by The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown 3/27/95

The least controversial observation that one can make about American criminal justice today is that it is remarkably ineffective, absurdly expensive, grossly inhumane, and riddled with discrimination. The beating of Rodney King was a reminder of the ruthlessness and racism that characterize many big city police departments. But the other aspects of the justice system, especially sentencing practices and prison conditions, are every bit as harsh and unfair.(1)

The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML) was founded in 1985 to fight against the brutality of the United States Penitentiary at Marion. In 1987, we wrote that by the year 2000 the U.S. might have 1,000,000 people in prison. At that time U.S. prisons held 561,000 people, and most of our friends thought the notion of 1,000,000 prisoners was foolish.

In the Fall of 1994, the U.S. announced that it sent its millionth human being to prison in June,(2) more than five years sooner than the projection that was considered foolish just a few years ago. What we would like to do in this paper is examine the growth of imprisonment in the U.S. We will then analyze the nature of crime, and then the relationship between crime and imprisonment. Since crime and imprisonment are in fact not closely related, we will conclude the article by discussing why the U.S. is sending so many people to prison.


In addition to a million people in prison there are those in jails (about 500,000), those on parole (about 600,000), those on probation (about 3,000,000) and those in juvenile facilities (about 100,000).(3) It is difficult to grasp the enormity of these numbers. For example, the number of people in prison would comprise the 9th largest city in the U.S. The number of people who are incarcerated in jails and prisons is greater than the number of people who live in 13 states.(4) The number of people under the control of the "criminal" "justice" system is almost two times larger than the number of people who live in Nicaragua, or Chicago. The number of people in the U.S. who were arrested last year (14,000,000) is much larger than the population of Cuba.

Placing a million human beings in prison is an extraordinary landmark, the number of prisoners today being about five times larger than it was 20 years ago. This growth has more than kept up with the population. Between 1925 (when official imprisonment statistics were first organized) and 1971, the imprisonment rate remained on the order of about 100 per 100,000. Then, in 1972, the imprisonment rate began to soar and is still soaring. Figure 1 shows this trend. Today the imprisonment rate is 373 (per 100,000 population), almost four times higher than it was in 1972.(5)


In 1991 the Sentencing Project, an independent organization based in Washington D.C., issued a report authored by Marc Mauer, its assistant director, entitled "Americans Behind Bars: A Comparison of International Rates of Incarceration." (6) The report, which used data from 1989 and 1990, found that the U.S. had the highest incarceration rate in the world (426) compared to a distant second South Africa (333) and third, the Soviet Union (268).(7)

Incredibly, when the report was revised using data from one year later, the gap had widened,(8) and was wider still one year later.(9) In 1992 the U.S. had an incarceration rate of 519 compared to South Africa's rate of 368. Furthermore, in 1990 the incarceration rate for Black men in the U.S. was 3,109 compared to 729 for Black men in South Africa. In 1992 this differential had increased: the rates were, respectively, 3,822 and 851. Thus, in 1990 the incarceration rate for Black men in the U.S. was 4.3 times greater than the rate for Black men in South Africa. Two years later that ratio had increased to 4.5.

Table 1 provides some of the incarceration rates assembled by Mauer. Among other observations, it is interesting to note that the competition between Washington, D.C. and Moscow continues as the newly formed country of Russia has just overtaken the U.S. as the country with the highest imprisonment rate in the world.

Table 1. Incarceration Rates (Number of People in Prisons and Jails, per 100,000 Population) for Selected Countries, 1992-1993 (10)

Country	Rate of Incarceration	
Australia	91       Mexico		   97
Belgium		71	 Netherlands       49
Brazil	        84	 Portugal          93
Canada	       116	 Russia		  558
Denmark		66	 South Africa	  368
England/Wales	93	 Sweden		   69
France		84	 Switzerland	   85
Germany		80	 United States	  519
Italy	        80	 Thailand         159


Consider the racial nature of imprisonment in the U.S.. Using U.S. Census and other estimates derived from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, we have calculated imprisonment rates (we are now using only people in prison for these calculations) as of June,1994. These are shown in Table 2.

Table 2. Imprisonment Rates in the United States, 1994

Group		          Rate		   Compared to White Rate 
Total 			   373			   2.1
White People	           176			   1.0
Hispanic People	           686			   3.9
Black People	          1489    		   8.5
We can see from the table that Black people are 8.5 times more likely and that Hispanic people are 3.9 times more likely to go to prison than are White people.

Further examination of these statistics reveals the depth of their meaning. For example, if instead of the usual per 100,000 people, we employ percentages (per 100 people), we see that 1.489% of all Black people (and 0.176% of all White people) will be in prison at any given moment. Using census data we can calculate related figures: 3.0% of all Black males will be in prison on a given day in 1994 as will 6.0% of all Black men aged 18-44 and 7.6% of all Black men aged 25-29.

