Pubdate: Thu, 17 Feb 2000
Source: Guardian Weekly, The (UK)
Copyright: Guardian Publications 2000
Contact:  75 Farringdon Road London U.K EC1M 3HQ
Fax: 44-171-242-0985
Page: Front Page
Author: Duncan Campbell in Los Angeles


Vigils were mounted in more than 30 cities in the United States this week 
to draw attention to the arrival of the country's two millionth jail 
inmate. The US comprises 5% of the global population yet is responsible for 
25% of the world's prisoners.

It has a higher proportion of its citizens in jail than any other country 
in history, according to the November Coalition, an alliance of civil 
rights campaigners, justice policy workers and drug law reformers. The 
coalition is seeking to draw attention to what campaigners feel is a trend 
for locking up ever more offenders, most of them non-violent.

"Incarceration should be the last resort of a civilised society, not the 
first," said Michael Gelacak, a former vice-chairman of the US sentencing 

"Two million is too many," said Nora Callahan of the coalition, which is 
calling for alternatives to prison for the country's 500,000 non-violent 
drug offenders. "We are calling on state and federal governments to stop 
breaking up families and destroying our communities. Prison  is not the 
solution to every social problem," she said.

In New York city the prison moratorium project is focusing on the fact that 
one in three black youths is either in custody or on parole. Kevin Pranis, 
of the project, said: "New York state is diverting millions of dollars from 
colleges and universities to pay for prisons we can't afford."

Criminal justice is already a campaign issue in the presidential race. The 
Republican frontrunner, George W Bush, governor of Texas, is a staunch 
supporter of both the death penalty and stiffer sentencing for drug 
offences. Since he took over in Texas in November 1994 the prison 
population there has risen from 41,000 to 150,000, mainly as a result of 
jailing people for drug possession.

Of those held in federal rather than state prisons, 60% are drug offenders 
with no history of violence. Aminah Muhammad, who is organising the Los 
Angeles vigil, said: "My husband is doing 23 years for just being present 
in a house where drugs were found, so my 10-year-old son doesn't have his 

The vigil also coincides with the publication of Lockdown America, a report 
by an academic, Christian Parenti, analysing the US criminal justice 
system. He notes the expansion of the private prison sector, which now runs 
more than 100 facilities in 27 states, holding more than 100,000 inmates.

It is estimated that firms such as Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch write 
between $2bn and $3bn in prison constructions bonds every year. Critics of 
the system suggest that so much money is invested in incarceration that 
politicians would find it difficult to reverse the trends against the 
wishes of their financial backers and lobbyists.

The cost of building jails has averaged $7bn a year for the past decade, 
and the annual bill for incarcerating prisoners is up to $35bn. The prison 
industry employs more than 523,000 people, making it the country's biggest 
employer after General Motors.

Crime rates have fallen over the past few years, a statistic that is cited 
in support of heavier jail sentences. But prison reformers say that the 
economic boom (see Finance, page 12) and democratic shifts explain the 
decline in crime.
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