The Fifty First State: Lockdown USA

By Ziedenberg, Jason | Canadian Dimension, May-June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Fifty First State: Lockdown USA

Ziedenberg, Jason, Canadian Dimension

It doesn't have a name. You won't find it on any map. Yet it is the fastest-growing state in the Republic. It contains more people than the population of six Canadian provinces. The state consumes over $32 billion (U.S.) of public funds every year and yields profits for multinational corporations in the hundred of billions.

Welcome to America's prison-state. Currently, 1.7 million people are behind bars south of the border. The U.S. incarceration rate is six times that of Canada, and only Russia incarcerates more people (China may have more people behind bars, but the government doesn't release that kind of info). A "prison-industrial complex" is effectively replacing the military-industrial complex as the new government-subsidized political economy in the U.S., including a triangle of business interests and prison-guard unions, the media and politicians. In this new economy, people are the raw materials. The prison-state is America's 1990s answer to the Cold War for a nation grappling to find a sense of purpose. Instead of searching out a communist threat abroad, the "war against crime" has found scapegoats for a new generation at home. In this way, every African-American is a suspect, every child a "superpredator," and every critic of the prison expansion is marginalized as "soft on crime." And while the poor and minorities have fared worst under the politics of massive incarceration, no part of the American experience remains untouched by the lockdown.

Building the complex: selling the fear

America is afraid of violent crime and will do whatever it takes to protect itself. But the process by which the fear of crime was generated tells the real political story about the prison state.

The U.S. violent crime rate has edged up ever so slightly for the last 25 years, and hasn't changed all that much since the founding of the Republic. In 1974, for example, there were 20,000 murders, and less then 300,000 people in prison. By the end of 1997, there were roughly 22,000-23,000 murders, with 1.7 million people behind bars. (Homicide was the eleventh-leading cause of death in America in 1952. Today, it is tenth.) The statistics on other violent crimes, like rape, aggravated assault and robbery, show they have generally stayed in pace with U.S. population growth - even as incarceration rates have soared.

While crime has not grown, coverage of crime has reached a new plateau. Starting in the late 1960s, the media, led by television, discovered that crime was cheap to cover and captured an audience. Soon, every act violence became "a trend," no matter what was really going on with the real rate of arrests, and was amplified by the camera lens. The real decline in violent crime over the last few years has unmasked the profound way the media affects perception. Since 1993, the number of murder arrests have dropped nationally by 20 per cent. But during that same time, coverage of murder on the major nightly newscasts increased an astonishing 721 per cent.

As 65 per cent of Americans say when polled, that they learn of violent crime solely through the media, not through first-hand experience, it is easy to see how they could come to place fear of crime as their top concern - even though few will ever be victimized.

Politicians have smelled the fear and shaped the crime soundbite to dominate the political discourse. Crime policy drives every election, from president to dog catcher. The Right (and not-so- Right) have played the crime card to win elections across the country, and drive other issues, like unemployment and health care off the agenda.

The big contests of 1994, which saw Republicans sweep the country, also show the gap between fictional fears and the new political facts. In the last Texas gubernatorial election, Gov. Anne Richards was defeated by a Republican for being "soft on crime," even though she built more prisons cells then all her predecessors combined. As President, Bill Clinton introduced a crime bill that would help the federal system grow - in a time of violent crime decline. …

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