As a country, the United States favors fast, clear answers to its numerous social, environmental and political problems. It is a rare day when the root of a problem is actually addressed, because on a superficial level, a Band-Aid put over a problem can masquerade as a solution. Unfortunately, real solutions do not come in the blink of an eye, or in the case of the United States correction system, the turn of a key locking a prisoner away behind bars.
The task of containing, fixing, and ultimately transforming the “problem” citizens in this country falls upon our corrections system, defined by our jails and prisons. The widely held belief that prison is effective and appropriate punishment for societal wrongdoing is proven by the fact that prisons are a topic rarely discussed, even among many liberal circles and groups working for social justice. When night comes, we want to rest easy knowing that all the dangerous criminals “out there” are uniformly absent from society, securely separated from our lives, experiences, realities, and thoughts. Putting criminals in prisons and jails seems to quell popular fears.
In the past 35 years, the number of people in prisons and jails in the United States has grown six-fold. Andrew Hedden, coordinator of the AS Social Issues Resource Center, said that in 1970 there were around 200,000 people imprisoned, but in recent years the number has risen above 2 million. “The growth of the prison system has less to do with increased crime, and more to do with cutbacks in social services, and the ‘hard on crime’ strategies of politicians that lock up communities, primarily urban communities of color, that historically have never had a say in how things work in this country,” said Hedden.
The growing incarceration rate is rife with complexities at all levels. The number of people put into prison, and the demographic trends that accompany those numbers, must be contextualized into contemporary society and politics. “The prison industrial complex is the growing collusion between prisons, private industry, and the government, for increasing incarceration, social control and profit,” said David Cahn, assistant co-coordinator of the SIRC. Hedden added, “the prison industrial complex is an alternate way to explain the prison boom and its disproportionate effect on marginalized communities, other than increasing crime rate. It focuses on economic and political development, especially having to do with racism.”
With the intention of raising awareness about prisons and the numerous social, political, and economic costs that surround them, the SIRC has teamed with scores of other clubs and organizations on campus, and in the local Bellingham community, to sponsor a conference titled, “Beyond Bars: The Politics of the Prison Industrial Complex.” “Prisons don’t get talked about,” said Hedden, “but prisons can be connected to absolutely everything-- immigration, institutional racism, the war on terror, Native American issues, corporations, women in prisons, drugs, LGBT issues… One of the goals of this conference is to demonstrate how central prisons are to anyone doing any kind of social justice work.”
If you study some trends in prison inmates, more baseline issues that lead to incarceration are revealed. Hedden said that in the local Whatcom county jail, 80% of the people who come in on any charge are either mentally ill or on under the influence of some sort of drug, and about 40% of people in the local jail can’t read or write. On a national level, the majority of prison inmates are people of color, and most are male. In 2004, 41% of inmates nationwide were African-American, 19% were Hispanic, and 93% were male. Hedden described that really dealing with the root issues that lead to incarceration involves way more than just “locking up the bad guys.”
“The corrections industry is a bigger industry than major-league baseball, or the adult film industry,” said Hedden. A lot of money goes into the maintenance and order of the nation’s prisons, and when there is money involved, it is always necessary to ask the question: who is benefiting from this? In answering this question, the boom in the number of people incarcerated in recent years becomes more tangible.
“Statistics aren’t always the best way to explain this,” said Hedden. “Politicians get a lot of mileage out of demeaning a certain population of people, creating a criminalized population. Crime is in the media all the time, it’s a great election strategy.” The political edge associated with a candidate who is “cutting down on crime” provides one piece to the puzzle regarding the dramatic increase in the rate of incarceration. Hedden cited cutbacks in social services, and the money corporate industry can make off prison by supplying them with food, supplies, and exclusively prison-related items like restraint chairs, as two more pieces to fill in that same puzzle.
“One of the things that legitimizes prisons is that we have murders and rapists- what do we do with them? This is a real question. But the reality is that the majority of people in jail are in for non-violent crimes, not rape and murder,” said Hedden. In 2002, 76 percent of people sentenced to state prisons were convicted of non-violent crimes. “The lock ‘em up and throw away the key approach just isn’t working,” said Hedden. If this method were working, how could the booming incarceration rate by explained? What we need is social reform, and social programs that help people get out of difficult and desperate situations, address criminalized actions before they have a chance to fully blossom, and shed light on institutionalized racism.
Some of the organizations attending the conference are trying to do these very things. Critical Resistance, a national “prison abolition” group, is working to come up with reforms that try to de-incarcerate, getting people out of jail and into programs that actually effect change and growth. This is the kind of thought and action that is needed to truly change the prison system and “challenge the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe,” says the group’s website.
“The idea is if we put people in boxes and cages and lock them up, somehow when they come out they will magically stop doing bad things,” said Cahn. When put this way, it is easy to see how absurd this idea really is. How can anyone be expected to change for the better under the conditions imposed by prison life? The vast majority of prison inmates confront ugly realities that make a hard argument for prisons working as a place of improvement and change. “Violence, sexual assault, the stigma of male-on-male rape that is on the one hand a stereotype and on the other hand true…” recounted Hedden. How can anyone be expected to come out of the experience of assault combined with intense behavioral control as a more positive individual?
If you have never seen a prison, or think that all corrections facilities are somewhere far, far away, it’s time to think again. There are existing plans for a new jail to be built in Whatcom County. The current jail was built in the 1980s to hold 150 people and today it holds nearly 260. Hedden said, “it is hard to argue against [the construction of a new jail] here because the one we have is incredibly outdated and overpopulated, creating a very dangerous environment for anyone inside. The danger is they’ll build a new jail and fill it up more, instead of looking at why people are coming in the first place.” If there is no social reform to complement this new jail, there is no way its size will ever be sufficient in the long term.
On the importance of raising questions about prisons and incorporating the prison industrial complex into the social dialogue, Hedden had this to say: “The political shift, focusing on law, order and policing, combined with the drug war, cutbacks in social funding, deindustrialization, the way crime gets talked about, the way criminals get talked about… prisons are something that very few people deal with in their everyday life.” With the long list of featured speakers and films addressing the prison industrial complex from multiple angles and opinions, perhaps you will learn some things that give you leverage to understand, discuss, and plan prison reform that strikes at the heart of your favorite social issue.
“The conference was organized in commemoration with the International Day of Solidarity of Political Prisoners; there are other events like this going on around the world. The United States’ official line is that they do not have any political prisoners, but there are a lot of people, specifically black activists from the 1970’s, who are still in prison. The whole issue of prisons is very political,” said Hedden.
The “Beyond Bars” conference will be on December 3, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Fairhaven College. It is a free event, with lunch provided by Bellingham Food Not Bombs. Mark it on your calendar, and get ready to dig into the system that is supposedly keeping us safe, secure and out of danger.