The figures boggle the mind. Approximately 11 million Americans cycle through our jails and prisons each year (including a vast “pre-trial population” of those arrested and not convicted and those who simply can’t make bail). At any moment, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are more than 2.3 million people in our “1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.” In some parts of the country, there are more people in jail than at college.
If you want a partial explanation for this, keep in mind that there are cities in this country that register more arrests for minor infractions each year than inhabitants. Take Ferguson, Missouri, now mainly known as the home of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot and killed in 2014 by a town policeman. The Harvard Law Review reported that, in 2013, Ferguson had a population of 22,000. That same year “its municipal court issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses,” or almost one-and-a-half arrests per inhabitant.
And then there are the conditions in which all those record–breaking numbers of people live in our jails and prisons. At any given time, 80,000 to 100,000 inmates in state and federal prisons are held in “restrictive housing” (aka solitary confinement). And those numbers don’t even include county jails, deportation centers, and juvenile justice institutions. Rikers Island, New York City’s infamous jail complex in its East River, has 990 solitary cells. And keep in mind that solitary confinement — being stuck in a six-by-nine or eight-by-10-foot cell for 23 or 24 hours a day — is widely recognized as a form of psychosis-inducing torture.
And that, of course, is just to begin to explore America’s vast and ever-expanding prison universe. The fact is that it’s hard to fathom even the basics of the American urge to lock people away in vast numbers, which is why today TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon focuses instead on what it might mean for justice in this country if we started to consider alternatives to prison.