Let me start by quoting my favorite historical personality from Indiana – the great democratic Socialist Eugene Debs, from Terre Haute. "While there is a lower class," Debs once said, "I am of it. While there is a criminal element," he added, "I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
Prison Nation: "Not Unless This Country Plunges Into Fascism"
Debs would feel most un-free in contemporary America, where 2 million adults spend their days behind bars in the nation that possesses the world's highest incarceration rate. In the second year of the new millennium, 40 of every 100,000 people in Italy were imprisoned. The incarceration rate in Sweden was 60 per 100,000. France: 90 per 100,000. England: 125. South Africa: 400 per 100,000. Russia, with the second highest rate in the world: 675. The United States led the world with 690 per 100,000. Incredibly enough, the nation that proclaims itself the homeland and headquarters of world freedom comprises 5 percent of the world's population but houses more than 25 percent of the world's prisoners. "No other Western democratic country has ever imprisoned this proportion of its population," says Norval Morris, a professor emeritus at University of Chicago Law School. Indiana and Illinois are playing major roles in this dark drama, contributing 43,000 (Illinois) and 22,000 (Indiana) state prisoners, respectively to the inmate total in Prison Nation. With federal, local and county prisoners included, the numbers would be considerably higher.
America's incarceration numbers are off the charts relative to the rest of the world but they are also off the charts relative to our own history. In the last two-and-a-half decades, America's prison population has undergone "literally incredible" expansion, rising from less than 300,000 in 1970 to the current shocking number. There were less than 7500 state prison inmates in the entire state of Illinois in 1970. Thirty one years later, I found 7500 Illinois prisoners coming from just six of Chicago's sixty-six zip codes, including five on the city's west side and one on the south side. During the same period the number of prisons in my state rose from 7 to 27.
Reviewing these numbers I am struck by the depths of an amazing domestic development that has taken place quietly, behind the scene, during my lifetime, captured quite well by Angela Davis. "When I first became involved in anti-prison activities during the late 1960s," writes Davis, "I was astounded to learn that there were then close to two hundred thousand people in prison. Had anyone told me that in three decades ten times as many people would be locked away in cages, I would have been absolutely incredulous. I imagine that I would have responded something like this: 'As racist and undemocratic as this country may be [remember, during that period, the demands of the Civil Rights Movement had not yet been consolidated], I do not believe that the U.S. government will be able to lock up so many people without producing powerful resistance. No, this will never happen, not unless this country plunges into fascism." (Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? Seven Stories Press, 2003, p.11)
The US incarceration rate began its dramatic upward acceleration in the mid-1970s, after nearly 50 years during which it hovered around 100 per 100,000. Incarceration is now so extensive that several large states currently spend as much or more money to incarcerate adults than they do to provide their citizens with college and graduate educations. States now spend 60 cents on prisons for every dollar they spend on higher education, up from 28 cents in 1980.
Ex-Offender Nation: the Mark of a Criminal Record
Less commonly noted, America's mass imprisonment and related felony marking boom has also generated a massive army of "ex-offenders," whose liberty on the "outside" is strictly qualified by the lifelong mark of a criminal record. More than 600,000 individuals are released from state and federal prisons each year, feeding a swelling army of ex-offenders, saddled with what The Economist last year called "The Stigma That Never Fades." According to the best recent estimates, roughly 13 million Americans – fully 7 percent of the adult population and 12 percent of the adult male population – possess felony records. Thanks to numerous barriers to ex-offender "reintegration" (a phrase that tends to too-easily assume that former prisoners were meaningfully integrated into American "opportunity structures" prior to arrest and imprisonment), many released inmates claim that their "real sentence" began upon release. This claim often contains a measure of exaggeration, no doubt: "modern" US prisons are violent and totalitarian structures, monuments of intentionally planned mass misery, unmitigated by meaningful investment in rehabilitation and treatment.
Still, former prisoners face remarkable obstacles. One of the key barriers comes in the realm of employment. According to the best recent estimates, incarceration carries a significant 10 to 20 percent "wage penalty." "Prison time," Northwestern sociologist Devah Pager notes, "serves to channel individuals away from skilled occupations and into job sectors which are characterized by low wages, limited job stability, and fewer opportunities for advancement." Based on interviews with 3000 employers by the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, researchers report, more than 60 percent of employers would not knowingly hire an ex-offender. Possession of a felony record is the single worst barrier to employer acceptance. This is no small societal problem when 13 million possess such records in a capitalist society, where most adults must purchase commodified life necessities through an exchange medium that is obtained primarily by renting out their labor power on a sustained basis. Employer and other forms of societal bias against "ex-offenders" help explain why roughly two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years. A considerable and growing segment of the population has become part of a permanently stigmatized "underclass" that recycles in and out of jails and prisons. It forms an everlasting "criminal element" that is pushed yet further into the lower class and functions as the key raw material for a bloated, super-expensive hyper-carceral criminal justice state.