America’s Growing Prison Addiction

Locked Up

When I first glimpsed the headline posted on the Common Dreams website, “1 in 136 U.S. Residents Behind Bars,� my heart soared at the hope that fewer Americans were falling prey to alcohol addiction. Much to my chagrin and surprise, the article—by AP writer, Elizabeth White—instead reported on America’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 nation’s convicts. Here’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, that’s a lot of cons. Not surprisingly, “the 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.�

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 “alternative 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,� the emphasis remains on incarceration instead of treatment. This nation’s war on drugs—which even Walter Cronkite has labeled a “failure� and “inhumane�—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.

3 thoughts on “America’s Growing Prison Addiction

  1. Good post! The irony is that we spot these kids in grade school & know who the endangered population is. We even know what we can do about it, but we do little – it’s expensive! So we decide to put it off & assign blame. It’s better to pay later & write these people off? The stats are really quite shameful!

  2. Thanks to Eileen’s comment, it occurs to me that we handle our prison/crime problem the same way that we handled health care: ignore it until it’s too big to ignore any more.

    Rather than spending a few bucks on prevention, we seem to prefer to wait until we have to spend thousands on the cure. I saw somewhere that the average annual cost per inmate is something over $22k per year.

  3. Kiersten. Great piece. You’d be shocked to learn the number of decorated veterans serving.

    On a more positive note as Memorial Day approaches please share this sentiment…

    A Little Extra Something for Memorial Day

    I found as a Marine leader that the greatest impact one has is when there is a viable connection with individuals.

    Might I suggest that while celebrating Memorial Day to select one person who either gave the ultimate sacrifice or has since passed and honor him or her?

    It personalizes and humanizes.

    I have never met LTC William J. Games, USA, but he was a resident of Providence, Rhode Island, a Korean War veteran and recipient of the Silver Star. The Silver Star is awarded to a person who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. military, is cited for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force. He served with 9th Infantry Regiment 2nd Infantry Division.

    The former US Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI) had submitted a bill on his behalf to obtain relief from overpayment of income taxes. He was honored by our General Assembly in 2004.

    I will give honor to him as my personal connection to those who have come before us.

    Semper fi’,

    Sheeler for US Senate (D-RI)

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