COLUMN: Dirty secret locked behind bars

Erin Roof

1991 was a good year. The Soviet Union collapsed. Nirvana hurled grunge rock into the mainstream with Nevermind. There was the whole Gulf War thing, but let’s forget about that for a moment.

Most importantly, 1991 also was the year when U.S. crime rates began to plummet, transforming America into a safe land of white picket fences and well-kept daisy gardens once again. Ahhh, smell the apple pie cooling on the window sill?

Sounds so perfect, right? But, America is keeping a dirty little secret behind bars. If the crime rate is going down, why is it that the number of federal prisoners has increased 90 percent in the last decade, according to the 2004 figures of the Bureau of Justice Statistics?

The figures get worse. The Department of Justice reports 2.1 million citizens are currently imprisoned in America. This breaks down to one in every 138 citizens living behind bars – the highest ratio in the industrial world.

Nearly 10 percent of black males between 25 and 29 years old were incarcerated in 2004 in the United States. Oh, excuse me, did I accidentally say the land of the free? I guess that depends on your skin color.

We even lock up mentally ill people. A recent report by The Sentencing Project, a prisoner advocacy group, found there are more than 23,000 mentally ill inmates in the United States.  

One may wonder the reason for this disgraceful rise in incarceration. But, the answer is obvious. It’s on the tips of our tongues … C’mon, let’s all say it together: muh-muh-muh-money!

Welcome to the prison industrial complex, kids. This is where the private corporations that the radical right in power loves so much get kicked lucrative contracts to run private prisons. Then the private corporations set up shop in the prisons and have the inmates work for them to produce goods they can sell to the public. (Ahem, sounds like slave labor.)

This remarkable trend began in 1975 when RCA got a contract to open a private prison with the state of Pennsylvania. Now behemoths like American Express and General Electric have invested in private prisons, along with many other lesser-known corporations.

The courts and politicians are making sure the slave-labor camps are well-staffed – lest their rich friends stop getting richer, and they stop getting their kickbacks. But, with less violent crime, policy makers have resorted to handing down lengthier sentences to keep current prisoners in the slave-labor workforce longer. A study of the drastic overcrowding of federal prisons, functioning at an average of 140 percent over capacity, according to the Department of Justice, revealed the entire increase was created by stricter sentencing policies like “three strikes” and “truth in sentencing.”

Then there are the drug offenders. Instead of diverting offenders from jail and admitting them into treatment facilities where they belong, the court system rounds them up and sends them to jail to increase the slave-labor workforce.

What’s the lesson here, kids? You better not get in Uncle Sam’s way. Tie your shoe laces and dot your I’s. Keep your nose clean and don’t get sent to prison. Good luck.

Erin Roof is a senior magazine journalism major and a point/counterpoint columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].