An In-Depth Political Analysis

Globalization and the Incarceration of the Black Working Class

By
Richard D. Vogel
Copyright © 2009 by Richard D. Vogel

At http://combatingglobalization.com

Permission to copy granted

Author's note: In "Capitalism and Incarceration Revisited" published in Monthly Review in 2003 (http://www.monthlyreview.org/0903vogel.htm), I remarked:

Current mass incarceration in America is a result of the deindustrialization of the nation during the past twenty-five years and the consequent social and economic dislocations that disproportionately impact minority Americans. The direct relationship between unemployment and incarceration that existed from the 1930s to the late 1980s has been changed--the prison system now holds enough of the reserve army of wage laborers for extended periods to actually keep the official unemployment rate down--a development unforeseen by prison observers of the past. When I made the prediction in 1983, that "…the prison problem in America can only get worse," I did not anticipate the latest refinements in the machinery of oppression.

It is time, after only 6 years, to re-examine the issue of capitalism and incarceration in the US in light of the ongoing trend of rampant globalization and its devastating consequences for working people. A detailed analysis of "the latest refinements in the machinery of oppression" that I referred to in 2003 is clearly warranted because the time to dismantle that machinery could soon be at hand.


 

One in 100 vs. One in 10

One in 100
Incarceration practices in the United States are egregious by any standards, and, although the issue is obscured by pundits and politicians, rigorous political analysis of national prison policy exposes the root of the issue.

The United States incarcerates more people than any nation in the world with a staggering 2.3 million people behind bars in 2008.  China, with 5.5 times the population of the US, is second with 1.5 million prisoners, and the Russian Federation places a distant third with a prisoner population of 890,000.

Chart 1 presents a comparison of international incarceration rates.

Chart 1: International Incarceration rates, years vary

The national and regional incarceration rates reported in chart 1, calculated from official data gathered by the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College, London, reveal that the US is the undisputed leader among nations in confining its citizens with an overall incarceration rate of 756 per 100,000 (Throughout this study, incarceration rates are reported as the number of inmates per 100,000 adult residents to allow for comparisons between prison populations of varying size and locations and across time.).  The Russian Federation, still experiencing social and economic aftershocks from the collapse of the Soviet Union, ranks second at almost two and one-half times the average rate of the other Eastern European nations.  The rate for England and Wales, low compared to the incarceration rates of the US and Russia, is still significantly higher than the average rate for the Western European nations.  The average incarceration rate in Western Europe, 102 per 100,000, is less than one-seventh that of the United States.

Chart 2 tracks the history of the rise of incarceration in the US to its present heights.

Chart 2

The line in this chart shows that the growing trend of mass incarceration in the nation is a relatively recent phenomenon that took off in the mid-1970s, surged upward in the 1980s and 1990s, slowed a bit after the turn of the century, but continued the ever-increasing rise through 2007.  The relatively stable 10-year period from 1965-1974 offers a solid baseline that contrasts sharply with the spectacular increases of the last two decades of the 20th century.  The relatively slower growth in overall incarceration rates reported since the beginning of the 21st century reflects the current crisis of prison overcrowding and rising costs of mass incarceration coupled with soaring government deficits.

Using the first 10 years recorded in chart 2 as a baseline, the average incarceration rate for the last 10 years represents a 386 percent increase in the rate of incarceration in the nation.  In other words, the US currently imprisons nearly four times the number of citizens that it did during the tumultuous years of the late 1960s and early 1970s when it had already established itself as the most punitive nation in the world.  The repressive prison policy that drives the ever-increasing incarceration trend in the US is the subject of this article.


Many US liberals, and even some conservatives, find the current US incarceration rate indefensible but cannot offer a credible solution to the problem of mass incarceration in America because their political blinders will not let them see the root of the problem.  Liberal political paralysis is obvious in One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008 (www.pewtrusts.org) a report published by The Pew Center on the States that documents a total US inmate population (state and federal prisons plus local jails) of 2,319,258 in early 2008, an incarceration rate of one in every 99.1 adult residents.

