Our Prison System: Possibly the Most Important Social Issue in our Country

Imagine being born into a poor family with few opportunities and resources.  What would you do to raise your standard of living?  Would you develop skills needed to succeed or turn to crime?  Most individuals do the best they can in school and eventually find work.  But what about the 2-3% of the population that doesn’t have the skills and resources to change themselves and their environment?  Do they feel rewarded for trying to be good citizens in an culture that appears overwhelmingly unfair and disadvantageous?  No, they don’t.  And when they don’t, when they feel hopeless, neglected, bullied, abused and pushed-aside, they get into trouble.  Many of these individuals wind-up in prison.

There are 2.26 million people in U.S. prisons.  An astonishing 45-65% of prisoners are reported to have mental illness.  Hallmarks of mental illness are low self-esteem and risky behavior.  When individuals don’t feel good about themselves they turn to abnormal behavior as a means of punishing themselves and others for the pain they’re enduring.  When they get caught, they go to prison.  While in prison, inmates rarely receive the structure and services needed to transition back into society.  They’re eventually released, get into trouble again and wind up back in prison.  It’s an ugly cycle that’s rooted in number of variables, including an unequal distribution of wealth and resources.

Is there a correlation between the rate of mental illness in prison (45-65%) and the rate of recidivism (64%)?  Do the majority of re-offenders suffer from mental illness?  If so, our society needs more effective strategies to deal with this problem.  More importantly, why does our country have the highest rate of mental illness in the world?  Why does 27% of our country’s population suffer from mental health disorders? Why does a whopping 13% and 60% of Americans take antidepressants and prescription drugs, respectively?

What is it about our culture that seems to produce so many unhealthy individuals and maladaptive behaviors? Based on a comparison of other countries whose citizens feel productive, healthy and happy, the main cause appears to be socioeconomic structure. Is our economic system literally making people sick? If so, what can we do to change this unfortunate situation?

There are solutions.  A top-down approach is to develop a hybrid economic system that proactively benchmarks with successful countries whose citizens report the highest levels of happiness in the world: Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Finland, Netherlands and Sweden. Research clearly suggests that we’re on our way to becoming a European-like system, but we have a few rivers to forge before we get there.  A bottom-up approach is to develop creative ways to keep our kids in school, off the streets and out of trouble. Are we ready to think differently?

Below is a list of facts about our prison system.  We apologize in advance if you weren’t aware of this information.  No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. It’s our hope that these facts inspire you to become part of the solution. Get involved, be a mentor and volunteer your time to a local cause.  There’s lots of people out there who need your help, and they can’t do it alone.  Let’s make a difference together.

Here are the Facts about the U.S. prison system:

  • The United States is 5% of the world’s population and detains 25% of the world’s prison population.
  • The U.S. is the only country in the world that condemns children to die in prison.
  • 2.26 million people are in prison (2011 survey).  Current numbers may be close to 3 million.
  • 4.8 million people are on probation and parole (2011 survey).
  • Prison populations have doubled since 1985.
  • Prisons are currently overcapacity by 200,000.
  • 75% of male inmates grew up without a father in their home.
  • If the total population in prison was a city, it would be the fourth largest in the country.
  • The incarceration rate of Black men is 5-times that of the apartheid in South Africa.
  • There are more Black men in prison than were slaves in the 1800’s.
  • Black citizens are 13% of the total population and 40% of the prison population.
  • California spends 6-times as much on prison inmates than on educating children.
  • Decreases in crime rates have not decreased incarceration rates.
  • 50% of the revenue from private prisons come from illegal immigrants.
  • The rate of recidivism (those who return to prison) is 64%.
  • Privatization of prisons increased 1600% from 1990-2010.
  • Over 1 million prisoners in privately owned facilities have unskilled labor jobs.
  • The prison system has more inmate laborers than any Fortune 500 company (except for GM).
  • Companies contracted with low-wage prison labor include: Boeing, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Victoria Secret, Nordstrom, IBM, Compaq, Nintendo, Dell, Costco, Mary Kay Cosmetics, Eddie Bauer, Revlon, Macy’s, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Microsoft, Target, HP, Texas Instruments, Motorola, Intel, Nortel, UNICOR (military supplies), Walmart, Pierre Cardin, 3com, Lucent Technologies, Aramark, Global Tel Link (GTL), Fidelity Investments, K-Mart, JC Penny, Bank of America, Chevron, Mobile Oil, Edison Company, All-State, Blue Cross, Liberty Mutual, GEICO, State Farm, Bayer, Merck, Pfizer, AutoZone, Fruit of the Loom, United Airlines, UPS, Sears, Shell Oil, Ford, Chrysler, GM, Honeywell, and Avis Rent-a-Car.  Hundreds of companies were not included in this list.
  • Prison laborers earn $1-5/day.  Companies receive tax breaks for prison labor (up to 40%).
  • The practice of using prisoners for labor existed in Egypt over 5000 years ago.
  • Federal prison costs are expected to rise 30% by 2020.
  • Drug offenses comprise 62% of the prison population in the US and costs tax payers $300 billion annually to capture, convict and jail.  That’s $5.77 billion per state.
  • There are more jails than colleges in our country.
  • 49% of Black males, 38% of White males and 44% of Hispanic males have been arrested by the time they’re 23.
  • 50% of youth detention facilities are privatized.
  • 30% of local, state and federal prison populations are illegal immigrants.
  • 37% of Black men ages 27-34 without high school diplomas were incarcerated in 2008.
  • 1 in 6 Black men have been incarcerated since 2001.
  • Over the past 20 years, budget increases in education have increased 30% while budget increases for incarceration have increased 570%.
  • Prison populations have increased 700% since 1970.
  • Less than 20% of inmates have their high school diplomas.
  • 35% of Black children in grades 7-12 have been expelled or suspended.
  • $200 billion in public safely expenses is spent on prison and jails annually.
  • 62% of inmates are unnconvicted and awaiting trial.
  • Due to high incarceration rates, the United States is the only country in the world where more men are raped than women

Food for Thought

Imagine if the United States created a rehabilitative prison with counseling, trade schools and integrated corporate outreach programs.  Outdoor tents would eliminate the need to spend billions on expensive facilities.  Student counselors would significantly reduce mental health costs.  Relationships with corporations would: (a) provide labor at a reduced price, (b) allow inmates to build careers based on interests and future economic needs, (c) significantly reduce or eliminate trade school building costs depending on estimated long-term corporate ROI, (d) allow inmates to save money for the goal of paying debt, supporting their families and building credit and most importantly (e) reduce the current 64% recidivism rate and redistribute billions of dollars that should be directed towards improving our educational system.  It’s not string theory; its simply about valuing people first, then money.

Bonus Round

United States Prison Population Rate: 716 for every 100,000 citizens (with a 64% recidivism rate)

Norway Prison Population Rate: 71 for every 100,000 citizens (with a 20% recidivism rate)