Some 2,300,000 Americans are locked up in federal, state and local prisons and jails, meaning the U.S with five percent of the world’s population has 22 percent of its prisoners, according to Amnesty International. The most, 1,300,000, are in state prisons, 630,000 in local jails and 197,000 in federal prisons. Another 3.7 million people are on probation and another 840,000 are on parole, for a grand total of 6.8 million.
Whites are 64 percent of the population but 39 percent of prisoners, whereas blacks are 13 percent of the population and 40 percent of inmates.
Florida has the third highest number of prisoners, 154,000, and The Sentencing Project reported that 275 whites are locked upThe U.S. Sentencing Commission reported a 20 percent gap nationally in sentencing between black and white men. One in two of those exonerated for murder is black – seven times the rate for whites, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
In sexual assault cases, blacks are 3.5 percent more likely to be innocent than whites. Blacks and whites use illegal drugs at about the same rate but blacks are five times more likely to be imprisoned for drug possession than whites.
Then there is the treatment of some prisoners. United Nations official Nils Melzer said tasers were often used in Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arkansas for “clearly gratuitous infliction of severe pain and suffering,” Reuters reported.
Mental health is also a major concern. Aisa Roth reported in the Guardian that prisons “are struggling with the reality that they have become the nation’s de facto mental health providers, although they are hopelessly ill-equipped for the job. They are now contending with tens of thousands of people with mental illness, who, by some counts, make up as much as half of their populations.” for every 100,000 white Floridians, compared to 1,408 blacks for every 100,000 black residents.
That brings up solitary confinement. Jean Casella and Sal Rodriguez, reporting for Solitary Watch, described it as “the practice of isolating people in closed cells for 22-24 hours a day, virtually free of human contact, for periods of time ranging from days to decades.” The cells measure six-foot-by-nine-foot or eight-foot-by-10 foot.
A 1994 crime bill which then President Bill Clinton signed provided grants to states to lengthen sentences and much of the money went to build Supermax prisons or solitary confinement boxes. Between 1995 and 2000, the number of inmates in solitary confinement rose by 40 percent, reaching 80,000 by 2005 and probably 100,000 now.
Albert Woodfox, one of the “Angola Three” Black Panther activists, all of whom were put in solitary confinement at Louisiana’s Angola prison, “spent 43 years almost without a break in a sixfoot-by-nine foot concrete box, with no human contact,” until he was released in February 2016, Ed Pilkington reported in the Guardian. Woodfox’s story is one of many that shed light on the unconscionable imposition of prolonged isolation.
Other less dehumanizing cases are also heartbreaking. Lawrence McKinney, now 61, spent 31 years in a Tennessee prison for rape and burglary which DNA evidence later showed he did not commit.
David Robinson spent nearly 20 years in a Missouri prison for the death of a woman until a review concluded that he “is actually innocent of that crime.” Missouri also sentenced Bobby Bostic, aged 16 when he was convicted of a series of crimes, to 241 years in prison, where he has been for more than 20 years. Even the judge, Evelyn Baker, now concedes the sentence was grossly unfair, especially since murder was not involved.
Curtis Lawson was recently sentenced to 12 years in jail for shoplifting at a Walmart store in Tennessee after prosecutors upgraded the charge to a felony. Kharon Davis has spent more than 10 years in jail in Alabama on a murder charge and as of last year had still not been tried, Kim Chandler reported in the Associated Press. In Louisiana, 1,300 people were held for four years without trial, Julia O’Donoghue reported in The TimesPicayune, citing the Louisiana Sheriffs Association.
Cost is another issue — about $182 billion, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, including not only the bill for running the prisons and jails but also courts, parole and probation agencies, public defenders, health care, policing the prisons, construction of new facilities, family phone calls and private prison expenditures, German Lopez reported in Vox, also quoting the Prison Policy Initiative.
The Initiative has concluded that mass incarceration does little to curb crime, its supposed purpose, and persists partly because of the huge payouts to the “key stakeholders,” who exert influence to block reform. Private companies contracted to provide goods or phone services at prisons rake in $2.9 million; another $3.9 billion goes to private companies paid to operate private prisons; bail bond companies make $1.4 billion in non-refundable fees from defendants and their families; and commissary vendors who sell goods to inmates, paid by families, haul in $1.6 billion.
Against that background, President Donald Trump’s May 18 announcement that he would sign a bipartisan bill on “prison reform” rings hollow. Trump promised in his inaugural address to roll back even the small reform steps started by President Barack Obama, insisting there was an “American carnage” in cities. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama policy phasing out using private contractors to run federal prisons. Sessions last year also ordered federal prosecutors to seek the most serious charges possible to keep inmates in prison for as long as possible, reversing another Obama initiative.
Nor can substantial “prison reform” be expected from a Congress dominated by “tough-on-crime” politicians, many from Southern states notorious for how they treat their black citizens, especially those unfortunate to become entangled in a system designed to perpetuate slavery without the chains.