It is no secret that the United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In fact, if we treat individual states as countries and compare them to the rest of the world, the top thirty spots would be held by individual states, even the lowest ranked state ends up 58th in the world, and the other eight countries in that list are not exactly countries that have shining human rights reputations: El Salvador, Turkmenistan, Cuba, Thailand, Rawanda, Russia, Panama, Coast Rica, and Brazil. This is a rather authoritarian group of countries that experience high levels of violent crime. In fact, El Salvador, Russia, Panama, and Brazil all have murder rates that are double that of the United States, and yet the US incarcerates more people.
According to the Bureau of Prison (BOP) statistics, the 46.1% of individuals incarcerated by the state are charged with “drug offenses,” followed distantly by “weapons, explosives and arson” at 17.9%, and in third place making up 9% of the incarcerated population are “sex offenses.” What is curious about this list is that each one of these categories undoubtedly holds a percentage of non-violent criminals: individuals using drugs, someone with an “illegal” gun, or those engaging in prostitution or otherwise consensual sex. In fact, the first category of crimes the BOP lists that consists solely of crimes with an apparent victim is “extortion, fraud, and bribery” with 6.4% of the population.
When we see that we are locking up a disproportionate amount of victimless drug crimes, as well as, other potentially non-violent crimes and that our incarceration rate outpaces the rest of the world (including all sorts of third world “shit holes”), we have to wonder, just what is going on. There is any number of reasons out there as to why we have such a high incarceration rate with some folks blaming it on a lack of present day education, and others seeing it as a throwback to our Puritan roots.
But when it is all distilled down, we see that our penal system is not one of correction, but one of corporatism and monopolistic force, backed up by the long arm of the law, not just by creating a War on Drugs and implementing draconian sentences, but also incentivizing incarceration by awarding contracts and providing funds to build new and bigger prisons.
In 1972, under President Nixon, the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act (Con Act) was passed as a sort of safety net for areas dependent on agriculture, timber, mining, and other rural economies that were starting to lag. Since 1996, starting under President Bill Clinton, the Con Act has lended over $360 million to build prisons in rural areas, as they consider the construction of a prison as “rural development.” On the surface, this may seem well intended: we will always have prisoners, prisoners don’t stop during recessions, a prison can create numerous jobs - especially considering second tier businesses needed to support the demands of prison workers, but of course, this is only surface level. Many prison towns that have received federal money to build prisons have dealt with negative ramifications, some have actually lost money, and once a town becomes a prison town, it is near impossible to go back; there is no upgrading from a prison town to a web development town, or a tourist town. It seems that no matter what side of the prison system an entity gets involved with, there is no complete breaking free.
While many of these prisons are touted as being “private prisons,” the fact remains that the money to build the prisons is provided by the federal government and leaves little room for negotiation when it comes to policies that might actually help these prison-towns prosper. A prison is typically built with the idea that it will provide x-number of jobs, but once construction has been finished residents quickly realize that a good proportion of those jobs will be going to individuals already working for the prison firm and often go to non-residents, and even in those jobs that are actually created, there is a high level of turnover, and with the massive loan that the town and state needs to pay back, there is little recourse.
Unfortunately, even in areas where prisons do create economic development, many problems still arise, both political and moral. While it may be changing, when the census is taken, the prison population is included, creating a skewed view of the voting population (as prisoners do not vote) when it comes time to redraw districts and award electoral votes, especially considering that many of these prisoners do not come from the rural towns they are serving time in, or sometimes, even the same state. This creates political incentive for governors and congressmen to advocate for these federally funded prisons and keep beds filled, especially in areas that typically vote one way or the other. There has been some effort to change this, but it seems to be a slow going process.
Really, though, the biggest problem with our current model is the moral dilemma it places on areas that have become home to federally funded, corporatist prisons: empty beds do not pay. Many times, in fact, states will be on a contract that regulates prison occupancy, so now these rural communities that took federal loans through the Con Act are not only responsible for paying them back, but they are also responsible for keeping incarceration high. This incentivizes incarceration rates for all involved in the prison system, from police officers to prosecutors to probation boards. Unfortunately, this is not all conjecture as we have seen it happen with judges being indicted for racketeering.
And yet, despite having the highest incarceration rate in the world, despite having contracts with the State that regulate occupancy, despite a fading war on marijuana, despite the country being hopelessly in debt, despite politicians’ inability to pass a budget, the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act continues to dole out funds from the USDA budget to governors and towns advocating for bigger prisons. This is not rural development. These are not private prisons. They are prisons funded and regulated and incentivized by the Federal Government.