Despite the fact that Pew researchers have access to the most comprehensive and reliable prison data that has ever been published, all that they do with it is run a corporate cost-benefit analysis and conclude that US prison policy is not cost-effective:

Recent studies [including the Pew report] show, however, that a continual increase in our reliance on incarceration will pay declining dividends in crime prevention.  In short, experts say, expanding prisons will accomplish less and cost more than it has in the past.  (One in 100, 21)

The mainstream press treated One in 100 as important because it appears to challenge the wisdom of US prison policy, but the report glosses over the central fact of incarceration in America--the mass incarceration of the Black working class.  Though the Pew report mentions in passing that Black men in the 20-34 age-group are incarcerated at the rate of 1 in 9, it fails to confront either the statistical or the social significance of the fact that 1 in 10 of all adult Back males in the prime of their lives (ages 20-44) are currently behind bars because of US criminal justice policies.

One in 10

While the rate of 1 in every 100 citizens behind bars is a deplorable state of affairs for a nation, having more than 1 in 10 of its most virile men in prison is ruinous for a community.  That is the present condition of the Black working class community in the US.

Chart 3 illustrates why it is essential to disaggregate incarceration statistics to get to the root of the prison problem in America.

Chart 3

Chart 3, based on the same US Department of Justice (DOJ) report that the Pew researchers used in One in 100, illustrates the crux of the prison problem in the nation.  Chart 2 focuses on male prisoners, who make up over 90 percent of the inmate population in the US, and breaks the male population down by race/ethnicity and age.  The chart illustrates the proportion of each group of men that was incarcerated in 2006.

The most glaring feature of chart 3 is the grossly disproportionate incarceration of Black men in all age groups.  The fact that over 1 in 10 Black males between the ages of 20 and 44 are in prison represents an unparalleled rate of incarceration for any distinct community in the modern world.

The disaggregated statistics depicted in chart 3 lead to a singular and indisputable conclusion--while the proportion of white males in the same age group incarcerated in the USA (1.7 percent) is comparable to incarceration rates in Western Europe, and while the percent of Hispanic/Latino males incarcerated (3.9 percent) is more than double that of white males--it is clearly the mass incarceration of Black males that elevates the overall US incarceration rate to the highest in the world.

The question of how the mass incarceration of Black working class men was effected and is maintained is essential to understanding the prison problem in America today.  The answer lies in the political agenda behind the national crime policy labeled and promoted as the "US War on Drugs".

 

The US War on Drugs

Since its inception in the 1980s, the US War on Drugs in America has been both an overt law enforcement operation against drug use and trafficking and a covert political strategy to repress the marginalized Black working class in the US.  Unraveling these two aspects of the War on Drugs is essential to understanding the grave impact it has had on the Black working class.

The overt aspect of the War on Drugs is the punitive law enforcement campaign against drug users and dealers that was initiated in the mid-1980s and is continuing today.

Chart 4 tracks prison admissions for drug offenders during the initial years of the War on Drugs.

Chart 4

Chart 4 shows how the anti-drug campaign boosted prisoner populations in the US during the early years and maintained it thereafter.  The graph records the drug offender prison admissions to both state and federal institutions for the years 1980-1997.  The increase from 1984 to 1989, most notably in state prisoner populations, was meteoric.  The War on Drugs was continued unabated--the average new drug offenders admitted for the 10 year period from 1988 through 1997 was over 110,000 prisoners per year.

The shift in prisoner admissions by offense between 1980 and 1996 represents a striking turnabout in law enforcement practice in the US.  In 1980, 7 percent of new admissions to prison were offenders convicted of drug crimes, 41 percent were convicted of property crimes, and 48 percent were convicted of crimes of violence.  By 1996, the proportion of drug convictions had soared to 31.7 percent of the total, property offenders had dropped to 26.8 percent, and the percentage of violent offenders fell to 32.2.

