With less than 5% of the world’s population but nearly 25% of its prison population, America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We imprison 2.3 million people today, as opposed to 300,000 during the 1970s. Of those 2.3 million, 500,000 are non-violent drug offenders.
Even more outrageous, building and operating prisons has become one of America’s largest and most profitable urban industries, with a huge financial investment in lobbying public policy for more severe drug and “tough on crime” laws, and increased criminalization of immigrants. The “prison-industrial complex” thrives on having more people arrested, detained, convicted and sent to their private for-profit prisons. CCA and GEO are the two largest private prison companies, owning 75% of the market and housing an ever-rising percentage of America’s prison population. The primary shareholders of CCA and GEO are banks and related financial entities; thirty six of them, in the aggregate, owning more than two-thirds of the stock of CCA and GEO! Private prisons also run at least 50% of detainment facilities for undocumented immigrants.
Such horrifying statistics – plus the fact that an African-American man in the United States today has a one in three lifetime probability of incarceration – makes the issue of mass incarceration a screaming moral emergency calling for every citizen’s concern.
While no one doubts that violent and even many non-violent criminals belong behind bars, America’s incarceration rate is about something much deeper than catching criminals: it is about the social and economic policies that force desperate people to turn to desperate behavior; it’s about law enforcement and prison guards lobbying for ever bigger budgets and benefits; it’s about corporate exploiters of cheap prison labor; and it's about Wall Street financiers wanting bigger and bigger profits from locking up as many people as possible for as long as possible. The more America ignores those realities and the huge conflict of interest inherent in private for-profit prisons, the richer the prison-industrial complex and all who benefit from it will become— and the poorer America will be as a nation once proudly revered for its sense of freedom, justice and fairness.