Criminal Injustice Series: Incarceration Nation

Editor's Note: As you all know, the Criminal Injustice series has a new home: Critical Mass Progress. Soothsayer, the author of the series has graciously agreed to crosspost the series on The People's View. While the series will publish on CMP on Wednesday evenings at 6 pm Central Time (7 pm Eastern, 4 pm Pacific), we will crosspost it on Friday mornings on a regular basis. Please welcome soothsayer and this vitally important series.

Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to exploring the myths of "crime", "criminals" and criminal justice and the intersection of race/ethnicity/class/gender/ sexuality/age/ disability in policing and punishment.
Criminal Injustice is committed to furthering action towards reducing inequity in the US criminal justice system.

By Nancy A. Heitzeg aka soothsayer99

Again, many thanks to Seeta Persaud for her vision in the creation of this blog and her incredible generosity in hosting the Criminal Injustice series. What follows is a reprint of the introduction to this series, initially published February 2011. It does, I hope, provide the larger context of mass incarceration that shapes the mission of CI, which is “Analysis and Indictment of the deep structural foundations of criminal justice in racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, and towards the goal, ultimately, of Abolition.” The goal of this series has been to expose this failed system at the intersections, offer alternatives for transformational/restorative justice and opportunities for action.
Thank You for Joining Us.

The United States, which has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25% of its prisoners. This is the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Over 2.4 million persons are in state or federal prisons and jails - a rate of 751 out of every 100,000. Another 5 million are under some sort of correctional supervision such as probation or parole.

The US remains the last of the post-industrial so-called First World nations that still retains the death penalty, and we use it often. Nearly 3300 inmates await execution in 35 states and at the federal level, and it was not until the early 21st century that the US abolished capital punishment for juveniles and those with IQs below 70.

This dramatic escalation of the U.S. prison population has occurred in the past 40 years, a ten-fold increase since 1970. Between 1987 and 2007 alone the prison population nearly tripled. The rate of incarceration for women escalated at an even more dramatic pace. This increased rate of incarceration can be traced almost exclusively to the War on Drugs and the rise of lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes and other non violent felonies.These harsh policies have not proliferated in response to crime rates nor any empirical data that indicates their effectiveness.

A similarly repressive trend has emerged in the juvenile justice system. The juvenile justice system has shifted sharply from its’ original rehabilitative, therapeutic and reform goals. into a “second-class criminal court that provides youth with neither therapy or justice.” Throughout the 1990s, nearly all states and the federal government enacted a series of legislation that criminalized a host of “gang-related activities”, made it easier and in some cases mandatory) to try juveniles as adults, lowered the age at which juveniles could be referred to adult court, and widened the net of juvenile justice.


And unsurprisingly, mandatory minimums for drug violations, “three strikes”, increased use of imprisonment as a sentencing option, lengthy prison terms, adult certification for juveniles and the expanded use of the death penalty -- all disproportionately affect the poor and people of color. Indeed this has been the history of the U.S. criminal justice system from the outset; the poor and especially people of color have been disproportionately policed, prosecuted, convicted, disenfranchised, imprisoned, and executed. The current explosion in mass incarceration simply exacerbates this historical trend. A brief glimpse into the statistics immediately reveals both the magnitude of these policy changes as well as their inequitable dynamic.

Despite no statistical differences in rates of offending, the poor, the under-educated, and people of color, particularly African Americans, are over-represented in these statistics at every phase of the criminal justice system. While 1 in 31 adults is under correctional supervision and 1 in every 100 adults is in prison, 1 in every 100 black women, 1 in every 36 Latino adults , one in every 15 black men, and 1 in 9 black men ages 20 to 34 are incarcerated. Approximately 50% of all prisoners are black, 30% are white and 1/6 Latino. Race of victim race of offender and social class remain the best predictors of who will receive the death penalty.

The racial disparities are even greater for youth. African Americans, while representing 17% of the youth population, account for 45% of all juvenile arrests. Again, despite no differences in rates of offending, Black youth are 2 times more likely than white youth to be arrested, to be referred to juvenile court, to be formally processed and adjudicated as delinquent or referred to the adult criminal justice system, and they are 3 times more likely than white youth to be sentenced to out-of –home residential placement. Nationally, 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime. While boys are five times as likely to be incarcerated as girls, girls are at increasing risk. This rate of incarceration is endangering children at younger and younger ages via the school-to- prison pipeline.