The rate of admission of drug offenders to prison has remained high since the 1990s, and the current swollen prisoner population of the US is due primarily to the continuing War on Drugs.  By considering the overall shift in prisoner populations by offense and the current inflated prisoner populations, it would appear that law enforcement agencies are vigorously prosecuting a nationwide campaign against drug abuse and trafficking.   Examining the covert aspect of the War on Drugs, however, exposes the political agenda behind the trend.

Chart 5 illustrates the wide disparity of drug law punishment by race across the nation.

Chart 5

Chart 5 ranks most of the states in the US by the Black proportion of all drug offenders admitted to the prison system compared to the Afro-American percentage of each state's population in 1996.  It is difficult to find a more skewed distribution in social or demographic statistics than the disparity depicted in chart 5.

Selective drug law enforcement by race across the nation is staggering: in the top state, Illinois, 90 percent of all drug offenders admitted to prison in 1996 were Black compared to 15 percent of the population at large.  Maryland was a close second: 90 percent of all drug offenders admitted to prison were Black compared to 27 percent of the state's population.

Extreme racial disparity in drug offense incarceration runs throughout the list.  In Wisconsin, where only 6 percent of the population was Black, 71 percent of the drug offenders admitted to prison were Black.   In Colorado and Minnesota, where Blacks constitute only 4 and 3 percent of the total population, respectively, Black prisoners accounted for 51 and 49 percent of the total drug offenders admitted to prison.

In the nation overall, where Blacks accounted for 12 percent of the population in 1996, 63 percent of all offenders admitted to prison for drug offenses were African-American.  Current DOJ reports, though not as detailed as the 1996 analysis, indicate that the racial disparities in drug admissions to state prisons across the US continue today.

The mass incarceration for drug offenses illustrated in chart 5 document the covert aspect of the US War on Drugs--since its inception, the primary targets of US drug enforcement operations have been Black working class males despite the fact that no significant differences in drug use or drug dealing between Blacks and whites have ever been established by the US Department of Health and Human Services which has been systematically monitoring drug use in the nation for the last 30 years. (Detailed Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports are available at www.oas.samhas.gov).

It is the flood of prison admissions produced by the War on Drugs illustrated in chart 4 and the selective enforcement of drug laws illustrated in chart 5 that ultimately account for the meteoric rise in incarceration rates that has established the position of the US as the most repressive society in the community of nations.

Although liberal critics of the US prison system are quick to recognize the role of the War on Drugs in driving up prison populations and the racial disparity of the US criminal justice system, they identify racial prejudice as the primary cause of the mass incarceration of Black Americans.   In clear contrast to liberal analysis, a radical critique of US prison policy must include a concrete historical analysis of the criminal justice initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s that identifies the socioeconomic problems that they addressed and the sociopolitical functions that they continue to serve.

Specifically, a useful critique of US prison policy must look at how changes in the US economy impacted Black working class communities, produced a major social crisis, and triggered a powerful political reaction that neoconservative politicians exploited to implement the repressive national prison policy that remains in force today.

 

The Decline of the Black Working Class

The Black working class has filled the role of the reserve industrial army for US capitalism from the abolition of slavery until the latter half of the 20th century when corporate America developed the political power and transnational infrastructure to freely exploit global labor markets.

Because of pervasive institutional discrimination, Black labor power has historically been a bargain for US employers.  This malignant tradition that undercuts the value of all labor in a region was the pull factor in the runaway shop movement in the US during the 1950s and 1960s.  That industrial migration saw the relocation of many manufacturing and heavy industries from the unionized industrial centers of the Midwest and Northeast to the right-to-work states of the Deep South.

Many US corporations, supported and subsidized by local, state, and federal agencies, moved operations from cities like Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburg, and Milwaukee to cities in the South like Atlanta, Birmingham, Houston, and Dallas-Ft. Worth where Black labor was abundant and sliding wage scales based on race were commonplace.  Southern labor unions, where they did exist, were weakened by right-to-work-laws and often segregated by race.

