that could be used for education, drug rehabilitation, programs
to combat HIV, child care, housing, and job creation for the unemployed.
The Prison Industrial Complex is an
interweaving of private business and government interests.
Private capital has become enmeshed in the punishment industry.
Although the primary purpose of prisons is social control and the public
rationale is the fight against crime, the results are clearly profit on the
backs of disadvantaged populations
Reframing the War on Drugs policy to a
national public health policy on substance abuse treatment would not only reduce
costs and improve national health, but also make our communities safer, lower
taxes, improve workplace productivity and reduce health care costs.
Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing.
Addiction is primarily a health care problem with criminal justice
implications. It is not primarily a
criminal justice problem with healthcare implications.
We need to get the relationship straight.
Treatment is the most effective way to reduce drug and alcohol addiction,
and dramatically reduce drug and alcohol related crime and health care costs.
Treatment cuts health care costs. Treatment improves economic welfare.
Treatment is cheaper than enforcement, prosecution and incarceration.
Three decades after the War on Drugs began,
we have developed a prison industrial complex, with seemingly unstoppable
momentum. The line between public
interest and private interest has blurred.
The crackdown on drugs has not stopped drug use, but it has taken
thousands of unemployed and potentially angry young men and women off of the
streets and has created a growing prison population and new industrial complex.
Our failure to spend on relatively inexpensive measures, such as drug
treatment and probation, has forced us to increase spending on prisons.
However, as criminal justice increasingly devours social resources it
does not add to social wealth. Building
more prisons to address drug abuse is like building more graveyards to deal with
a fatal disease.
We need to treat the cause of drug abuse
through public health and reinstate social resources to combat the risk factors
leading to abuse. The goal is
simple, to reduce drug abuse and the constellation of associated problems and
costs. We can achieve this goal
through a continuum of health care services orchestrated by a Public Health