Thirteen Facts About American Prisons That Will Blow Your Mind
Above photo: Thomas Hawk / CC BY-NC 2.0.
The U.S. prison system is a crime against humanity.
Here are just some of the reasons why.
In a few minutes time you’ll want to abolish prisons. If you’re not ready for that intellectual and emotional transformation, then please stop reading now. Or put on your thunder shirt.
If you grew up in the United States, like I did, then you probably think prisons are a fact of life. We just go through our day-to-day assuming that a huge chunk our population must be hardened criminals (which is very different from hard criminals: scalawags involved in burgling while aroused) and that without prisons these delinquents would be running everywhere, breaking things, kicking squirrels in the face, and urinating in your car window while you’re at a stoplight. We just assume prisons have been around forever — as if back in caveman times they had one of the caves walled off with sticks and vines where they kept Blartho because he was a real a-hole.
Yet, the truth is that large prisons were not a thing in America or really anywhere in the world until the 1800s. That’s the first in this list of 13 facts about American prisons that will blow your mind. (Pared down and adjusted from my previous list of 1,234 facts about American prisons that will give you liver damage.)
Number 1 – Prisons are relatively new.
The earliest penitentiary in America was Walnut Street Prison in Philadelphia, which opened in 1773. Even in Europe before that time — despite having a few dungeons where they had one or two guys they really hated sitting there for 40 years, living off termite stew — there were no jails holding millions or even thousands of people. This means that in the history of humanity, locking large percentages of your population in a penitentiary ranks as a rather new advent. We lived hundreds of thousands of years without doing it, and somehow we got by. Prisons are kinda like nuclear weapons and nipple clamps: We’ve gone basically the entirety of human history without them, but now that they’re here, we think we must have them or all is lost.
Number 2 – Prisons and capitalism go hand-in-hand.
Angela Davis makes the point in her book Are Prisons Obsolete? that the exponential growth of prisons correlated with the rise of industrial capitalism, which began around the 1830s. Once a man’s worth was measured in labor hours, taking that away from him could be viewed as a punishment. Furthermore, even though prisons became common during the 1800s and 1900s, America didn’t become the world’s largest prison state until the 1980s. (Ronald Reagan and the racist Drug War truly are the gifts that keep on giving.)
Before the 19th century, there were other punishments for breaking laws. This is not to say that 40 lashes for stealing a loaf of bread is the correct punishment, but if you were to ask modern day prisoners if they would prefer five years behind bars living in a bunk bed with a gassy roommate named Lars or 40 lashes, I bet 90% would take the whip.
We act as if we’re morally superior to those who came before us, but shall we not consider that locking someone away for 20 or 50 years is 100 times worse than some whipping? I’m not saying let’s start beating the shit out of everyone who runs a stop sign. I’m saying that a truly moral society would find alternative punishments, such as community service, instead of destroying lives.
Number 3 – The Land of The Free holds 22% of the world’s prisoners.
Two-point-three million people now inhabit U.S. prisons every year out of a global total of nine million. That means 22% of the world’s prisoners are in the Land of The Free. The U.S. is the largest prison state in the world (which means we’re also the largest prison state in the galaxy) with 698 prisoners per 100,000 people. According to a report published by The Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) in 2018, the next closest country is El Salvador at 572 per hundred thousand. Some other countries of note: Rwanda has 511 per hundred thousand, Russia has 331, and China has 121 per 100,000. So next time someone tells you we need to place sanctions on China because they don’t treat their people well, you might want to mention that China has essentially one-fifth the imprisonment rate of the U.S. As a wise man once said, “He who has stones shouldn’t throw glass houses.” …Don’t quote me on that.
Number 4 – Prisons are Slavery 2.0.
It may seem like the complexity of prisons and their interconnectedness with our societal fabric make them intractably crucial—one cannot even imagine a society without human cages—but there have been other institutions in America’s past that seemed crucial. Many thought society could not function without slavery. It turned out — wait for it — we could. (Another example is chamber pots. We thought we couldn’t live without those, but it turns out shitting in a soup bowl by your bed is not the best plan.)
So when America first ended slavery, the people accustomed to owning slaves exclaimed, “Why I dare say, I don’t fancy this one bit! I need an incredibly cheap form of labor that I can heavily abuse and for which I’ll not pay a buffalo penny!” Well, guess where they found their new slaves? Prisons. Which brings us to:
Number 5 – The 13th Amendment to the Constitution ended slavery and legalized it.
The 13th amendment has a big, juicy loophole. It reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” That “except” has impacted millions of lives for the worse.
As Davis wrote, “Southern states hastened to develop a criminal justice system that could legally restrict the possibilities of freedom for newly released slaves. Black people became the prime targets of a developing convict lease system, referred to by many as a reincarnation of slavery. … [Authorities often declared unlawful anyone who was] guilty of theft, had run away [from a job, apparently], was drunk, was wanton in conduct or speech, had neglected job or family, handled money carelessly, and . . . all other idle and disorderly persons.”
So Black folks found themselves imprisoned for behaviors that usually weren’t illegal and that white people often partook in freely. I can verify that 53% of my white friends are regularly idle. (In fact, it’s their defining characteristic.) And how many white people are careless with money? I heard Charlie Sheen once gave a guy $10,000 in exchange for $9,000.
Point being — authorities arrested people of color for non-crimes and then threw them in prison where they could be bought for pennies in the convict lease program. Why does this sound familiar? Oh, that’s right. It basically continues to this day.
