In the hills east of Sacramento, California, Folsom State Prison stands beside a man-made lake, surrounded by granite walls built by inmate laborers. The gun towers have peaked roofs and Gothic stonework that give the prison the appearance of a medieval fortress, ominous and forbidding. For more than a century Folsom and San Quentin were the end of the line in California’s penal system; they were the state’s only maximum-security penitentiaries. During the early 1980s, as California’s inmate population began to climb, Folsom became dangerously overcrowded. Fights between inmates ended in stabbings six or seven times a week. The poor sight lines within the old cellblocks put correctional officers at enormous risk. From 1984 to 1994 California built eight new maximum-security (Level 4) facilities. The bullet holes in the ceilings of Folsom’s cellblocks, left by warning shots, are the last traces of the prison’s violent years. Today Folsom is a medium-security (Level 2) facility, filled with the kind of inmates that correctional officers consider “soft.” No one has been stabbed to death at Folsom in almost four years. Among its roughly 3,800 inmates are some 500 murderers, 250 child molesters, and an assortment of rapists, armed robbers, drug dealers, burglars, and petty thieves. The cells in Housing Unit 1 are stacked five stories high, like boxes in a vast warehouse; glimpses of hands and arms and faces, of flickering TV screens, are visible between the steel bars. Folsom now houses almost twice as many inmates as it was designed to hold. The machine shop at the prison, run by inmates, manufactures steel frames for double bunks—and triple bunks—in addition to license plates.
Less than a quarter mile from the old prison is the California State Prison at Sacramento, known as “New Folsom,” which houses about 3,000 Level 4 inmates. They are the real hard cases: violent predators, gang members, prisoners unable to “program” well at other facilities, unable to obey the rules. New Folsom does not have granite walls. It has a “death-wire electrified fence,” set between two ordinary chain-link fences, that administers a lethal dose of 5,100 volts at the slightest touch. The architecture of New Folsom is stark and futuristic. The buildings have smooth gray concrete façades, unadorned except for narrow slits for cell windows. Approximately a third of the inmates are serving life sentences; more than a thousand have committed at least one murder, nearly 500 have committed armed robbery, and nearly 200 have committed assault with a deadly weapon.
Inmates were placed in New Folsom while it was still under construction. The prison was badly overcrowded even before it was finished, in 1987. It has at times housed more than 300 inmates in its gymnasiums. New Folsom—like old Folsom, and like the rest of the California prison system—now operates at roughly double its intended capacity. Over the past twenty years the State of California has built twenty-one new prisons, added thousands of cells to existing facilities, and increased its inmate population eightfold. Nonviolent offenders have been responsible for most of that increase. The number of drug offenders imprisoned in the state today is more than twice the number of inmates who were imprisoned for all crimes in 1978. California now has the biggest prison system in the Western industrialized world, a system 40 percent bigger than the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The state holds more inmates in its jails and prisons than do France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined. The California Department of Corrections predicts that at the current rate of expansion, barring a court order that forces a release of prisoners, it will run out of room eighteen months from now. Simply to remain at double capacity the state will need to open at least one new prison a year, every year, for the foreseeable future.
Today the United States has approximately 1.8 million people behind bars: about 100,000 in federal custody, 1.1 million in state custody, and 600,000 in local jails. Prisons hold inmates convicted of federal or state crimes; jails hold people awaiting trial or serving short sentences. The United States now imprisons more people than any other country in the world—perhaps half a million more than Communist China. The American inmate population has grown so large that it is difficult to comprehend: imagine the combined populations of Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, and Miami behind bars. “We have embarked on a great social experiment,” says Marc Mauer, the author of the upcoming book The Race to Incarcerate. “No other society in human history has ever imprisoned so many of its own citizens for the purpose of crime control.” The prison boom in the United States is a recent phenomenon. Throughout the first three quarters of this century the nation’s incarceration rate remained relatively stable, at about 110 prison inmates for every 100,000 people. In the mid-1970s the rate began to climb, doubling in the 1980s and then again in the 1990s. The rate is now 445 per 100,000; among adult men it is about 1,100 per 100,000. During the past two decades roughly a thousand new prisons and jails have been built in the United States. Nevertheless, America’s prisons are more overcrowded now than when the building spree began, and the inmate population continues to increase by 50,000 to 80,000 people a year.
The economist and legal scholar Michael K. Block, who believes that American sentencing policies are still not harsh enough, offers a straightforward explanation for why the United States has lately incarcerated so many people: “There are too many prisoners because there are too many criminals committing too many crimes.” Indeed, the nation’s prisons now hold about 150,000 armed robbers, 125,000 murderers, and 100,000 sex offenders—enough violent criminals to populate a medium-sized city such as Cincinnati. Few would dispute the need to remove these people from society. The level of violent crime in the United States, despite recent declines, still dwarfs that in Western Europe. But the proportion of offenders being sent to prison each year for violent crimes has actually fallen during the prison boom. In 1980 about half the people entering state prison were violent offenders; in 1995 less than a third had been convicted of a violent crime. The enormous increase in America’s inmate population can be explained in large part by the sentences given to people who have committed nonviolent offenses. Crimes that in other countries would usually lead to community service, fines, or drug treatment—or would not be considered crimes at all—in the United States now lead to a prison term, by far the most expensive form of punishment. “No matter what the question has been in American criminal justice over the last generation,” says Franklin E. Zimring, the director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute, “prison has been the answer.”
and here is another article: 1 in 100 Americans behind bars, report finds.
Apparently, the majority of the people in this insane system are there because of Prohibition.
This picture is completely and utterly INSANE.
Michael K. Block is infinitely wrong when he says, “There are too many prisoners because there are too many criminals committing too many crimes.” The actual problem is that there are too many laws in the United States, that is a fact.
Prohibition is the number one cause of the indefensible and unsustainable prison explosion; it has nothing to do with real crimes, i.e. crimes where there is a victim. I would say that financial ‘crimes’ should also never result in a prison sentence; prison is for violent actual criminals and people who rob houses and stores and banks (in person). It is not for anyone else.
Just think about it:
The United States now imprisons more people than any other country in the world—perhaps half a million more than Communist China.
California now has the biggest prison system in the Western industrialized world, a system 40 percent bigger than the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The state holds more inmates in its jails and prisons than do France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined.
Something is VERY VERY WRONG with this.
“The Drug War has arguably been the single most devastating, dysfunctional social policy since slavery.”
—Norm Stamper, Retired Chief of Police, Seattle
All people in prison for drug ‘offenses’ should be pardoned and their records expunged.
Prohibition should end immediately.