Pubdate: Fri, 4 Dec 1998
Source: Atlantic Monthly, The (US)
Copyright: 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
Author: Molly Ivins.


AUSTIN -- So six prisoners break out of Huntsville, one gets away and
the Texas Department of Corrections responds by suspending a work
program for prisoners. Not that the work program had anything to do
with the escape -- the prisoners were in the recreation yard at the
time. But why should we expect TDC to make any sense? Nothing else
about the American prison system does.

In the current issue of `The Atlantic Monthly' is "The
Prison-Industrial Complex," a major investigation of just how out of
control and increasingly corrupt the system is. But in order to
understand the mistakes we're making in responding to the cry for more
prisons, you first have to understand why we think we need them.

Eric Schlosser reports:

"The prison boom in the United States is a recent phenomenon.
Throughout the first three-quarters of this century the nation's
incarceration rate remained relatively stable, at about 110 prison
inmates for every 100,000 people. In the mid-1970's the rate began to
climb, doubling in the 1980's and then again in the 1990's. The rate
is now 445 per 100,000: among adult men it is 1,100 per 100,000.
During the past two decades roughly a thousand new prisons and jails
have been built in the United States. Nevertheless, America's prisons
are more overcrowded now than when the building spree began, and the
inmate population continues to increase by 50,000 to 80,000 a year."

Among Schlosser's other findings:

* The proportion of offenders being sent to prison each year for
violent crimes has actually fallen during the prison boom. In 1980,
about half the people entering state prison were violent offenders; in
1995, less than a third had been convicted of violent crime.

* The enormous increase in America's inmate populations is the direct
consequence of the sentences given to nonviolent offenders -- mostly
drug offenders. Crimes that in other countries would lead to community
service, fines or drug treatment (or would not be crimes at all) are
punished here with increasingly long prison terms, the most expensive
of all possible options.

* Since 1991, the rate of violent crime in the United States has
fallen by about 20 percent, while the number of people in prison or
jail has risen by 50 percent. This leads to a perfectly circular
argument by those in the prison-industrial complex: If crime is going
up, we need to build more prisons; if crime is going down, it's
because we built more prisons -- and building even more of them will
drive the crime rate even lower. (For those of you who missed
Sociology I, the crime rate has dropped because the crime-committing
cohort -- those aged 15 to 24 -- is smaller; unfortunately, it's about
to go up again, and so will the crime rate.)

* About 70 percent of prison inmates are illiterate. About 200,000 of
the 2 million incarcerated are seriously mentally ill. Sixty to 80
percent of prisoners have a long history of substance abuse. The
number of drug treatment slots available in U.S. prisons has declined
by more than one half since 1993. Drug treatment is now available to
just one in 10 inmates who needs it.

* Among those arrested for violent crimes, the proportion of African-
Americans has changed little during the past 20 years; among those
arrested for drug crimes, the proportion who are African-American has

* The number of women sentenced to prison has increased 12 times since
1970; of the 80,000 women now in prison, about 70 percent are
nonviolent offenders. About 75 percent have children.

Schlosser's crucial findings are that the prison-industrial complex is
a set of bureaucratic, political and economic interests that encourage
increased spending on prisons, regardless of actual need. "It is not a
conspiracy, it is a confluence of special interests . . . politicians,
both liberal and conservative, who have used fear of crime to gain
votes; impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a
cornerstone of economic development; private companies that regard the
roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on
American taxpayers but as a lucrative market; and government officials
whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population. . . .
The prison-industrial complex includes some of the nation's largest
architectural and construction firms, Wall Street investment banks and
companies that sell everything from security cameras to padded cells
available in a `vast color selection.' "

Perhaps the most alarming conclusion is that the prison-industrial
complex is not just a set of interest groups and institutions. "It is
also a state of mind. The lure of big money is corrupting the nation's
criminal-justice system, replacing notions of public service with a
drive for higher profits. The eagerness of elected officials to pass
`tough-on-crime' legislation -- combined with their unwillingness to
disclose the true costs of these laws -- has encouraged all kinds of
financial improprieties."

And naturally, Texas is cited as a prime example.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the `Star-Telegram.' You may write to
her at 1005 Congress Ave., Suite 920, Austin, TX 78701; call her at
(512) 476-8908; or email her at  Send
your comments to  ---
Checked-by: Patrick Henry