Number 6 – Prison Labor Continues Today
Currently inmates are still used for jobs like sewing “Made in America” labels on clothing that’s not made in America or fighting California wildfires because the state only has to pay them $3 per day. State officials generally claim such programs are different from the convict lease program of the 1800s in the same way the people behind Firecracker pops claim they’re different from Bomb Pops. We know they’re the same goddamn thing. I know sugar water mixed with red-40 when I taste it!
The U.S. differs from other countries. Since most other countries didn’t have to solve their “Black people problem,” they didn’t need to invent reasons to lock up all the people of color. Therefore in other countries theft, for example, is indeed illegal, but it won’t result in years in prison because then the punishment is morally worse than the crime. Yet, here in the Land of Liberty, you can end up serving twenty years for stealing candy. Angela Davis points out, these false crimes “also served as subterfuge for political revenge. After emancipation, the courtroom became an ideal place to exact racial retribution.In this sense, the work of the criminal justice system was intimately related to the extralegal work of lynching.”
In other words, the courtroom became the more bureaucratic and polite / elite / erudite way of lynching people.
Number 7 – A few people get filthy rich off of imprisoning millions of people.
Companies collect billions of dollars from the Prison Industrial Complex now, which gives them all the more reason to make sure it keeps going. These companies in turn fund many of our politicians — both federally and in many states. Some states have contracts with private prisons guaranteeing their prisons will remain up to 90% full. That makes as much sense as having a contract with the fire department guaranteeing a certain number of terrible fires. And it’s not just private prisons — companies make money from all forms of prisons and jails.
Number 8 – Black Americans are the most imprisoned people in the world.
Remember when I said the U.S. has 698 prisoners per 100,000 compared to China having 121? Well, if prison rates of African American were listed in the same way, they would have an incarceration rate of 1,501 per 100,000 (down from 2,300 a decade ago). Please pause a minute to try to wrap your brain around that number. Black Americans have a rate of imprisonment that is over 12 TIMES that of China. One in three Black men between 20 and 29 are in some way subjected to our prison system right now. If prison rates of African Americans were listed alongside countries, they would have the highest rate of any country.
Let me see if I can simplify this a little. …Our prisons are WILDLY racist.
Did I clear that up? Our prison system has racist origins, a racist past, a racist present, and a racist future (one can assume). So if you say to yourself, “I think our prison system is working great,” then you’re really saying, “I’m super racist.”
The inmates in our carceral state are made up of 21% Hispanics and 38% Blacks even though the American population is only 18% Hispanic and 13% Black. Once you add in other non-white races, our insane prisons are filled with over 65% people of color.
Number 9 – Police departments have admitted to targeting people of color.
New York’s stop-and-frisk program is perhaps one of the best known efforts to abduct young men of color who were doing nothing wrong and try to find a reason to put them in jail. So please disabuse yourself of the liberal polite view of policing — “Let’s arrest this guy for having an open beer. Oh, he happens to be Black.” The way it really works is — “Let’s arrest this guy for being Black. Oh, he happens to have a beer with him. How convenient for us. It makes the paperwork easier.” New York City is 43% white, but only 7% of arrests for open alcoholic beverages are on white people. (And trust me, as a white guy who used to live in NYC and walk around with open alcoholic beverages all the time, the lack of arrests is not because white people don’t break this law.)
Number 10 – Prisons are not about rehabilitation.
The goal of American prisons is no longer rehabilitation (if it ever was). Now their only goal is incapacitation. Many prisons have little to no education programs and very few books. Internet access is often rare or expensive. Current inmate and longtime political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal said, “What societal interest is served by prisoners who remain illiterate? What social benefit is there in ignorance? How are people corrected while imprisoned if their education is outlawed? Who profits — other than the prison establishment itself — from stupid prisoners?”
Number 11 – So much for #MeToo.
While the #MeToo movement has swept across the country, the Prison Industrial Complex not only tolerates sexual assault, it perpetrates it. Female inmates almost always find themselves the victims of strip searches by guards, and often internal searches — which means exactly what you think it means. Here’s another way to phrase this: State-sanctioned sexual assault.
It’s used in much the same way sexual assault has been used over the years — to make people feel humiliated and powerless. So it’s time to do the same thing to the Prison State that we did to Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Les Moonves, and 900 other sleaze balls — Cancel it.
Number 12 – Prisoners have long been used for medical research and it is not over.
As Laura Appleman of Willamette University wrote, “The standard narrative of human medical experimentation ends abruptly in the 1970s, with the uncovering of the Tuskegee syphilis study. My research shows, however, that this narrative is incorrect and incomplete. The practice of experimenting on the captive and vulnerable persists.”
We can all sleep soundly at night knowing that we still have human guinea pigs in this country.
Number 13 – The mainstream media gets in on the action too.
Corporate media perpetuates the idea that crime is always raging out of control, which then creates a fervor for harsher sentences among both the population and lawmakers. “Even during years when homicide rates were cut in half, stories about homicides multiplied exponentially,” writes Davis.
So our media doesn’t just manufacture consent for war, they manufacture consent for our catastrophic prison state.
I’ll let Angela Davis sum this all up: “The prison functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited… This is the ideological work that the prison performs — it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”
The American prison system is not a way to deal with crime. It is a crime.
It’s not a way to deal with harm to society. It is a harm to society.
One hundred years from now, no one will remember what this particular small-time law-breaker did or that one did, but they’ll remember that the United States was the largest prison state in the world, perpetrating a forever war against our own people.
Lee Camp is the host of the hit comedy news show “Redacted Tonight.” His new book “Bullet Points and Punch Lines” is available at LeeCampBook.com and his stand-up comedy special can be streamed for free at LeeCampAmerican.com.