Friday, May 2, 2008
Lock 'Em Up And Throw Away The Key
This morning I dealt with incarceration and homelessness in my class at UW. The statistics seem too bizarre to be real. One in ninety-nine Americans is behind bars. A Black male high school drop out has a two-in-three chance of being incarcerated by age thirty-five. For white drop outs the rates are around one-in-ten. What is spent on prisons dwarfs the budget for education and other forms of social support.
From 1980 to 1999 state prisoners incarcerated for drug related offenses increased twelve-fold. Federal drug war prisoners went up fourteen fold. In major cities such as LA and San Fransisco the homeless population is 30-50% formerly incarcerated. A prison boom that began in the seventies increased incarceration rates that had remained mostly steady for five decades seven-fold. Fully half of those in prison are Black. In Washington State, Blacks are 3.2% of the general population, but 19.4% of the prison population. Latinos and Native Americans are also disproportionately imprisoned.
Today's paper discussed the great need for a new misdemeanor jail facility in this area by 2012. A 440-bed jail will cost $110 million to build and $18.4 million a year to maintain. That, for you math buffs, is $114.57 per bed night. We keep building and filling these things.
We've been talking about Peter Marcuse's idea that what's different about this period of homelessness is that, due to globalization, most of the people who have been written off in our economy will never be needed again. This, he says, is why federal support for poor people's housing and benefits is so pathetic and dwindling still. When government and industry believe that the unemployed will again be absorbed into the labor market, they are maintained. If not, they are thrown to the wolves.
The restructuring of the economy that has taken place since the seventies, he says, has altered power relations. A huge reservoir of unskilled workers and long-term unemployed ensures that low-wage work remains low-wage. There is a decline in the bargaining power of the civil sector while the power of elites grows. One result is ever widening gaps in inequality.
One of the things that I point out is that the explosion in incarceration rates parallels the modern advent of mass homelessness. They both have their roots in the economic restructuring that took place under globalization. Both started at around the same time and increased at similar trajectories. Both are solutions to the problem of how to contain and even profit from those who are surplus to the workings of capitalism.
Harvard researcher Bruce Western has focused his work on the relationship between incarceration and inequality. Western finds that incarceration lowers ones earning potential by 16% and deflates rates of wage growth by 39%. Due to the disproportionate numbers of blacks incarcerated through the drug war, this has deepened the racialization of poverty by creating a downward spiral of incarceration and reduced economic opportunity. And it's a widening net. Women of color are the fastest growing segment of the prison population.
The Black middle class, however, remains largely untouched by the drug war. This has driven a wedge through the Black community, with those who have the least opportunity being criminalized and those who have the most largely not caring.
I asked my students to speculate on why so many restrictions and barriers are aimed at those convicted of drug offenses. These are restrictions that murderers and rapists don't have. A lifetime ban of TANF, federal student aid, food stamps, veterans benefits and public housing. None of them had developed enough awareness of the nature of evil to go there.
This is about ensuring that a whole class of throw-away people never attain the means to get back up. Or vote.
So long as urban and rural areas with high concentrations of unskilled workers and devastated economies continue to exist, so will the drug trade, which offers both oblivion and economic opportunity in one convenient package. And so long as there are politicians willing to peddle racism and fear as a thirst for law and order, we'll keep packing them off to prison.