The Southern industrial boom lasted less than a generation.  US civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s that guaranteed equal pay and outlawed job discrimination cancelled the advantages that had lured corporations to the South.  US capital's subsequent shift to using cheap foreign labor, abroad and domestically, undermined labor in general and the Black working class in particular.

Globalization has decimated the Black working class of the United States.  As members of the reserve industrial army in the US, Black works have suffered the brunt of any economic shocks and the offshoring of jobs and onshoring of foreign labor hit them harder than any other sector of the US working class.  Credible estimates of both corrosive labor trends are possible.

Offshoring Jobs

Chart 6 offers an overview of the relationship between globalization and manufacturing employment in the US by using imports from China as an indicator of offshoring.

Chart 6

Chart 6 shows the trend of declining manufacturing employment that has coincided with the massive importation of manufactured goods from China for the period from 1985-2007.  The rising flood of Chinese imports, which steadily mounted throughout the period, surged after 2001.  The average increase for the six years from 2001-2006 was over 20 percent per year.

Chart 6 also illustrates the steady decline in manufacturing employment in the nation for the same period.  Since manufacturing has historically provided the most lucrative blue collar jobs in industrialized nations, the 45 percent overall drop experienced during the period represents a serious undermining of the position of labor in the US.

The decline of labor under the reign of globalization by any measure is now a matter of record.  The severe impact on the Black working class, however, has not received due recognition.  As the historic reserve industrial army in the US the burden of globalization has fallen hardest on the Black working class communities in the idled and abandoned industrial centers of the nation.

At the same time that economic displacement resulting from the offshoring of manufacturing was growing, additional pressure was placed on the Black working class by direct competition from cheap foreign labor that migrated primarily from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

 

Onshoring Foreign Labor

Globalization's second assault on Black labor has been the overwhelming competition from the mass migration of workers from the global south that has literally flooded the US labor market, especially during the 1990s and early 2000s.  By 2007, estimates of the number of undocumented migrants residing in the US ranged from 12 to 15 million.

Realistic estimates of the migration from Mexico, the origin of the vast majority of undocumented immigrants, are available.

Chart 7

Chart 7 reviews the influx of immigrants from Mexico to the US by date of arrival for 1980-2004.  The bars on the chart, which separate legal from unauthorized migrants, represent annual average arrivals for each designated five-year period for the last quarter of a century.  As can be seen, during the 1990s and early 2000s, the arrival of unauthorized migrants far surpassed the arrival of legal migrants.  The proportion increased steadily through the period and by the turn of the century undocumented migrants completely overshadowed Mexican migrants who entered the nation legally.

The rise of unauthorized migration during the 1990s and early 2000s was the result of the de facto open-border policy of the US government during the period.  This flood of undocumented migrants facilitated a free trade labor market in the US where unskilled and semi-skilled native labor had to compete with desperate workers from the global South.

The Black working class in the US was the biggest loser.  The low wages and poor working conditions that came to prevail at the lower end of the labor market further marginalized the Black working class in the US economy.  Predictably, the resulting economic distress produced growing urban unrest.

 

Urban Unrest

The growing urban unrest of Black working class communities broke into open confrontation in April, 1992 in South Los Angeles.  It was a violent clash between local citizens and the forces of repression reminiscent of the historic 1965 Watts riot in LA.

The 1992 conflict was much more destructive than its antecedent.  In the violence of 1992, at least 52 people were killed and over 2,400 were injured.  Estimates for property damage varied widely but ranged as high as $1 billion.  Ultimately, it took 20,000 local police, state troopers, and National Guard troops to quell the riot that had spread beyond the boundaries of South LA into Hollywood, the West Side, and the San Fernando Valley.

The confrontation, which began with the acquittal of the LAPD officers who had been videotaped beating Black motorist Rodney King after a traffic stop on March 3, 1991, captured the attention of the nation that had not forgotten the widespread urban riots of the 1960s and confirmed that the socioeconomic problems of the nation's inner-cities which had been acknowledged a quarter of a century earlier had never been adequately addressed.

