When I first glimpsed the headline posted on the Common Dreams website, â€œ1 in 136 U.S. Residents Behind Bars,â€? my heart soared at the hope that fewer Americans were falling prey to alcohol addiction. Much to my chagrin and surprise, the articleâ€”by AP writer, Elizabeth Whiteâ€”instead reported on Americaâ€™s burgeoning prison population, i.e., our addiction to corrections. The basis for the article is a recently released report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which is an entity of the Justice Department that every so often likes to do a head count of the nationâ€™s convicts. Hereâ€™s what the BJS found, as reported in their own press release:
During the year that ended last June 30, the nation’s prison and jail population grew 2.6 percent, reaching 2,186,230 inmates behind bars, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. Two thirds were in state or federal prisons (1,438,701) and the other third (747,529) were in local jails. The 12-month increase of 56,428 prison and jail inmates was the equivalent of 1,085 new inmates every week, the BJS report said….Since 1995 the nation’s prison and jail population has risen by more than 600,000 inmates. At midyear 2005, one in every 136 U.S. residents were in prison or jail. [full text]
The number that really jumps out at me is 2,186,230. Amazingly, there are close to 2.2 million Americans behind bars. To offer some perspective, that number is more than twice the total population of Rhode Island. It exceeds the population of Houston, Texas, the fourth largest city in the United States. It is greater than the population of the Kingdom of Bhutan and 87 other countries. In short, thatâ€™s a lot of cons. Not surprisingly, â€œthe United States is the unchallenged world leader in both raw numbers and imprisonment per capita. With a global prison population estimated at nine million, the U.S. accounts for about one-quarter of all prisoners on the planet.â€?
The explanation for this incarceration fascination can be partly accounted for by the overly punitive and inherently flawed manner in which this country addresses such social ills as substance abuse. Roughly a quarter of those in prison are there for drug offenses. Innumerable others in the penal system have significant histories of alcohol and/or drug abuse that has directly or indirectly contributed to their criminal behavior. Despite research showing that â€œalternative programs that divert felony drug offenders to substance abuse treatment programs rather than prison terms could save the U.S. criminal justice system millions of dollars and reduce recidivism,â€? the emphasis remains on incarceration instead of treatment. This nationâ€™s war on drugsâ€”which even Walter Cronkite has labeled a â€œfailureâ€? and â€œinhumaneâ€?â€”is, in truth, a war on drug users. And the casualties fill our teeming prisons, while the wardens of public policy tout their toughness and abandon their humanity.