Last fall I took part in a class project of which focused on Mitchellville, Iowa. I was astounded when I found out that the 443 person facility had a population of 650 women. As I did more research, I found that this is common; Iowa prisons are overcrowded by 22%. Does this mean that we actually need more prisons? We need to understand why this trend of overcrowded prisons exists and how it impacts us.
The main reason why American prisons are overcrowded is because of the war on drugs. The Reagan era saw an increase in incarceration in an attempt to keep communities free of crime, however the actual effects on official crime rates was minimal. Sentence lengths were extended, mandatory minimums were created, and drug offenses were felonized. The result has been an overwhelming increase in the population of prisoners; the number jumped from 338,029 in 1970 to over two million in 2001. Although in Iowa, twenty years ago two percent of the prison population were serving time for drug offenses, today 34.5% of female offenders are in prison as a result of the war on drugs.
The majority of these are minorities (43% are African American men, although they make up 13% of the US population). The increase in incarceration has disproportionately impacted minorities, African American men have a one in three chance of becoming incarcerated in their lifetime, as opposed to the 4% chance that white males have.
Before the penitentiary, prisons were a place to store people until they executed their corporal punishment. Now the prison is the punishment. Prisons are seen by some as a strategy for removing unwanted persons from society, but the reality is that 95% of prisoners are released and return to society. This means that people who experienced life in prison, where they are likely to become violent and contract diseases, will bring the problems of the prison into our communities. And for minorities, they are most likely returning to communities where crime and unemployment rates are high.
The situation of prisons should worry us because of the impacts that they have on prisoners and state budgets. It costs most states more to house a prisoner per year than to educate a citizen in college for that same year. Imagine if we put two million people through college for four years, instead of incarcerating them for tens of years?
In Iowa, prisoners are employed by Iowa Prison Industries, in a system Angela Davis named the Prison Industrial Complex. The prisoners’ labor is contracted out to private businesses and manufacturing plants are located at the prisons. Although the prisoners are paid, they are not allowed to keep more than twenty percent of their earnings and the rest goes to the state. While I would like to think that were I in prison, I would like to be doing something, I hardly think that I would want to be manufacturing American flags for one dollar an hour and have the rest of my euphemistically paying for my room and board. Is the Prison Industrial Complex a new form of slavery and if so, should we be supporting efforts to crack down on drug use and build more prisons?
Corporations that appear to be far removed from the business of punishment are intimately involved in the expansion of the prison industrial complex.
– Angela Y. Davis