The widespread fear of another wave of urban riots in the US was tapped to fuel the most powerful political reaction in modern US history.  Two years after the explosion in South LA, the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party presented their plan to "take back the streets" in The Republican Contract with America.

 

The Republican Contract with America:
A Blueprint for Repression

The Republican Contract with America presented to the public in 1994 was a draft agenda for a reactionary solution to the sociopolitical crisis generated by increasing globalization. (www.house.gov.house/Contract/CONTRACT.html).  The first three of the 10 bills that the Republicans promised to introduce in the first 100 days of the 104th US Congress aimed, directly or indirectly, at the Black working class in America:

  1. The Fiscal Responsibility Act was a proposal for a balanced budget/tax limitation amendment and a legislative line-item veto intended to curtail social spending in the US, a policy referred to by reactionaries as "starving the beast".
  2. The Taking Back Our Streets (TBOS) Act was a comprehensive anti-crime package which ostensibly targeted crime in the streets.  TBOS was a transparently coded response to the impending urban crisis in the USA.
  3. The Personal Responsibility Act was a direct assault on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and federal food and housing programs, all of which were supplying some measure of federal assistance to poor working class communities throughout the nation.

Although all three bills were paradigms of reaction aimed at the working class in general, it was the punitive strategy behind the TBOS Act (which was never enacted into law per se but served as a model for much subsequent federal and state criminal justice legislation) that directly resulted in the mass incarceration of the Black working class.

A close examination of the specific provisions of the TBOS Act reveals how the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party used a federal legislative initiative to implement a strategy of repression that ultimately put, and continues to keep, a large proportion of the Black working class behind bars.

 

The Taking Back Our Streets Act

The TBOS Act was defined in the Republican Contract with America as "the Republican approach to fighting crime".  Its stated purpose was, "to keep people safe in their neighborhoods and kids safe in their schools."  The political objective behind TBOS was to meet the crisis of crime and social unrest in the inner cities of the USA that was threatening to spill over into the suburbs.

Matrix 1 offers a summary of the key provisions of the TBOS Act and the reactionary objective behind each to demonstrate how the US criminal justice system was adapted to repress the Black working class in the inner-cities of America and continues to do so today. 

Matrix 1

A closer examination of the key provisions of the Streets Act reveals the interlocking components of the machinery of repression:

Death Penalty Provisions (Title I)

The objective of Title I was to increase the use of the death penalty as the deadliest weapon of class struggle in America.  This first provision of TBOS promised to speed up executions by restricting the constitutional right of habeas corpus for condemned prisoners.  Title I also provided special funds for states to prosecute capital cases and introduced new death penalty procedures to insure that juries be instructed to recommend the death penalty as often as possible.

Some background is necessary to understand the implications of Title I.
Black working class men have been the primary targets of capital punishment since their arrival in North America as slaves.  A vigorous challenge to this historic trend spearheaded by the NAACP resulted in a moratorium on the death penalty that lasted from 1968 through 1976 (See "Capital Punishment Update" in Monthly Review, 56, no. 7 (December 2004): 31-33.  (Available at: http://www.monthlyreview.org/1204vogel.htm).  -After accepting minor statutory revisions of existing laws, the US Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976 and the historic trend resumed.

Chart 8, reproduced from the official DOJ website, depicts the modern use of the death penalty in the US.

Chart 8

Chart 8 illustrates the surge in the use of the death penalty in the US throughout the 1980s and 1990s.   Application of the death penalty, facilitated by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty (ATEDP) Act of 1995, peaked in 1999.   The USA remains fourth among the nations of the world in the number of executions, trailing only China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.              A tag that accompanies the above chart on the DOJ website informs visitors that, "Since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, more than half of those under sentence of death have been white."   The chart itself, however, clearly exposes the racial disparity of the application of capital punishment in the US.

