The Economics of Mass Incarceration


By Alex Krehbiel
One would think that the sharp rise in incarceration rates, which began in the 1970ís and 1980ís and hasnít tapered off, was a result of increasing crime. While there’s statistical evidence in the 1980ís that showed a correlation between rising rate of crime and rising rates of incarceration, that changed in the 1990ís and beyond. Incarceration rates and prison construction continued to rise, while the rate of crime dropped. Very recently and very modestly the incarceration rate has tapered off somewhat, but the overall incarceration rate and number is still astronomical.
Crime is a social phenomenon resulting from negative social conditions, such as unemployment, poverty, abusive treatment, and others. In our society, certain groups are criminalized ñ Black and Latino youth especially. They are targeted by police and the criminal justice system, and locked up at higher rates than other groups for similar behavior.  Michelle Alexanderís book, The New Jim Crow, documents this. Crime is also an ideological creation used to justify certain political and economic policies that have little to do with preventing crime, and more to do with constructing a culture of fear, division, racism, and the prison industrial complex to keep the ruling elite in power.
The prison industry construction boom coincided with an era of rapidly rising and chronic unemployment. A major cause was the closings of major industrial factories, as mega-corporations packed up shop and moved overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor. When Ford, General Electric and other giants made this move, millions of US workers lost their jobs.
This de-industrialization served a dual purpose for the insatiable capitalist class:  (1)  Exploit cheaper labor abroad to increase profits, and (2) the newly jobless joined and expanded what Karl Marx called the ìindustrial reserve armyî (unemployed people searching for work.)  An additional benefit for the capitalists from this crisis is that they were able to bid down workerís wages. More unemployed workers looking for fewer jobs means more job competition,  allowing employers to offer lower wages since someone will always be desperate enough to accept them. The result is driving down all wages. Then, the more desperate, especially those still unemployed, turn to crime. Then more prisons are built. Then more wars are launched, like against Iraq, to protect capitalismís overseas interests.
These conditions led to growing mass working-class discontent and protests, like the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and workersí demonstrations. The ruling capitalist elite doubled down on its divide-and-conquer tactics to especially weaken the most down-trodden, those who had the least to lose by militant direct action. One tried-and-true tactic: racism. Paint especially Black and Latino youth as criminals in the popular culture, movies, and the news, and lock íem up.
In this atmosphere the neo-liberal ìtough on crimeî agenda materialized into the juggernaut of coercive social control that, in 30-plus years, has seriously weakened everyone, including the unionized workers’ movement. It has proceeded slashing wages and benefits, rolling back civil rights gains, deregulating nearly everything, bludgeoning social programs, appropriating social wealth through an almost endless frenzy of austerity orgies, and locking up and disenfranchising nearly 2 Ω million people in our country, with another 5 million  relegated to loss of democratic rights through the restrictive parole and probation system.
Every year, approximately $200 billion is drained from state and federal coffers to maintain this industry to warehouse people (there is little or no rehabilitation, training, nor job placement for most inmates). This means much less money for education, health care, affordable housing, job creation programs. In impoverished urban neighborhoods and poor rural areas, young people have a better chance of going to prison than landing a living wage job.  This is capitalism in deep crisis.  Itís time to look at socialism as a solution.
Alex Krehbiel is an inmate at a California prison, and a member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.


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