Rehabilitation will only be a priority under socialism
The United States has the largest prison population in the world. According to a Bureau of Statistics report, over 2.2 million people are in U.S. prisons. With another 5 million people in “the system,” over 7 million people are either on parole, probation or incarcerated.
The United States also has the largest prison population relative to its total population: 750 per 100,000 people were in prison in 2006, according to statistics cited by the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College in Britain on June 21, 2006. This number would be even higher if immigrant detention centers and military jails were included.
For 35 consecutive years the U.S. prison population soared. Until the mid 1970s, the U.S. prison population ranged from 200,000 to 215,000. In the 1980s, the numbers doubled. They doubled again in the early 1990s.
According to an Aug. 29, 2007, Bureau of Justice Statistics report, the amount of money spent on prisons went from $9 billion in 1982 to $65 billion in 2005.
Prisons in the United States
The prison system magnifies all the contradictions of capitalist society.
For example, the day-to-day reality of racism for African Americans in the United States is on extreme display in the U.S. prison system. Approximately 1 million African American men under the age of 40 are behind bars—nearly half the entire prison population. Twelve percent of African American men ages 20 to 34 were in prison in 2003, compared with 1.6 percent of white men in the same age group.1
Black males are incarcerated at more than six times the rate of white males. In seven states, the rate is more than 10 times the rate of whites. In 2004, Hawaii had the lowest incarceration rate of Blacks, 851 per 100,000—a rate that is still higher than the state with the highest incarceration rate of whites, Oklahoma at 740 per 100,000.2 A report issued in January 2004 by the Sentencing Project entitled “Schools and Prisons,” estimates that one out of every eight Black men between the ages of 25 and 29 are incarcerated on any given day.
Latinos are incarcerated at double the rate of whites. This rate would be higher if the detention centers for undocumented immigrants were included. Entire families can be kept in these detention centers for any length of time without notifying anyone. Prisoners are held in small cells, receiving barely enough to eat and very limited medical attention.
An April 19, 2007 report by the Women’s Prison Association reported that more than 200,000 women are in prison. The rate of women being incarcerated is increasing at nearly double that of men. Women from oppressed communities are impacted even more. The incarceration rate for Latina women is double that of white women. Black women are incarcerated at five times the rate of white women.
Prisons are becoming more overcrowded by the day. According to the previously cited International Centre for Prison Studies report, U.S. prisons have an overall occupancy level of 106.9 percent. Overcrowding has been at the root of many prison rebellions, like the April 24, 2007, uprising by almost 500 inmates in an Indiana prison protesting living conditions.
Prisons and crime
The official justification for imprisoning more people is to bring down the crime rate. But there is no evidence that the increased jailing rate has had any impact on lowering crimes rates.
The U.S. prison rate began to skyrocket in 1975, according to data presented in a 2003 report by the Prison Policy Initiative. Crime rates, however, did not fall for nearly 25 years. In fact, the crime index rate rose steadily from 1976 to 1992, from 467.8 to 757.5 per 100,000.
A decline in violent offenses did not start until 1993—corresponding to a fall in unemployment and a drop in the percentage of males in the “high-risk” 15- to 24-year-old age group. Violent crime rates dropped in Canada the same year with no corresponding increase in the number of prisons or prisoners.
The trend in crime rates is related more to the ups and downs of the capitalist economy than how many people are put behind bars.
According to a report issued by the Sentencing Project in December 2006, over half of federal prison cases were drug convictions. Only 11 percent are for violent crimes. The severe sentences for drug charges have affected women at an alarming rate.
Between 1988 and 1994, the number of drug-related incarcerations rose 156 percent. Although whites and African Americans have a similar history of drug use, 75 percent of those convicted for drug crimes are Black.
Behind the skyrocketing prison population
The prison-industrial complex is a multi-million-dollar business. Prison workers make furniture, license plates, clothing and much more. In 2005, prisons produced $765 million worth of goods according to the July 13, 2007, Congressional Research Service report for Congress, “Federal Prison Industries.” According to that report, prisoners are made to work for pennies, and 50 percent of prison wages are used to cover any costs accrued while on trial.
But these profits alone cannot explain the prison explosion—not in the trillion-dollar U.S. economy. So what is the underlying reason behind the expansion of U.S. prisons over the last 30 years?
The prison boom parallels the high-tech revolution and the massive restructuring of the U.S. economy beginning in the 1970s. The technological advances spurred on by the computerization of industries were being sold as ways to enrich both workers and the U.S. economy.
As advances in technology soared to new levels, workers jobs began to vanish. Industrial bosses made more products with fewer workers.
A Feb. 18, 2004, Congressional Budget Office report shows the dramatic impact of the de-industrialization. In 1979, there were close to 19.5 million manufacturing jobs in the United States. By 1983, that number had dropped to around 16.5 million. Hundreds of plants were shut down.
