Why are so many Americans in Prison?

I think that there are many other reasons that Americans are in prison than the race issue empahsized in this article.
There has long been a demand for longer sentences and more punishment in the US . This has led to a fantastic opportunity for capital because at the same time there has been a continuing movement towards privatisation of prisons. A second factor is the development of prison labour. Corporations make a bundle using convict labor for all sorts of tasks. Together these two factors have created a prison-industrial complex. THe complex can grow only by increasing the number of prisons and the prison population. The complex is an easy sell to the US public which fears crime and although race may be a factor the system in general makes poorly educated people or those with few skills,many of whom might not be employable in the regular job market exploitable within the prison system since the general public is subsidizing costs.

Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?
Race and the transformation of criminal justice Glenn C. Loury


According to a 2005 report of the International Centre for Prison
Studies in London, the United States—with five percent of the world's
population—houses 25 percent of the world's inmates. Our
rate (714 per 100,000 residents) is almost 40 percent greater than
those of our nearest competitors (the Bahamas, Belarus, and Russia).
Other industrial democracies, even those with significant crime
problems of their own, are much less punitive: our incarceration rate
is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of France, and 12.3 times
that of Japan. We have a corrections sector that employs more
Americans than the combined work forces of General Motors, Ford, and
Wal-Mart, the three largest corporate employers in the country, and we
are spending some $200 billion annually on law enforcement and
corrections at all levels of government, a fourfold increase (in
constant dollars) over the past quarter century.

Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so
many of its citizens. In December 2006, some 2.25 million persons were
being held in the nearly 5,000 prisons and jails that are scattered
across America's urban and rural landscapes. One third of inmates in
state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or
robbery. But the other two thirds consist mainly of property and drug
offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most
disadvantaged parts of society. On average, state inmates have fewer
than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately
black and brown.

The political scientist Vesla Mae Weaver, in a recently completed
dissertation, examines policy history, public opinion, and media
processes in an attempt to understand the role of race in this
historic transformation of criminal justice. She argues—persuasively,
I think—that the punitive turn represented a political response to
success of the civil-rights movement. Weaver describes a process of
"frontlash" in which opponents of the civil-rights revolution sought
to regain the upper hand by shifting to a new issue. Rather than
reacting directly to civil-rights developments, and thus continuing to
fight a battle they had lost, those opponents—consider George
Wallace's campaigns for the presidency, which drew so much support in
states like Michigan and Wisconsin—shifted attention to a seemingly
race-neutral concern over crime:

Once the clutch of Jim Crow had loosened, opponents of civil
rights shifted the "locus of attack" by injecting crime onto the
agenda. Through the process of frontlash, rivals of civil rights
progress defined racial discord as criminal and argued that crime
legislation would be a panacea to racial unrest. This strategy both
imbued crime with race and depoliticized racial struggle, a formula
which foreclosed earlier "root causes" alternatives. Fusing anxiety
about crime to anxiety over racial change and riots, civil rights and
racial disorder—initially defined as a problem of minority
disenfranchisement—were defined as a crime problem, which helped
debate from social reform to punishment.

Of course, this argument (for which Weaver adduces considerable
circumstantial evidence) is speculative. But something interesting
seems to have been going on in the late 1960s regarding the
relationship between attitudes on race and social policy.

Before 1965, public attitudes on the welfare state and on race, as
measured by the annually administered General Social Survey, varied
year to year independently of one another: you could not predict much
about a person's attitudes on welfare politics by knowing their
attitudes about race. After 1965, the attitudes moved in tandem, as
welfare came to be seen as a race issue. Indeed, the year-to-year
correlation between an index measuring liberalism of racial attitudes
and attitudes toward the welfare state over the interval 1950–1965
.03. These same two series had a correlation of .68 over the period
1966–1996. The association in the American mind of race with welfare,
and of race with crime, has been achieved at a common historical
moment. Crime-control institutions are part of a larger social-policy
complex—they relate to and interact with the labor market,
family-welfare efforts, and health and social-work activities. Indeed,
Garland argues that the ideological approaches to welfare and crime
control have marched rightward to a common beat: "The institutional
and cultural changes that have occurred in the crime control field are
analogous to those that have occurred in the welfare state more
generally." Just as the welfare state came to be seen as a race issue,
so, too, crime came to be seen as a race issue, and policies have been
shaped by this perception.


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