A Philosopher's Blog

Untied Prisons of America

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 16, 2012
Federal Bureau of Prisons (seal)

Federal Bureau of Prisons (seal) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the United States has been passed by other countries in some areas (such as education), we are the world leader in imprisoning our citizens.  For every 100,000 Americans, there are 760 in prison. By way of comparison, Germany has 90, Britain 153, and Brazil 242.  Interestingly, in the 1980s the United States was at 150 imprisoned for every 100,000 people and this raises the obvious concern about the increase.

Of course, the cause of the increase is obvious: the war on drugs. The majority of federal prisoners are imprisoned on drug charges and in 2009 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges (80% of these being arrested for possession). Despite the vast expenditure in the seemingly endless war on drugs, there has been no significant reduction in drug consumption-merely an increase in prison populations. Because of these facts, even Pat Robertson has come out in favor of legalizing marijuana.

While some of the motivations for this war on drugs were laudable (namely getting rid of drugs and drug crimes), the main driving force in keeping the harsh anti-drug laws in place is money. Many prisons have been privatized and have become significant centers of profit and job creation. Of course, these prisons need to be populated and this provides an incentive to keep the laws in place and to imprison people for what would seem to be rather minor offenses, such as drug possession for personal use.

It might be countered that it seems absurd and unthinkable that people would engage in the vile practice of imprisoning people just to make money (and create jobs). However, even a cursory look at history will show that such a thing is far from absurd and is quite thinkable. After all, the United States had a slave based economy for decades. As such, the idea that people would imprison other people to make a profit is hardly a surprising idea. Morally offensive, yes. Surprising, no.

It could also be countered that the privatized for-profit prisons are good because they can save the state money. However, it is unclear how allowing private companies to make profits saves the state money. After all, there is no metaphysical essence that enables a private company to work with magical efficiency that is denied to the public sector. There is also the more important matter that even if the private companies saved the state money, there is the question of whether or not we should be imprisoning such a large number of people for drug crimes.

It might be argued that such people must be imprisoned in order to protect society. After all, drug criminals can be rather dangerous. However, it seems rather odd that the United States would have such a significantly higher percentage of dangerous drug criminals than all other countries (even drug drenched Mexico imprisons about 200 people per 100,000) and there is the obvious fact that 80% of the arrests for drug charges involve simple possession. As such, it seems likely that people are being imprisoned that do not actually need to be in prison (that is, they are not actually a threat to society).

It could be countered that drug users are a threat. After all, they sustain the drug dealers who engage in violence and other crimes.  Of course, they only sustain these dangerous drug criminals because these drugs are illegal. Obviously, making them legal and turning production and distribution over to companies would solve most of these problems. As such, the irony is that it is the illegality of drugs that actually creates the real drug criminals (the killers, thieves, money launderers and such). Thus, the solution to these crimes is not prison, but legalization.

It might be added that drugs are also harmful to health and they impair people in ways that can lead to accidents. Of course, the medical and safety issues regarding illegal drugs also apply to legal drugs. Alcohol and tobacco are major killers, yet are not illegal. It would thus make sense to treat the illegal drugs like alcohol-it is legal to possess them, but being impaired in public, behind the wheel and so on would be crimes.

Changing the drug laws would, obviously enough, lower the prison populations and have some immediate positive effects. One is that it would help reduce the expenditures of the states. While this would help with the budget woes, it could also allow states to spend money on more positive things such as education. After all, over the past twenty years state spending for prisons has increased at six times that of spending for higher education. California provides an excellent example of this. That state spent $9.6 billion for prisons and $5.7 billion for state universities and colleges in 2011. Since 1980, the state has added one college and twenty one prisons. Spending per student is $8,667 a year, while a prisoner costs $45,006. While this spending has helped create jobs and profits for private companies, it does seem rather wasteful and it seems more sensible to use the resources on education. After all, by changing the drug laws and reducing the number of people needlessly and senselessly locked up, five students can go to school for every person who would otherwise have been locked up. It seems obvious that five college students will do more good than locking up a person for having marijuana in their possession. It is, of course, true that there would be less profits for the private companies who run the prisons and less jobs for those involved with prisons. Perhaps these companies can start private colleges in place of prisons and the former guards and such could take classes there. They could then get jobs with the companies producing legal marijuana products.

In addition to the money matter, there is also the concern that the war on drugs and the obsession with prisons has created and continues to create an underclass. People who are arrested for drug offenses and imprisoned are taken from society and thus do not contribute (and actually cost society a great deal). Also, these people become marked with the stigma of being criminals, which will be a considerable obstacle the rest of their lives. Getting a job or going to college will be much harder and this will, ironically, serve to increase the odds that they will turn to other crimes as their only option. As such, one irony is that those waging the war on drugs have created a mechanism for  perpetual defeat and a prison state.

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10 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on April 16, 2012 at 7:36 am

    The DiploMad is back:

    I am not happy with the state of the police, and fear we risk becoming a state of the police. How have we allowed so many things to be declared illegal and worthy of police and prosecutor attention? Why have we given uniformed, armed bureaucrats so much authority over our lives? We conservatives who are the true defenders of liberty in our Republic need to address this almost taboo subject, and not leave it to the ACLU. Along with cutting taxes, and spending, we conservatives need to insist on cutting drastically the size and scope of our legal codes and regulations, and to reduce the power of unelected agencies, the police, and the courts over our lives.


    • anon said, on April 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm

      LOL @ “true defenders of liberty”.

      “Why have we given uniformed, armed bureaucrats so much authority over our lives”
      You can thank the founding fathers for that.

      “How have we allowed so many things to be declared illegal and worthy of police and prosecutor attention”
      You can think good ol’ conservative god Ronnie Regan and his wife. Just say no. You can thank the religious nut jobs that the GOP welcomed with open arms in order to get their people elected instead of doing what is best for the country.

  2. […] Untied Prisons of America (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) Share this:ShareEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Tags: BarackObama, Drug Enforcement Administration, Drug War, Latin America, Obama, Obama administration, Prison Planet.com, United State Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) Leave a comment Trackback […]

  3. magus71 said, on April 16, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    Some misleading statements in this article. But in general there are too many laws.

  4. anon said, on April 17, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Everybody that says that there are “too many laws” should have to tell people the # of laws the country should have, how laws should be counted, and how many laws they think the country currently has.

    • magus71 said, on April 21, 2012 at 10:01 am

      Possession of marijuana is illegal, anaon. Just remember that.

  5. ajmacdonaldjr said, on April 17, 2012 at 11:46 pm

    This is a good and important article. The drug war, or “prohibition”, is foolish. Private prisons are shameful. The crimes people commit are committed against the state and its citizens…those who are convicted should be under state, not private, authority. The federal sentencing guidelines need to go, too. The federal judges hate them, since the guidelines relegated their sentencing decisions to following a generalized, bureaucratic, standardized, one-size-fits-all form (or flow chart) instead of allowing the judges to determine for themselves what the best sentence is in each particular case. Of course the federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine are tougher than for powder cocaine, and even murder, in some cases.

  6. FOOBAR said, on April 20, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    Here’s a guy who probably shouldn’t be in prison…can’t see his face, though…


  7. War on drugs | Bell Book Candle said, on April 21, 2012 at 11:48 am

    […] Untied Prisons of America (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) […]

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