This trend has continued unabated. According to an August 2007 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Charting the U.S. Labor Market in 2006,” close to 3 million manufacturing workers were laid off in the United States between 2001 and 2006, bringing manufacturing employment to just over 14 million.
Underemployment and unemployment continue to grow. Millions of workers now work in non-union low-paying jobs in the service industry. Record numbers of employees are still being hired. According to the BLS, in 2007 more than 85 percent of all non-farm jobs in the United States are in the service industry—116 million out of 138 million.
In December 2007, BLS figures report around 13.7 million workers in the United States were unemployed, underemployed or are “marginally attached,” meaning they had stopped looking for work.
In these circumstances, prisons are used as a way to control and intimidate the population, especially poor communities. Prisons are the ruling class’ solution to the contradiction of “surplus” workers in the high-tech era and the deepening capitalist economic crisis. Crucial to protecting the interests and private property of the capitalist class, prisons function as warehouses for unemployed and poor workers.
As an integral part of the capitalist state—prisons are tools of repression used by the ruling class to keep its position in society and exploit the working class.
Socialism—the way forward
U.S. capitalism proves with each passing year that its solution to poverty and unemployment—especially for the African American and Latino communities—is prison. It has given new meaning to Lenin’s description of czarist Russia as “a prison house of nations.”
Among the very first steps in the socialist revolution in the United States would be the dismantling of the U.S. prison-industrial complex—what has become known as a “concentration camp for poor and working people.” The millions who have been incarcerated for nonviolent and petty crimes would be released on the spot.
That is not to say that a socialist United States would be able to do without prisons entirely. Even in Russia, before the first socialist revolution, Lenin wrote in “State and Revolution,” “During the transition from capitalism to communism, suppression is still necessary; but it is the suppression of the minority of exploiters—the counterrevolutionary capitalist property owners and their military agents—by the majority of the exploited.”
Although the state is in essence an instrument of class suppression for a society’s ruling class, it also has non-repressive functions as well. These functions would also need to be addressed under a new post-revolutionary social regime. Traffic police, for instance, would need to regulate and enforce the law.
A revolution in the United States would inherit working-class communities plagued by social alienation, drug addiction, anti-social behavior, and extreme sexism. A new revolutionary state would still be confronted, especially initially, with the need to protect and defend working-class communities from crimes common in U.S. capitalist society.
It is obvious that the current U.S. prison system is bankrupt when it comes to addressing these problems. Murder rates are soaring in cities with high unemployment rates. Every four minutes another violent crime is carried out against a woman. Mass incarceration does not affect these problems.
The complex issues of individual and social crime can be solved under and only by socialism. Under a workers’ state, punishment of individuals for criminal acts and extreme anti-social behavior would continue during a transitional phase—but with a huge difference. Punishment and removal of individuals from the overall community may be necessary, but it is not the answer to the social problem of individual crime. Guaranteed social and economic rights, empowering workers to control society, using the instruments of mass education to overcome racism and sexism—these are elements that will help society overcome anti-social behaviors.
The current prison system would be dismantled and replaced with a humane and effective set of institutions. Cuba’s socialist revolution offers important lessons in what that might look like.
The International Centre for Prison Studies estimates that some 60,000 people are imprisoned in Cuba. Cuba is still dealing with all the contradictions of centuries of class rule and 250 years of predatory capitalism and imperialism. But what do Cuban prisons look like?
No prisoners are undernourished. The Cuban penal system offers job-training programs in nursing, physical education, basic hygiene, laboratory, ultrasound or X-ray technicians. The provision of libraries is also part of the program.
These programs were designed to “convert prisons into schools” and are part of what is known as “Task 500.” Havana-based journalist Susan Hurlich detailed the project in a March 2004 essay called, “Inside Cuba’s Prisons: Health Care and Vocational Training.”
“Task 500” was started in 2000 with the aim of providing educational opportunities and a vocation to inmates. The long-term goal is social reintegration.
Prisoners who obtain a nursing degree, receive a diploma just like all nursing students in Cuba. Their diploma will not disclose where they studied. Once they are paroled or have completed their sentences, they can get jobs in community hospitals or continue to study for a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
If the nursing graduates are still in prison, they can help staff the National Hospital for Prisoners. Inmates who work in prisons receive the same wages as someone working outside of prison, Hurlich reports.
In January, one of Cuba’s best-known singers, Silvio Rodriguez, began a concert tour of 13 prisons. “There is a strong cultural movement in the prisons,” he told Granma International.
Rodriguez and the Ministry of the Interior, which runs the prisons, sponsored the tour. It aims “to contribute to the rehabilitation of the prisoners and their reinsertion into society,” according to a Jan. 14, AP report.
This kind of genuine rehabilitation can only take place in the context of a society based on human needs, not on the enrichment of a tiny few. It is only possible with socialism.
1. New York Times, April 7, 2003.
2. The Sentencing Project, “Statistics by State,” www.sentencingproject.org.