The U.S. System of Punishment: an expanding balloon of wealth, racism and greed

October 28, 2010Jenny Truax

Post image for The U.S. System of Punishment: an expanding balloon of wealth, racism and greed

A few years ago at a Karen House community meeting, Tony brought a reading for discussion. He had just finished the book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis, and read some quotes, asking us to consider the question: are prisons, in fact, obsolete?

To be honest, I was shocked by the question. I considered the prison, while probably unjust, to be as ingrained an institution as churches, schools, and apple pie. I understood the Catholic Worker Aims and Means, but had never applied them to the U.S. system of punishment. As anarchists and pacifists, we in the Catholic Worker try to reflect on the root causes of violence, where resources are allocated, and how systems (like the prison system) affect the poor. We believe that a decentralized society might better serve people’s needs better. At Karen House, we see that the majority of the women who stay with us have either been in jail before, or have a family member who has been in jail. Many of their offenses were drug-related, and many of their lives have been uprooted by long incarcerations. At Karen House, we read in the papers about white-collar criminals (who may have stolen millions) and even peers receiving very light penalties, and we live with women who have received years-long sentences for drug and poverty/property related offenses.

Most of us have a general sense that laws in the U.S. overly-penalize people who happen to be poor, and who happen to not be white. But we also have a deeply-held belief that the system, though flawed, is basically just, and that wrong-doers deserve the punishment they receive. We like the neat package of “3 strikes you’re out” and automatic sentencing. In the words of Angela Davis: “Prison frees us from considering the complex problems of racism and poverty (and increasingly, global capitalism,) by creating an abstract place in which to put evil-doers.”1


Around the time of the American Revolution, new forms of punishment for criminals were adopted in the United States. Before this time, criminals awaited death or physical punishment while in a prison. Later, the penitentiary itself became the consequence. Inmates would become rehabilitated, or penitent, with manual labor and solitude to reflect upon wrong-doings. This change was seen as a progressive, more humane method of dealing with criminals.

The prison system in the U.S. remained generally unaltered until the Civil War ended. Following the Civil War, slavery was abolished as a private institution, but the cleverly worded 13th Amendment provided a very large exception, stating: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime…shall exist within the United States.” In the ensuing months and years, states revised the Slave Codes into new “Black Codes,” imprisoning former slaves for acts such as missing work, handling money carelessly, and performing “insulting gestures.” A massive influx of former slaves into the penitentiary resulted, a new form of slavery was born, and the racialization of the U.S. punishment system took root. The unpaid labor of the newly created, mostly black, convict lease system helped the South achieve industrialization.

Fast Forward 100 years…

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the prison population was actually decreasing, and prisons across the nation were closing down. In January of 1973, newly elected New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller gave a stunning State of the State address demanding: 1) that every convicted drug dealer should be given a mandatory sentence of life without parole, 2) that plea-bargaining should be forbidden in these cases, and 3) that juvenile offenders should also receive life sentences. This touched off a nation-wide trend of incarceration, rather than medical rehabilitation, for illegal drug users. Within nine years, the prison population of New York State doubled. State legislatures across the U.S. passed hundreds of bills requiring tough sentences for drug users and dealers, but these bills mostly failed to provide the corresponding funding. In 1976, the new liberal Democrat governor of California signed into law a bill that amended the state’s penal code, changing the goals of imprisonment in California: the word “rehabilitation” was replaced with “punishment.”

Who is in Prison?

Over the past four decades, nonviolent offenders have continued to pour into prisons, while violent crime (which includes rape, robbery, aggravated and simple assault, and homicide) has consistently dropped. 2

Policy changes that increased the use of prison sentences and length of time served (through mandatory minimum sentencing, “three strikes” laws, and reductions in parole or early release) have catapulted the U.S. into first place for the dubious award of “most citizens imprisoned.” Crimes that in other countries would usually lead to community service, fines, or drug treatment (or would not be considered crimes at all) lead to significant prison time in the U.S. The extraordinary demand for new prisons, which are expensive, diverts funds from other less expensive and more effective strategies such as drug treatment and probation. For many Americans, the result is a lifetime-long cycle of drug use and imprisonment.

An analysis of the prison system would not be complete without acknowledging the pervasive factor of racism. It’s important for whites to spell this out for ourselves, so that we may fight our own racism. We often understand that racial minorities are disproportionately represented in prisons, but rather than name the system itself as racist, we subconsciously believe that African Americans are more violent, more prone to drug addiction, and overall, less civilized. It has been well-documented that people of color are watched, arrested, imprisoned, and sentenced more and longer than whites. 3

Caucasian and African American men speed, steal, deal and use drugs in proportionally equal numbers, but black men are five times as likely to be arrested for a drug offense. One in 15 black men are in prison while one in 106 white men are in prison. 4

The system’s racism manifests itself further in the mandatory sentencing for dealing different types of cocaine. For dealing 50 grams of crack cocaine, the federal sentence is to 8 to 10 years, and for the same amount of powder cocaine, it’s 21 to 27 months. The two types of cocaine are pharmacologically identical substances. Most people who use cocaine powder are white, middle-class or wealthy, while most that use crack cocaine are Blacks and Latino. 5

The Sentencing Project provides an interesting international comparison: South Africa under Apartheid was internationally condemned as racist, and in 1993 imprisoned its black male population at the rate of 851 per 100,000. In 2006, the U.S. imprisoned the same population at the rate of 4,789 per 100,000. Phrases describing the U.S. as the “land of opportunity,” with “equality for all” seem disingenuous in the face of this structural racism: we imprison black males 5.8 times more than South Africa did at the height of Apartheid.