It is obvious from a close reexamination of chart 8 that the imposition of the death penalty, like incarceration rates in general, falls heaviest on African-Americans who have made up an average of 42 percent of the death row population throughout the period while they have never exceeded 12 percent of the nation's population.

While Title I clearly established the repressive agenda of TBOS, it is Title II that broadened the scope of the assault and targeted a much larger proportion of the Black working class community.     

      
           
Mandatory Minimum Sentencing for Drug Crimes (Title II)

Title II escalated the War on Drugs that had been launched in the mid-1980s.  This provision of the Streets Act sought to establish a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for state or federal drug or violent crimes that involved possession of a gun.   Penalties were to increase to 20 years for a second conviction and life in prison for a third.  Title II was introduced as model legislation that states were urged to follow.  This provision was ultimately adopted in various state and federal "three strikes and you're out" laws that have inflated prison populations.

Title II allowed many essentially victimless drug offenses to be treated the same as violent crimes.  The intent of including these additional offenses was to expand the War on Drugs to incarcerate as many offenders as possible.

The key provisions of Title II were enacted into law in The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

 

Mandatory Victim Restitution (Title III)

Title III mandated that criminals pay full restitution for damages caused as a result of a crime they committed.  Failure to pay resulted in revocation of probation, parole or any other form of conditional release.  Because of the prevailing chronic unemployment, underemployment, and poverty rates, failure to pay restitution boosted overall incarceration in the Black working class community.

Since mandatory victim restitution was proposed in the TBOS Act, the federal government and one third of the states have adopted this provision with predictable results.

 

Law Enforcement Block Grants(Title IV)

In order to utilize the War on Drugs as an effective tool of repression, local enforcement agencies had to be enlisted in the campaign.  The block grants of Title IV were intended to pay the local costs of repression.

This provision called for the repeal of funding for drug courts, recreational programs, community justice programs, and other social prevention programs that had been allocated under the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1994 and to increase funding for traditional law enforcement activities.  The fact that most of the crime prevention programs funded through the Omnibus Crime bill were designated for American inner-cities clearly identified minorities and the urban poor as the primary targets of this provision.

The Local Law Enforcement Block Grant Act of 1995 eventually supplied the funds called for in Title IV.  The enactment of this provision of TBOS facilitated shifting the focus of law enforcement in the USA from preventative to repressive, and along with the impact of Titles I, II, and III, produced a growing prisoner population that had to be fed, housed, and provided with minimal health care.

Title V reinforced the strategy of repression and addressed the growing costs of mass incarceration.

 

Grants for Prison Construction Based on Truth-in-Sentencing(Title V)

The objective of Title V of the Streets Act was to keep offenders in prison longer and ease the financial burden of mass incarceration through federal funding for prison construction in states that participated in the campaign of repression.

The Truth-in-Sentencing laws promoted in Title V are laws that require both violent and drug offenders (see Title II) to serve at least 85 percent of the sentence imposed by the court.  This provision of the bill was designed to encourage and reward states that increased their incarceration rates and expanded their prison populations.  Since the vast majority of drug offenders are incarcerated in state institutions (see chart 3) Title V was intended to defray the increased state prison costs with federal tax dollars.  The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 became the primary source of these funds that helped finance the boom in prison construction across the nation.

 

Reform of the Exclusionary Rule (Title VI)

The last element in establishing the War on Drugs as an effective strategy of repression was to allow the selective enforcement of drug laws on the street.  That was the intent of Title VI of the Streets Act.

Title VI was the most controversial provision of TBOS because it proposed violating the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution.  The Supreme Court enforces the Fourth Amendment (protection against unreasonable searches and seizures) through the exclusionary rule.  The rule holds that any evidence discovered as a result of improper police conduct is not admissible in court.  The rule is enforced through the issuing of search warrants based on probable cause that authorize law-enforcement officers to search for and seize evidence at a specific location.