Punitive policies extend beyond prison time served and decimate both families and communities. In addition to the direct impact of mass criminalization and incarceration, there is plethora of “invisible punishments”. “Collateral consequences” are now attached to many felony convictions and include voter disenfranchisement, denial of Federal welfare, medical, housing or educational benefits, accelerated time-lines for loss of parental rights and exclusion from any number of employment opportunities. Collateral consequences are particularly harsh for drug felons who represent the bulk of the recently incarcerated. Drug felons are permanently barred from receiving public assistance such as TANF, Medicaid, food stamps or SSI, federal financial aid for education, and federal housing assistance. These policies dramatically reduce the successful re-integration of former inmates, increases the likelihood of recidivism and return to prison.


Our experiment in mass incarceration is a costly one that proceeds at the expense of tax-payers, of social programs, of entire communities, of both current and future generations, and at the expense of the lives of the millions lost to its’ vast machinery.

Imprisonment costs an average of $ 25,000 per inmate per year. Local, state, and federal governments expend nearly $150 billion per year on "corrections" and the average execution costs an average of $2 million dollars. Comparatively – community correctional options have one-third of the costs and twice the success rate.

Of course there are those who capitalize – quite literally on our fears. One of the most insidious aspects of this project in mass incarceration is its’ connection to the profit motive. Once solely a burden on tax payers, the so-called “prison –industrial complex” is now a source of corporate profit, governmental agency funding, cheap neo-slave labor, and employment for economically depressed regions. This complex now includes over 3,300 jails, over 1,500 state prisons, and 100 Federal prisons in the US. Nearly 300 of these are private for-profit prisons. Over 30 of these institutions are super-maximum facilities, not including the super-maximum units located in most other prisons.

"The prison industrial complex is a self-perpetuating machine where the vast profits (e.g. cheap labor, private and public supply and construction contracts, job creation, continued media profits from exaggerated crime reporting and crime/punishment as entertainment) and perceived political benefits (e.g. reduced unemployment rates, “get tough on crime” and public safety rhetoric, funding increases for police, and criminal justice system agencies and professionals) lead to policies that are additionally designed to insure an endless supply of “clients” for the criminal justice system (e.g. enhanced police presence in poor neighborhoods and communities of color; racial profiling; decreased funding for public education combined with zero-tolerance policies and increased rates of expulsion for students of color; increased rates of adult certification for juvenile offenders; mandatory minimum and “three-strikes” sentencing; draconian conditions of incarceration and a reduction of prison services that contribute to the likelihood of “recidivism”; “collateral consequences”-such as felony disenfranchisement, prohibitions on welfare receipt, public housing, gun ownership, voting and political participation, employment- that nearly guarantee continued participation in “crime” and return to the prison industrial complex following initial release.) ( Brewer and Heitzeg 2008)


The prison industrial complex, the death penalty and the pathways to them are fraught with human rights violations. The criminal justice system – its’ methods and its’ punishments exist in violation of The Bill of Rights and several international accords and treaties.

Violations by police and prisons include:

 racial profiling;

 excessive use of force – including kicking and beatings of restrained suspects with fists, batons, and flashlights; excessive use of dangerous chokeholds, “hog-ties”, and other restraints that have resulted in death;

 dangerous use of restraints-including four point restraints, the “rail’ and the restraint chair- that have resulted in multiple deaths

 excessive use of tasers and chemical sprays; excessive use of deadly force;

 the shackling of pregnant inmates

 use of nudity, strip searches and sexual humiliation and assault as a source of social control;

 failure to curtail sexual assaults on both male and female inmates by other inmates and guards;

 denial of medical care or treatment;

 confinement of the mentally ill

 excessive use of “super max” and isolation confinement; over 200,000 inmates are held in segregation - over 80% are people of color an 60% are mentally ill


Efforts to reform the criminal justice system are complicated by ramped-up, albeit unrealistic, public fears and a climate where elected officials are afraid to be perceived as "soft on crime". Still fiscal crises at both the federal and states levels have created an opportunity for many to suggest a re-evaluation of our current costly and ineffective policies. The proposed The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 represents an important step in this direction.

In addition, a non-profit research and advocacy organizations continue their tireless efforts towards revision of criminal justice policies and practices. A partial listing includes:

The Sentencing Project
The Real Cost of Prisons Project
The Innocence Project
Families Against Mandatory Minimums
Racial Profiling Data Collection Center
Amnesty International USA
Human Rights Watch USA
Critical Resistance
Prison Activist Resource Center
Death Penalty Information Center
Angola 3 News
Solitary Watch
ACLU: The Racial Justice Program
Death Penalty Discourse Network
Prison Culture
Originally Published at Critical Mass Progress: Educate Agitate Organize

© Copyright 2010-2011, Nancy A. Heitzeg, Kay Whitlock, and Seeta Persaud of CMP. All rights reserved. All articles and posts published by Criminal Injustice may not be distributed, re-published or cross-posted in any format, including print or electronic format, without express and explicit written permission from the copyright holders, including CI editors (Nancy Heitzeg and Kay Whitlock) and

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