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New National Monument: the Jailhouse : With corrections topping 5 million, 'to renew America' means more prisons, more cynicism, no more hope.

August 27, 1995|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. He can be reached via e-mail at

The Justice Department is announcing today that, for the first time, more than 5.1 million Americans--almost 2.7% of the adult population--were under some form of correctional supervision last year. It won't be long before we have as many adults enrolled in some part of the penal system as the 6 million who attend colleges and universities. That's the unmistakable trend line for American civilization as we come to the end of the 20th Century.

The federal and state prison population tripled between 1980 and 1995, and we were spending $31 billion a year to keep more than 1 million people locked up. How's that for winning the war on crime? Yet few Americans felt much safer. Then came Newt Gingrich and his revolution and legislation mandating even more prisons and longer sentences.

For those who hold that jail time is the only social program that works, the latest figures provided by the Justice Department offer an invigorating portrait of a society that, even before the new crime bill passed, was jailing its citizens at a rate at least five times greater than any other industrial society. After years of persistent cuts in every program that attempted to get at the root cause of crime, we are left with prisons as the major repository of our hopes for a saner society.

We no longer take seriously the goal of eradicating poverty with job training and other efforts to educate those left out of the American dream. We now simply jail them. Two-thirds of those entering the prison system are Latino or black and poor. If this trend continues, in 15 years, a majority of black American men between 18 and 40 will be incarcerated.

Is it a goal of the Gingrich revolution to end black unemployment by jailing the majority of black men without offering any serious social alternatives? This summer we have seen the return of the chain gang in Alabama, with mostly black prisoners shackled together wielding 10-pound hammers to break limestone rocks into highway gravel. Is this the jobs program the Republicans have in mind?

The Gingrichites have gutted every other jobs program, but on prisons intend to spare no expense. In California, it costs $120,000 to build a jail cell and at least $20,000 a year to house a prisoner, but do you hear any fiscal conservatives complaining? Prisons clearly are viewed by conservatives as the serious alternative to broken neighborhoods and families, unlike midnight basketball. The GOP-led Congress ridiculed and cut that program for keeping kids off the streets during peak crime hours, a program credited for cutting crime by President George Bush as one of his points of light. All rehabilitation programs are now derided, including those that treat drug addicts instead of just locking them up.

The new conservatives have so much money to throw at the prison program that it doesn't bother them that nonviolent drug abusers are the fastest-growing segment in the state and federal prison population, up from 8% to 26% since 1980. Indeed, the federal prisons would have a hard time justifying their existence were it not for the 60% of federal prisoners who are drug offenders. And with the drug war's irrational focus on crack, which is used in the ghettos, as opposed to powdered cocaine, the drug of choice in the suburbs, a disproportionate number of drug offenders are black.

Hardly an experienced judge can be found who really believes that throwing drug users into jail accomplishes anything positive for the individual or society. But words like rehabilitation now produce a response so shrill that politicians pile on the sentencing for any "crime" that comes to their attention.

Of course those who commit violent crimes should be jailed, and the public needs to be protected from repeat offenders. But we no longer have an intent to break the cycle of poverty and crime, to intervene to prevent desperate kids from becoming hardened criminals. Instead, we are now the world's most apartheid-like society, jailing its minority population on a scale last seen in pre-Mandela South Africa.

The mood is ugly. Political cynicism has replaced hope, and an ex-college professor turned congressman sets up a spiraling prison population as the benchmark for how "to renew America." The result is a prison numbers game, and clearly the well-organized prison lobby and law-and-order crowd are winning. But do you feel safer now than 15 years ago? And how many more of your fellow citizens will have to be locked up before you do?

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