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As a college student in Baton Rouge, La., Clarence Aaron played football, worked summers as a longshoreman and volunteered in his community. Like many college students, he eventually did something very foolish. For Aaron, it involved drugs: He introduced a friend to a cocaine dealer and played a minor role in two drug deals, one of which did not even go through.
For that mistake, he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
He is not alone. Nathan Pettus stole three belts from a department store. Damon Caliste stole digital cameras from Wal-Mart. Alexander Surry was in possession of a single crack rock. Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda was convicted nearly 20 years ago of marijuana possession with intent to distribute; he is now 74 years old. Timothy Tyler mailed small amounts of LSD to an undercover agent he thought was a fellow Grateful Dead fan.
All of them are serving sentences of life without parole, or LWOP. They and other nonviolent LWOP prisoners are costing U.S. taxpayers over $1.7 billion dollars more than if LWOP were not a sentencing option, according to a report (PDF) released this month by the American Civil Liberties Union. And much of that money is going to a slew of private companies that profit from mass incarceration.
LWOP is second only to the death penalty in harsh prison sentences. In much of the world and through most of U.S. history, it was meted out for only the most serious of violent offenders. Only 20 percent of countries even have LWOP sentencing, and those that do typically reserve it for murder. But LWOP sentences have skyrocketed — quadrupling in the past 20 years — with the majority of them handed out for nonviolent crimes. The rising rates have mirrored a general increase in incarceration over the past few decades, but they have been particularly influenced by tough-on-crime legislation like mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which give a judge almost no leeway in sentencing after a conviction, and three-strikes laws, which mandate life imprisonment after three felonies, even if none of them were violent. Of prisoners serving life sentences without parole, 79 percent committed nonviolent drug crimes. In the United States, 1 prisoner in 30 is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. In Pennsylvania the ratio is 1 in 10. In Louisiana it is 1 in 9.
With taxpayers shelling out billions of dollars for nonviolent offenders to languish in prison until they die and with many more offenders serving incredibly long sentences, the country’s prison system has become a cash cow, and private industry has stepped in to grab a share of it.
Just good business
The U.S. imprisons more people than any other society in the history of the world, with more than 2 million people currently behind bars, and private companies are gunning for more (PDF). The Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), just one of several private prison companies, netted $1.7 billion dollars in 2010. CCA's president and CEO, Damon Hininger, made $3.2 million in 2010. The Geo Group, another top prison company, raked in $1.2 billion and paid its CEO, George Zoley, $3.4 million the same year. The federal government and state governments across the nation funnel money into these private prisons, making them a multibillion dollar industry.
Like many other businesses, the private prison industry lobbies aggressively for its interests — not a problem in theory until you remember that its primary interest is building and filling prison beds. CCA spent more than $18 million on federal lobbying from 1999 to 2009 and nearly $1 million in 2010. From 2000 to 2010, the three biggest for-profit prison companies made more than $6 million in political contributions.
We have entirely lost perspective on what it means to deprive someone of their personal liberty for such exorbitant amounts of time.
There has been increased focus on private prisons over the past few years, particularly after a scandal in Arizona, where private prison companies stood to profit immensely from a law mandating incarceration of enormous swaths of the state's immigrant population. But it is not just private prisons that are cashing in. There is a long list of industries, individuals and institutions profiting from mass incarceration, all of which have financial incentives to imprison more people and to make sentences longer. These include private industry players such as phone companies that charge astronomical rates for prisoners to call their families, for-profit prison health care providers, commercial bail bond agents and private prison supervisors. But many other profiteers are public or government entities like public safety authorities profiting from civil forfeitures and prison guard unions.
Privatization of the American incarceration machine, with its promises to save money and promote efficiency, can sound appealing to champions of the free market. But it has not actually been shown to save money or increase efficiency. Instead it creates perverse, ugly incentives. The people running prisons like businesses operate as most business owners do: They want to make more money, get bigger and demonstrate profitability. That is not much of a problem if you are selling basic goods. It is a big one when the only way to profit is by locking more people in prison for longer terms.
A grim new normal
The ACLU report focuses on nonviolent offenders who have been formally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But those individuals are, as the ACLU's deputy legal director, Vanita Gupta, told me, "just the tip of the iceberg in terms of excessive sentencing and incarceration." Many more people are serving long prison terms — of hundreds of years — that are effectively life sentences without parole, Gupta said. "We have become inured to excessive sentencing. It's just become the new normal."
Compared with life in prison, 10 years sounds short. But think about what you were doing 10 years ago, and then imagine yourself being locked in a 6-by-8-foot cell since then. Our cultural perception of what is a long sentence has become so skewed by the ubiquity of life imprisonment and sentences of 50 years, 100 years and even multiples of 100 years that we have entirely lost perspective on what it means to deprive people of their personal liberty for such exorbitant amounts of time.