Title VI sought to amend the rule to allow evidence obtained during a search or seizure "regardless of whether a search warrant had been granted."  Neoconservative Republican lawmakers saw this reform as essential to conducting the War on Drugs effectively by allowing police to execute dragnets and make blanket arrests in the inner-cities of America.

Ultimately denied this gross infringement of the Bill of Rights, federal and local police forces have learned to subvert the exclusionary rule by corrupting the search warrant process and using provocative paramilitary tactics that generate resistance.

 

Prisoner Lawsuits (Title VII)

Title VII, like Title V, focused on the economic costs of mass incarceration.  Some background in constitutional law is required to understand the implications of Title VII.

The Eighth Amendment, which forbids "cruel and unusual punishment", governs the living conditions of prisoners, and, consequently, the cost of incarceration.  The US Supreme Court has ruled that prison conditions that are "unquestioned and serious deprivations of basic human needs" violate the Eighth Amendment and has specified those needs as: food, clothing, shelter, medical care, reasonable safety, warmth, and exercise.  Because of these legal mandates, meeting even the minimal necessities of America's vast prison population is expensive.

The Republican lawmakers who formulated the strategy behind the Streets Act recognized the fact that prison conditions in the US have been established and are maintained primarily through prisoner initiated litigation.  Anticipating the rising costs of mass incarceration, the authors of TBOS offered Title VII.  The sponsors of the bill argued openly "that states are forced to spend millions of dollars defending prisoner lawsuits to improve prison conditions -- many of which are frivolous."

Title VII directed federal courts to dismiss any "frivolous or malicious action" brought by prisoners against jails, prisons or other correctional facilities and allowed mostly conservative federal judges to determine the merit of prisoner complaints.  It also required that payment of legal filing fees be shifted to prisoners.

The objective of Title VII was to restrict prisoners' rights to seek legitimate redress of grievances under the Eight Amendment and, in effect, lower the standards of living conditions behind bars to reduce the overall cost of mass incarceration.  This objective was realized to a great extent in The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996.

 

The Cost of Repression

The machinery of repression laid out in the TBOS Act was up and operating in a remarkably short period.  The neoconservative wing of the Republican Party delivered on their promise of quick legislative action and most of the provisions of the Streets Act became the law of the land within two years after the publication of The Republican Contract with America.

The economic cost of this campaign of repression is illustrated in chart 9.

Chart 9

Chart 9 records direct expenditures on police, the courts, and prisons in the US for the years 1982-2006 as reported by the DOJ.  During the 25 year period, overall expenditures increased 420 percent for police operations, 503 percent for judicial functions, and a noteworthy 660 percent for what is classified as correctional functions but consists primarily of prison construction and operations.  The total cost for the period was $2.8 trillion.

It is possible to establish a credible estimate for the proportion of that $2.8 trillion that can be identified as the cost of repression.  Comparing the incarceration rates of the US to the average for Western Europe (refer to chart 1) produces a ratio of over 7 to 1.  Applying that same ratio to the expenditures suggests that the cost of repression in the US during the period was $2.4 trillion.  Comparing the incarceration rate of the US to the average for all of the nations reported in chart 1 produces a much lower, but still substantial, estimate that at least 50 percent of the US total ($1.4 trillion) was the cost of repression during the period.  Either estimate indicates the staggering economic cost of repression in the US.

Of course money is not the sole, or even primary, issue of mass incarceration.  The real issue of the US policy of repression is the social cost.

The subject of the social costs of mass repression is usually avoided.  Assessing social costs involves not only measuring the immediate economic cost of establishing and operating the various agencies and institutions of the criminal justice system but estimating the ultimate economic impact and societal consequences of the policy for a community.

If mass repression, as it is currently practiced in the US, is seen as a social overhead capital expenditure like any other investment of public resources the real costs come to light.  In contrast to justifiable social spending--public education, medical care, or financial aid--mass incarceration is not an investment in future productivity or community development, but a significant and ongoing waste of community resources.

