What is behind the expansion of U.S. prisons?

Jul 2, 2014

Racism and social unrest

The police killings of New York 23-year-old Sean Bell in a hail of 50 shots on Nov. 25 and of Atlanta 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston on Nov. 21 were jarring reminders of the reality of racist police terror, especially in Black and oppressed communities. This young African American man and elderly African American woman now join Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, Rodney King and countless others in the ever-growing list of victims of police violence.

These actions stem from the racist paramilitary nature of the police in the United States. But they do not take place in a vacuum. The police do not commit these acts of terror because there are crazy or out-of-control “bad apples” on an otherwise good force. The “war on crime,” like the “war on drugs,” is no more than an elaborate attempt to address a structural crisis within the capitalist system—a domestic version of the ruthless neoliberal policies that U.S. imperialism has been trying to impose on the oppressed world for the last 20 years.

Between 1995 and 2005, the number of people in U.S. prisons rose by over 37 percent. In 2005, some 7 million people were either incarcerated or on probation or parole. Of these, 2.2 million were in jails or prisons. That makes the United States the country with the most people in prison by far. In fact, according to the Sentencing Project, the United States has more people imprisoned than any other country in the world.

Politicians of both big-business parties scramble to prove themselves “tough on crime.” Every year, new repressive laws are passed. “Law and order” has become an essential component of a broader right-wing offensive.

More prisons do not mean less crime

The official justification of building more prisons and incarcerating more people is to bring down the crime rates. But there is no evidence that jailing more people for longer periods has any impact on the crime rate.

The U.S. prison rate began to skyrocket in 1975, according to data presented by the Prison Policy Initiative. (“Incarceration rate, 1925-2001: Prisoners per 100,000 population”) Yet crime rates did not begin to fall for nearly 25 years. In fact, the crime index rate rose steadily from 1976 to 1992, from 467.8 per 100,000 population to 757.5 per 100,000.

The marked decline in violent offenses did not start until 1993—corresponding to a fall in unemployment and a lower percent of males in the high-risk 15 to 24 year old age group.

In fact, violent crime rates dropped in Canada beginning in exactly the same year with no corresponding increase in the number of prisons or the number of prisoners.

Capitalist crisis

The real motives behind the vastly increased U.S. prison complex were addressed in a March 2001 Monthly Review article by U.S. political prisoner David Gilbert, reviewing Christian Parenti’s book “Lockdown America.” Gilbert points to the serious structural crisis of U.S. capitalism beginning in the late 1960s. After the huge surge in the U.S. economy following World War II, the investment opportunities in rebuilding the war-ravaged economies of Europe and Japan resulted in highly productive imperialist competitors for U.S. imperialism. An inevitable byproduct of this new situation was periodic episodes of chronic overproduction, where more goods and services were produced than could be profitably sold.

The changed world capitalist economy corresponded to rapid political changes taking place within the U.S. working class. The civil rights and anti-war movements inspired growing worker militancy that resulted in rising labor costs. A growing environmental movement agitated to expand pollution controls, limiting corporations’ ability to exploit natural resources with no bounds. Gilbert notes that average profit rates for U.S. firms fell from a peak of almost 10 percent in 1965 to a low of 4.5 percent in 1974.

The response on the part of the U.S. ruling class—seen in a clear and consistent change of strategy by the U.S. government across the board—involved both a political and economic reorientation. A co-coordinated federal, state and local police campaign targeted the leadership of the radical movement, focusing especially on the Black liberation movement. Thirty members of the Black Panther Party were killed at the hands of cops, and hundreds more were jailed.

At the same time, Gilbert pointed to the systematic, across-the-board economic restructuring kicked off by Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979—the heart of the “Reagan Revolution.” He quoted Thatcher’s chief economic advisor, Alan Budd: “Rising unemployment was a very desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes. … What was engineered—in Marxist terms—was a crisis in capitalism which recreated a reserve army of labor and has allowed capitalists to make high profits ever since.”

The measures that followed were an attempt to eviscerate the social gains of the New Deal and Great Society periods. They left the labor movement in a seriously weakened condition even in subsequent economic expansions.

These changes hit the urban centers—with large concentrations of Black and Latino communities—especially hard. The phenomenon of globalization allowed corporations to shift industrial production to low-wage countries and regions within the United States, eliminating many of the jobs that had been held by Black and Latino workers.

“From the point of view of capitalist production, people in the ghettos and barrios became ‘surplus population’ or ‘social junk,’” Gilbert wrote. “At the same time, these stressed communities, with a history of militancy, were potentially ‘social dynamite’—a serious threat located near the city center, headquarters of the most profitable sectors of the new economy such as finance, insurance, real estate, and communications.”

Racist pacification campaign

Parenti argues that the main motive for the vast expansion in the U.S. prison complex was the U.S. ruling class’ effort to “deflect rising frustration and anger away from the rulers,” in Gilbert’s words. To do so, they relied on what had always worked in the past: racism, this time in the guise of “law and order.”

That can be seen in the disproportionate impact of mass incarceration on the Black community. In 2004, for example, the rate of incarceration for African Americans was over six times higher than that of whites. (prisonpolicy.org) About one in five prisoners in state prisons are convicted of drug offenses. Yet while African Americans account for roughly 15 percent of all drug users according to an October 2006 ACLU report, 74 percent of all those sentenced to prison for drug offenses are Black. In New York State, over 90 percent of prisoners convicted of drug offenses are Black or Latino.

Of course, what is now referred to as the “prison-industrial complex” is also a billion-dollar enterprise. It includes the profits made by corporations that build prisons and run private prisons, as well as some of the biggest U.S. corporations that exploit prison labor, paying wages less than in many of the most oppressed countries in the world.

While capitalists have always profited from misery in every way they can find, the profit motive alone cannot explain the vast expansion of the prison system. The prison-industrial complex does not play the same kind of commanding role in the economy—both in terms of production or in terms of technological progress—that the Pentagon organized military-industrial complex does.

The growth of the prison system is intimately tied to the particularly racist nature of U.S. capitalism. It is primarily a form of state repression aimed particularly at the most oppressed sectors of the working class with the goal of eroding class solidarity and extinguishing militant struggle.

However, in the same way that the earliest industrial boom laid the basis for working-class organization, today’s prison system lays the objective basis for revolutionary organizing among oppressed communities in the United States. The memory of the 1971 Attica uprising still haunts the ruling class and their prison wardens.

In a new way, capitalism is creating its own gravediggers.