The U.S Prison-Indusrial Complex - Archive 31st March 2000


In 1961, President Eisenhower coined the term "military industrial complex" to describe the way in which the military and industry were benefiting from the arms race. I think that the term could now be used to describe US prisons.

The Global Futures Bulletin, published in Queensland, this month has an article on the US prison population. With less than five per cent of the world's population, the US has 25 per cent of the world's total prison population.

The US has probably the highest rate per capita of imprisonment in the entire world. Compared with the other developed countries, the US's rate of imprisonment is four times as high as New Zealand's (which is number two on the list of prison rates in the developed world) and 14 times as high as Japan's.

One of the reasons for the US's low rate of unemployment is that so many potentially unemployed people are in prison.

Prisons are big business. The cost of running them was US$39 billion in 1999 and will about US$21 billion this year. There is a lot of money to be made out of running them.

Another characteristic of the US prison-industrial complex is the inherent racism within the legal system. One out of three African Americans is under some form of criminal control.

David Cole, of Georgetown University, has just written a book exploring this matter in greater detail: No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal System. Professor Cole points out that for every single African American who is a university graduate, 100 are arrested. The death penalty is administered unequally, with African Americans who kill whites far more likely to be executed than anyone who kills an African American.

Police sweep through poor neighbourhoods, stopping and searching whomever they like. Yet the courts have refused to require the police to advise people that under the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution they have a right to refuse a search unless the police have a warrant or have arrested them for a crime. In fact, most people who are stopped are innocent of any offence.

The courts have allowed police so much discretion in deciding whom to stop and search, that most African Americans seem to be stopped simply because they are "driving while black".

Therefore, is it any wonder that so many African Americans are so cynical about the US legal system? The US may be "land of the free and the home of the brave" - but not if you are an African American.

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