When the death penalty was suspended in the 1970s, sentencing changed dramatically as life without parole became the harshest punishment on the table. After the death penalty was reinstated, however, things did not go back; they got even more extreme. With mandatory minimum sentencing laws, judges have almost no power to hand down reasonable sentences, while prosecutors have enormous discretion in determining how long an individual goes to prison. The specter of life in prison is now routinely used in plea bargaining; after all, even 25 or 50 years behind bars is preferable to life.
The U.S. now doles out longer, harsher sentences than nearly all economically and developmentally comparable nations, but those sentences have not actually resulted in lower crime rates than our peers'. Our LWOP numbers are 173 times that of the United Kingdom and 29 that of the Netherlands — the only two European countries that even imprison offenders without parole. Our crime rates are not appreciably lower than either of those countries', and we imprison significantly more people per capita.
What have a failed drug war, a dangerous stigmatization of imprisonment and extreme sentencing norms yielded instead? A bloated prison population that churns out offenders who are at best less employable and at worst more dangerous coming out than they were going in. Communities devastated by mass incarcerations. A flagging economy struggling to keep up with the multibillion-dollar burden we have built.
Prisons will at some point effectively become geriatric holding wards for aging inmates.”
We have built, too, towns where much of the local industry revolves around prisons — communities that are now financially dependent on incarceration.
"Fifteen years ago or so, every politician fervently denied that the reason they were supporting prison laws was that they had prisons in their jurisdictions that were providing jobs," said Malcolm C. Young, the prison re-entry strategies director at Northwestern Law School's Bluhm Legal Clinic. "Since the recession, that pretense has dropped away, and you can read newspapers and see public officials quoted frequently that they want to keep a prison open because it's economically important, because of the jobs provided in their communities."
Bigger than prisons
The prison system has increasingly become a first resort in areas where other institutions used to step in. Incarceration has largely taken the place of community mental-health facilities. The sheriff of Cook County, Ill., where Young used to practice, says his jail has "effectively become the largest mental-health hospital in the country."
We use incarceration instead of treatment and rehabilitation for drug offenders, and we put in the juvenile-detention system young people who would be better served with comprehensive support. The prison system also ends up, in one way or another, catching too many individuals who have been left barely afloat in a postindustrial society, unable to rely on the prospect of working a labor job and making a reasonable living.
"It's become a very quick go-to system for a lot of other social problems like substance abuse, mental illness and the void of policymaking in immigration," Gupta said. "The criminal-justice system is not going to solve these problems and in many cases makes it worse."
The failure of other institutions to tackle social problems outside an incarceration context is a failure of political and public will. With billions of dollars going toward prisons, politicians can handily portray themselves as being tough on crime. Long-term investments in public health and community solutions are more difficult to articulate in a campaign platform and are less reducible into the sound bites we all ostensibly agree on — putting criminals behind bars, getting justice for victims, keeping our streets safe. The individuals who end up behind bars may be largely nonviolent, but they are also socially unimportant. They are disproportionately mentally ill, poor and nonwhite. (It will come as no surprise to learn that the application of LWOP has been radically prejudicial. At the federal level, nonviolent black offenders are sentenced to LWOP at 20 times the rate of their white counterparts.)
Unsustainable and unjust
Overlapping and complex influences — financial, psychological, cultural and institutional — make fixing the current system no easy task. But things may be changing, albeit slowly. People across the political spectrum are seeing that our current rates of incarceration are unsustainable, and prison reform is increasingly becoming a bipartisan issue.
The most effective solution may be the simplest: Put fewer people in jail. Tackle social problems head-on instead of simply punishing offenders. That means drug treatment and rehabilitation programs, comprehensive community-based mental-health care, social interventions for troubled youth and a realistic and humane immigration policy.
We also need to restructure sentencing procedures. An end to mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws would help, but sentencing in general needs to be reined in. To that end, we should sentence with a purpose. "We should be evaluating the extent of the damage that the individual had caused and the potential problems the individual poses to their community," said Young. "We should join other countries in recognizing that even short periods of incarceration are severe punishment."
A focus on rehabilitation and holistic solutions may also lower the crime rate, save taxpayer dollars and rebuild devastated communities. At the very least, reform of the current model, driven by data and research, would ensure that people like Clarence Aaron would not spend their entire lives in prisons that, because of life without parole policies, will at some point effectively become geriatric holding wards for aging inmates. It would curb our financial waste, and it would end our brutal indifference to the many people whose lives are destroyed by the current system.
Jill Filipovic is a lawyer and writer. She blogs at Feministe and is a weekly columnist at The Guardian. She was the recipient of a 2013 United Nations Foundation reporting fellowship in Malawi.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.