High Rates of Imprisonment in Income Unequal Countries.
In both the U.S. and the U.K. the imprisonment of citizens has increased exponentially since the 1970s. In 1978 there were 450,000 in U.S. jails, but by 2005 that had become over 2 million. In the U.K., numbers doubled from 46,000 to 80,000 (from 1990 to 2007). Although the U.K. and the U.S. committed increasingly more (US imprisoned 10 times the rate Sweden did.) citizens to prisons, other countries committed the same percentage of people over time (Sweden) or fewer people (Finland). Denmark’s rate of imprisonment rose only 8%. Japan’s rate rose only 9%. Rates have fallen over time in Germany, France and Ireland. In the chart below, we see that in countries with high income inequality, there are high rates of imprisonment.
Rates Increased in Unequal States.
The average rate of incarceration in the U.S. is 576 people in prison for every 100,000 people. Just as there are fewer persons per 100,000 in Japan (40 per 100K) who are in prison, there are differences between U.S. States in rates of imprisonment: Louisiana has an incredibly high rate, above 700 people per 100,000. Compare that to Minnesota, below 200 per 100,000. Maybe a difference of five or six times the percentage of people locked up between Louisiana and Minnesota. The chart below shows that these differences are correlated to income inequality differences in each State:
The Spirit Level book‘s researchers, Wilkinson and Pickett consider three possible ways for increases in prison lockups to occur: crime rate increases, sentencing increases, and increases in the lengths of prison sentences. The unspoken reason for so many citizen’s imprisonments in the U.S. is racism and discrimination and persecution of people of color. Unequal societies have higher rates of violence and hence, crimes. In the U.S. only 12 percent of the imprisonment increase was due to increased rates of crime. Increased use of sentences including prison time and increased lengths of sentencing account for the rest of the increases in imprisonment. Reductions in the use of non-custodial sentences for minor offenses is also a factor in the increased rates of imprisonment. In addition, there is a fourth factor, the self-dealing cronyism which would seek for more prisoners with longer sentences, in the form of for profit, private corporations who buy prisons from cash strapped States.
Racism and Imprisonment.
The Sentencing Project graphs (see the bottom of page 4) show how the rate of incarceration for blacks is 6.70 times the number compared to the rate of incarceration of white people. The New Jim Crow book demonstrates how people of color are being persecuted and exterminated through the misuse and abuse of the U.S. courts and prison systems. The link to the Wikipedia summary is comprehensive and informative. Stop and Frisk laws routinely sweep communities of color, arresting and imprisoning urban youth from impoverished communities. The war on the poor and people of color in the U.S. make manifest the extreme income inequality and deprivation of the class system in the U.S.. Racism is the penultimate expression of the worst, most oppressive but essential dynamic of income inequality. The American imprisonment of people of color on a massive, genocidal scale is a direct outcome of a class based, extremely unequal society. In the U.S. a person of color is 6.04 times more likely to be in prison than a white person. In the courts, black youth are more likely to receive a harsher sentence than their white peers.
Inequality=>Racism=>Prison, Social Exclusion & Lifelong Punishment.
Wherever income inequality is found, there are enslaved, oppressed, persecuted minorities. In more income equal countries, citizens are sent to prison less often, are given non-custodial sentences more frequently, and are treated with dignity and respect while they are in custody. In countries such as the U.S. where there is a steeply unfair and unequal social gradient citizens are sent to prison more often, for longer, for property and drug crimes than they are in Canada, England, Wales, and West Germany. In unequal countries it appears that prison is meant to punish people who are already punished because they are from impoverished communities, are poor, having less education and less income. The punishment for having been in prison is severe in the U.S.: no access to government assistance programs and marginalization through stigmatization. It is very difficult to leave prison and to get employment. Imprisonment becomes a life long “punishment” in the U.S.
The “Failure” System’s Goal Is Failure.
In the U.S., prison reinforces second class status for former felons and prevents integration into the larger society through barriers to employment and to social institutions meant to help low-income clients. Recidivism rates are actually higher in unequal societies and lower in more equal societies: compare UK and USA rates of 65 and 60 percent to lower rates in Sweden and Japan, at 35 and 40%. Prison is not effective if its goal is to prevent or deter crime.
If the major objective (in the USA) of imprisonment is to prevent a majority of African Americans from participating in the benefits of the larger economy in jobs and in education, then the numbers would indicate that imprisonment has been very effective. And if ‘good Americans’ are so concerned about containing violence in their communities, they might want to know that the sure and certain way to turn a non-violent person into a violent person is to send them to prison. (Gilligan, 2001).
Institutionalization of a Permanent American Underclass.
Communities subject to income inequality, create distrust and excessive competition, and create deprived and desperate citizens who have no resources and no status symbols. These respect-starved persons are exposed to rejections and refusals and to further disrespect. It is surprising that on top of their second class status that they are further persecuted by police, courts, and prisons which further consolidate their non-personhood, their lack of social value……far off into the future of their remaining lives. Over-punished for property and drug-related offenses, they are then exposed to a lifetime of social exclusion.
Imagine If We Helped Everyone Equally.
Close your eyes and imagine if we devoted a trillion dollars a year to national solidarity and unity, towards a real Homeland Security and Happiness Agency. We make it our sacred duty to provide a living wage for each and every soul in our country. We swear to provide equal access to resources essential to life and to democracy, from food to education and we commit to paying for all of these necessities by pooling our resources together. Imagine that everyone is entitled to employment and that creativity is rewarded. Discrimination, dominance and authoritarianism are tagged with a sulfurous smell and rebuked everywhere by everyone. Imagine turning prisons into agricultural colleges and libraries with free tuition and universal internet and phone service for everyone; with family reunification and recreation centers located where police stations (no longer needed in a fair society), courthouses, probation and parole centers, and prisons used to be. Imagine detention centers turned into nurseries for trees and flowers and dedicated to fighting global warming and to developing alternative energy systems. Imagine building more colleges than new military bases every year and being able to offer Basic Spanish, Economic Theory & The History of Social Movements classes instead of Basic Training and CounterInsurgency Methodology, & Behavior Management Theory. Imagine an exchange of mutual respect. Imagine personal dignity.
We need a total transformation of our society. This is not an extreme or ‘radical’ position. It is the painfully obvious, staring us in the face, screaming inequalities. Prison building is not the right answer to unemployment, lack of money, and lack of future prospects, just as graves are not the right answer to illness, lack of access to food, housing and healthcare.
The two charts above are from The Equality Trust whose purpose is to promote understanding of the social and health problems associated with income inequality across the globe. At the equalitytrust.org.uk site you can download more research papers and links to further studies of the impact of income inequality.