Why does the United States house approximately one quarter of the world’s incarcerated population and have the highest incarceration rate in the world?

Andrew Skidmore

The educational events accompanying the Eleventh Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, organized by the Prisoner Creative Arts Project during the last two weeks, have helped me understand some of the answers to this question.

Last night, Christian Parenti, author of “Lockdown America” and a writer for The Nation, provided a comprehensive explanation of the criminal justice crackdown in this country. According to Parenti – one of the keynote speakers of the art exhibition – the explosion in incarceration began in the late ’60s and early ’70s because of political and economic factors.

Politically, the government needed a mechanism to control the agitation stemming from the social movements of the time: anti-war, civil rights, black power, labor and others. The United States, which was trying to prove that democracy was the best form of government in the Cold War era, could not allow such displays of social unrest. And so, as parts of Washington D.C. were burning from riots, Congress passed an anti-crime bill in 1968 that began expanding the criminal justice structure, leading to more sophisticated policing, harsher sentencing and greater numbers of prisons.

After World War II, the United States had the strongest economy in the world, but by the ’70s other countries were catching up and the U.S. economy was stagnating. The War on Poverty was leading to costly social welfare programs, and laborers were securing higher wages. According to Parenti, Nixon and Reagan attempted to increase the profitability and wealth of the United States by maintaining and controlling a poor class that would provide cheap labor. But to control the poor, they needed a reason, an excuse; they needed to blame the poor for being poor. One way to do this was to criminalize them.

This may sound like conspiracy theory, but Parenti backed up everything he said with factual information. For example, he quoted H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, who wrote that “the whole problem is blacks,” and that a system needed to be devised to control them without appearing to do so.

Parenti said that this system was the war on drugs. But whether or not it was designed to control the poor or blacks, the war on drugs has played a central role in the expansion of incarceration and prisons in this country. The policy has led to three-strikes laws, mandatory minimums and generally harsher sentences. I agree with Parenti that these policies have racial motivations, but I do not have the space to defend that position in this column.

Long story short: The United States went from having about 330,000 prisoners in 1972 to about 2.2 million today. We incarcerate at a rate five to eight times greater than most other industrialized nations, and there’s no sign of a decrease. As it is now, some Republicans are calling for the criminalization of millions of undocumented workers, and President Bush has refused to let hundreds of “enemy combatants” go to trial.

Parenti was asked by audience members how these two current issues related to Bush’s motivations in comparison to previous leaders. He said that the attempt to control immigrants is a way to maintain cheap labor. As soon as immigrants have any political power or mobility, they tend to avoid working in the fields and doing other similarly arduous but low-paying work. He said that in Guantanamo, the administration acted on “ideological reflex,” seizing power where they could take it. He said that Bush is “exercising presidential power gratuitously,” and that he didn’t have to illegally detain combatants or illegally spy on American citizens.

In reading over this column, I regret that I have raised a lot of questions and offered only a few possible answers. And I have not provided an accurate portrayal of the art show, which is about more than one man’s perspective. The art show is predominantly about the wonderful art created by Michigan prisoners: over 300 works by more than 200 artists from 40 Michigan prisons. In offering a political context for this country’s incarceration policies, I hope that you have seen the art show and have attached faces and voices to the cold facts and statistics.

Cravens can be reached at jjcrave@umich.edu.

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