Economic losses due to non-productive social overhead capital investment might be inestimable but there is a way to assess the future social cost of mass incarceration.

 

The Future of Repression in the US: One in 3

Chart 10 illustrates the future of repression in the US in terms of human lives.

Chart 10

The DOJ has developed a sophisticated method of estimating the chances of men in the US going to state or federal prison during their lifetime and the results of their projections are reported in chart 10.  The chart shows future incarceration rates, projected from contemporary trends, for males born during specific years (birth cohorts), by race/ethnicity.  Chart 10 indicates that in the future, the overall rate for all US males will exceed the current rate of Black males (1 in 10).  For males born in 2001, that rate is projected to be 11.3 percent.  As in the case of incarceration rates in general, these projections must be disaggregated by race/ethnicity to be appreciated.

The projected rate for white males in the 2001 birth cohort will be a moderate 5.9 percent compared to a disproportionate 17.2 percent for Hispanic males.  The most troubling projection of the DOJ is the 32.2 percent chance of Black males in the same cohort of going to prison.

The fact that nearly 1 in 3 Black males who are young children right now will end up in prison during their lifetime foretells the future of repression in the US and renders any discussion of justice for Blacks in America mere pretense.  As long as the legal machinery of repression remains intact, the on-going institutional suppression of the Black working class community (and to a lesser, but significant, extent, the Hispanic/Latino working class community) will continue to intensify and the economic cost will continue to rise.

While the neoconservative forces in the US continue to promote mass incarceration as acceptable public policy despite the costs, the sacrifice of the lives and futures of 1 in 3 Black working class men in the nation and the impact on their families and communities is too high a price to pay.

 

Globalization and Social Policy

There is no clearer example of the influence of globalization on social policy than current criminal justice practices in the US.  During the last 30 years, as an increasing number of jobs have been exported overseas and devalued at home, more and more US workers have been displaced with the most disadvantaged elements of the working class turning to the informal economy to try to make a living or succumbing to despair--the two major drivers of America's crime/drug problems.

The reactionary response to the dislocation of workers across the nation has been the staging of the domestic War on Drugs and the resulting incarceration of a significant proportion of the Black working class.  Under the current repressive US prison policy, a large proportion of Black working class men are destined from the day they that they are born to serve time in prison.

The socioeconomic function of American prisons under globalization--the warehousing of masses of workers rendered superfluous by the offshoring of work and onshoring of cheap labor in the relentless pursuit of profit--will continue as long as US capitalism is allowed to operate unchecked.

The issue of the incarceration of the Black working class also portends the depth and scope of other crises that are developing under globalization.  The marginalization and institutionalization of a significant sector of US society is a harbinger of more such draconian public policies that subordinate the welfare of the majority to the narrow interests of the few.  The fate of all economically disadvantaged and distressed people--the elderly, the disabled, the unemployable, economic refugees, a growing share of the nation's youth, and an increasing proportion of all working people--hangs in precarious balance.

All of the main political struggles of our times--combating globalization, inequality and poverty, militarization, and climate change--are all part of the fight to break the domination of global capitalism over the world economy.  Fighting for justice for the Black working class in the US will require dismantling the machinery of repression that has become so deeply embeded in the US criminal justice system.  This specific justice campaign must be seen and conducted as an integral part of the global fight-back.

(end)


Richard D. Vogel is a political reporter who monitors the effects of globalization on working people and their communities.  His other critiques of the US criminal justice system include:  "Capitalism and Incarceration," 34, no.10 (March 1983): 30-41; “Capitalism and Incarceration Revisited,” 55, no. 4 (September 2003): 38-55. http://www.monthlyreview.org/0903vogel.htm; "Silencing the Cells: Mass Incarceration and Repression," 56, no.1 (May 2004): 37-43; http://www.monthlyreview.org/0504vogel.htm; "Capital Punishment Update," 56, no. 7 (December 2004): 31-33. http://www.monthlyreview.org/1204vogel.htm.

Contact: rdvogel@combatingglobalization.com

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