Imprisonment in America

Reference: JSource original

The United States of America has the largest number of people in prison of any country in the world. As of 2010, the US incarcerated population accounted for 25% of all prisoners worldwide. 49% are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. The United States also leads globally in incarceration rates: 751 people out of every 100,000 are in prison. According to the 2010 census, 3.1% of American adults were either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.

It is widely believed that the war on drugs is the single largest contributor to the mass incarceration of US citizens. As of 2000, 22% of all those in federal and state prisons were convicted on drug charges, twelve times the number of people imprisoned for drug crimes in 1980. Fortunately, that number has declined somewhat in the last decade. Other significant factors affecting the US incarceration rate include the availability of firearms (and correlatively high homicide rate), the longstanding racial strife that defines US society, public pressure on elected judges to hand down harsh sentences, and the unusually long periods for which American prisoners tend to be imprisoned.

The number of people the US imprisons is just one of many controversies and questionable practices of the American penitentiary system. Also of note is the extraordinary bias detectable in who the state actually locks up. According to the Pew Center, while less than 1 in every 100 white men is in prison, 2.8% of the Hispanic male population and 6.7% of the black male population are at any given time. And according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1 in 3 black men can expect to go to prison at least once in their lifetimes. According to Angela Davis, a long-time prisoners’ rights advocate and author of The Prison Industrial Complex, state and federal penitentiaries have become the preferred way for government to make social problems like drug addiction, mental illness, illiteracy, homelessness, and unemployment seem to magically disappear. In fact, many “tough on crime” politicians and lawmakers insist the recent national decline in crime is explained by the number of people that have been placed in prison.

Other major issues that demand attention in the context the American prison system include the use of solitary confinement and capital punishment, in apparent contradiction to the Eighth Amendment barring cruel and unusual punishment; the political and economic dilemmas posed by the privatization of prisons; and the inability of public defenders to adequately represent the enormous indigent population who stand accused of criminal offenses. The American Civil Liberties Union, a vocal advocate for prisoners’ rights, has recently proposed that this last issue represents a violation of the Sixth Amendment, guaranteeing citizens the right to a speedy trial, and should be grounds for dismissing a large host of petty and/or nonviolent charges, thus curbing the over-incarceration epidemic at the same time.

Those interested in learning more about prisoners’ rights should consult the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Among Jewish organizations involved in this issue, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) has vocally opposed the capital punishment since 1979 and passed a 1999 resolution interrogating the relationship between race and the US criminal justice system.

Table of Contents

Racial Justice

Solitary Confinement

Youth Incarceration