Additional information about the prison population makes obvious some of the causes of incarceration. The great majority of the U.S. inmate population has a history of substance abuse. Meanwhile, drug treatment slots in our prisons are scarce at best. In 1998, drug treatment was available to one in ten of the inmates who qualified for it. At Karen House, we are finding it more difficult each year to find inpatient bed spaces for uninsured women seeking treatment for drug and alcohol abuse.

About one in six of the country’s inmates have a serious mental illness. The massive de-institutionalization of mentally ill persons in the 1970s contributed significantly to this trend. Folks with severe mental illness without resources now find themselves within the criminal justice, rather than mental health care system. The de-funding of Medicaid and budget-cutting at state supported hospitals like the St. Louis Metropolitan Psychiatric Center ensures that untreated mental illness will continue to be a significant contributor to our soaring prison population. (For more info on this, please see Teka’s well-written article in our RT on Mental Illness: At Karen House, we often find it maddening to try and get help for uninsured women with untreated mental illness, and many of them end up in jail.

Follow the Money…

In his powerful 1998 article for the Atlantic, Eric Schlosser describes what he calls the Prison Industrial Complex:  “…a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need. … [It] is not a conspiracy, guiding the nation’s criminal-justice policy behind closed doors. It is a confluence of special interests that has given prison construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum. It is composed of:  1) politicians, both liberal and conservative, who have used the fear of crime to gain votes, 2) impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of economic development, 3) private companies that regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market, and 4) government officials whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population.” 6

In California, this “confluence of special interests” resulted in the construction of over 20 new prisons in 2 decades (this doubles the number of prisons built in the entire century previous.) In New York, it looks like a concentration of 12 prisons within one congressional district, with prisons as the largest employer. These special interests (most often well-off, white, constituents and corporations) benefit lavishly while others (most often people of color and the poor) are incarcerated with punishments not appropriate to the crimes or offenses committed.

The prison industrial complex is a multifaceted set of relationships between and within the State and big business. The multibillion-dollar industry built around imprisonment now has its own trade shows, conventions, web sites, and mail-order catalogs. A wide variety of companies now benefit from our exorbitant prison population: architecture firms, banks that both handle prison bond issues and invest in private prisons, plumbing supply, food service, and health care companies. The personalist ideal naming the dignity of each person as the “basis, focus and goal of all metaphysics and morals” (Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker) drowns in the bureaucracy, power and money involved in this system.

A massive and almost free, workforce resides in the prisons nationwide, and big business has capitalized. The modern chain gang of prison labor built a distribution center for Wal-Mart in 2005, sewed lingerie for Victoria’s Secret in the 1990s, and cut airplane components for Boeing during 1997.7  A few of the dozens of corporations utilizing prison labor include IBM, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Lucent Technologies, Intel, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, and Target Stores. 8 Inmates are typically paid around fifty cents an hour. If the true purpose of the prison is to rehabilitate an offender – so that he or she will not come back to jail – we would all benefit if inmates received adequate literacy or GED classes, counseling, alcohol and drug treatment, or job training.

For-profit corporations now run over 100 prisons in the U.S. The thinking is that a business model trims the fat of state bureaucracy. Private prisons charge a fee per day to the government for housing inmates, and even rent cells in one state for prisoners from another. The problems with privatization are similar whether one is considering prisons, health care, or debt reduction for developing countries. The bottom line trumps all, and these multi-billion dollar corporations have created all kinds of ways to cut costs while maximizing profit. For example, individual private prisons are well-knows to extend prison sentences for arbitrarily designated “bad behavior,” which in turn extends their profit margin.


In 1970, U.S. prisons held fewer than 200,000 people; now that number is 2.3 million, or about 1 in 100 American adults. The inmate population has grown so large that it’s hard to comprehend: imagine the combined populations of Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, and Miami behind bars. We imprison more people than any other country, comprising about 5% of the world’s total population, and holding 25% of the entire world’s prison population.

This is not the country that most people want. A 2006 national opinion poll showed that the majority of U.S. voting public (by an almost an 8 to 1 margin,) prefer rehabilitative services for prisoners as opposed to our current punishment-only system. A large majority want to offer help to prisoners with job training, drug treatment, mental health services, family support, mentoring, and housing. 9

By dealing with our social problems in more appropriate ways, we could, as a country, improve the way we deal with crime, poverty and addictions. Look at the folks in the prison population: most are nonviolent offenders, a large percentage of them are addicted to drugs, a significant percentage have untreated mental illness, and many are illiterate. By providing resources for a new revitalized public education, mental health care, and drug treatment, we could shrink the prison population by a huge percentage. Right now, we can also work to end prison building and expansions. Many groups are also working on building alternatives, in order to reduce reliance on prisons and policing. Please see Jamala Rogers’ article for more on resisting our current system and building alternatives, and our “Further Reading” section for information, resources, groups and actions.

Many people consider prison to be an inevitable and permanent structure within society. Years ago, slavery and segregation were also thought to be permanent societal fixtures. We have the power and ability re-create the prison industrial system into a system based on reconciliation, transformation, and preparation, rather than on retribution and profit making. All that’s left is the will to make it happen.

* * * * *

  1. “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis
  2. Bureau of Justice Statistics:
  3. Great factsheet on racial disparities in the justice system:
  4. Pew Center for the States: “One in 100-Behind Bars in America 2008”
  5. The Sentencing Project:
  6. “The Prison Industrial Complex” by Eric Schlosser for the Atlantic
  9. National Council on Crime and Delinquency: Attitudes of US Voters toward Prisoner Rehabilitation and Reentry Policies

Previous post:

Next post: