If the U.S. Public Knew about Its Prisons

Article excerpt

Of all the developments in 12 years of Reagan and Bush, one of the least known is the astonishing increase of people in prison. The number of federal prisoners more than tripled, from 24,500 to 80,259. The total number of prisoners grew from 329,821 in 1980 to 883,593 in 1992 - an increase of 167.9 percent.

The upward trend has not leveled off despite mounting criticism. In 1992, federal prisoners increased by 8,651, while there were 50,809 additional state prisoners. This translates into a need for 1,143 new prison beds each week. In 1990, more people were admitted to prisons for drug offenses than for property crimes.

All these factors make melancholy reading in a recent study by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

Among the reasons for this increase is the abolition of parole by the federal government and several states, and the enactment of more laws requiring a mandatory sentence. There are now almost 100 federal laws whose violation requires a mandatory jail sentence.

Another reason is the increase in the number of federal prosecutors in the Reagan years.

Federal officials, moreover, in the 1980s concentrated on catching street criminals and putting drug users in prison. Although the framers of the Constitution and the conservative tradition in America never contemplated the federal government getting into local and neighborhood crime, the White House in the 1980s introduced that new and dangerous direction in law enforcement.

The United States with a ratio of 455 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants and almost 1 million persons behind bars, can claim the distinction of being the world leader in both categories. In 40 states and the District of Columbia, courts have ruled that jail conditions violate federal or state constitutions.

Women have a particularly difficult time in prison. The numbers, now 6 percent of the total, have since 1980 been growing at a greater rate than men. New York is the only state that allows women to keep their babies with them in jail.

A 303-page book, Global Report on Prisons, recently published by the Human Rights Watch, reveals the grim conditions in prisons around the world. …