We can also consider some other research findings:


A new "crime" bill has just been passed by Congress. This bill will render the horrific numbers discussed above small by comparison. In addition to adding scores of new crimes punishable by the death penalty, the goals of this new "crime initiative" involve: placing 100,000 more police on the streets; increasing conviction rates; increasing the proportion of convictions resulting in imprisonment; requiring those imprisoned to serve at least 85% of their sentences ("truth in sentencing"); and incarcerating "three- time losers" for the rest of their lives.

Political scientists and criminologists have started to estimate the impact that this bill will have on imprisonment. John Irwin and James Austin, two criminologists who often prepare publications for the prestigious National Council on Crime and Delinquency, have estimated in their new book entitled 'It's About Time' (16) that a package of laws such as those included in the new crime bill would result in over 9 times as many people being imprisoned. Thus, if we multiply by 9 the 6.0% noted above, we see that well over half of all Black men aged 18-44 would be in prison on any given day if all projected aspects of the new "crime initiative" are implemented. Irwin and Austin note similarly: "[The Crime Bill] would mean that most of the nation's 5.5 million black males aged 18-39 would be incarcerated."(17) Other estimates of the potential impact of the crime bill have suggested a smaller but still devastating impact.(18)

There is much that is speculative about this estimate, and that must remain so given the unfolding details of the new crime bill. Other specifics would have to be taken into consideration to refine the estimates above, such as estimating the impact of an aging prison population, determining how much of the "crime" bill will actually be funded, etc. Whatever these refinements, the numbers will remain staggering. Never before has any society at any time used imprisonment in this fashion. The impact that this will have on the Black community is difficult even to fathom.


Much has been written about the financing of the "criminal" "justice" system (CJS). Just a few figures here will suffice. Funding for the CJS has increased seven-fold over the past 20 years, from $10 billion to $74 billion a year, with $25 billion spent for incarceration.(19) This, however, is all spare change compared to what may follow, depending upon which aspects of the new crime bill are implemented. For example, it has been estimated that the "three-time loser" provision itself will cost $5.7 billion annually and require an additional $21 billion in prison construction costs.20 It has also been estimated that the crime bill could cost as much as an extra $351 billion over the next ten years.(21)

Since not many of us have this much money in our pockets, or even in our bank accounts, let's try to understand just how much it really is. It costs much more to send a person to prison for a year than it does to send that person to Harvard. In fact, it costs more to send a person to prison than it would to support a family of four. Interestingly, about 300,000 families of four or 1.2 million people could live for what it will cost just to implement the new three-time loser laws. Noting the surging hunger in the U.S., the Bread for the World Institute has just determined that $10 billion would be enough to expand the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food program to assure that there were no longer any hungry people in this category.(22) This is less than two years of payments for the three-time loser law. Or, consider this. According to a report from the American Bar Association,(23) all the state taxes of 18 average taxpayers in Delaware are required to keep one person in prison for a year; and the money spent to build a prison in Wisconsin would pay for 11,000 children to attend Head Start.



This is not as simple a question as it appears. For example, there is the street crime that breaks the law and that sometimes results in imprisonment. But most crime does not result in imprisonment, nor is it even considered crime. For example, domestic violence, or the battering of women, is almost never seen as a crime -- even though it is estimated that 3 - 4,000,000 women a year in the U.S. are battered by their mates.(24) Waging war is not considered criminal even though the war against Iraq murdered about 500,000 Iraqis. Denying people health care, food or housing also isn't a crime. And it is not a crime to manufacture and sell cigarettes, which each year kill 20 times as many people as guns. We make these points to emphasize that whatever the relationship between crime and imprisonment, it doesn't involve any of these issues.


There are two main ways that street crime is measured in the U.S. The first is with the Uniform Crime Report (UCR). This is computed by adding together the major crimes that are reported to the police who in turn report to the F.B.I. who in turn publish the findings. The other measure of crime comes from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). About 20 years ago it became clear that only a proportion of crimes are actually reported to the police and that if we wanted a more accurate count, we would have to conduct scientific surveys of the population and ask people if they had been victims of crime. This is what the NCVS does.

Since the UCR and the NCVS measure crime in different ways, they present different views of crime. For example, the UCR only contains crimes that are reported to the police, by some estimates only 40% of the total. (In 1992 there were about 34,000,000 crimes reported to the NCVS and 13,000,000 to the UCR.)25 On the other hand, the NCVS does not include the crime murder (since its victim can't report it) nor crimes for which there is no reporting victim, like most drug-related crimes. Also not included are all white collar crimes, like the savings and loan frauds, and much more.

Let's look at each. But first let's look at murder since this is the easiest to measure and thus is the crime we know most about. About 25,000 people were murdered in the U.S. last year. As Figure 2 shows, the murder rate in the U.S. was about 10 (per 100,000 population) in 1930 and about 10 in 1990 -- almost no change at all in 60 years.26 Similarly, the murder rate in 1993 (9.3) was just about what it was in 1973 (9.4).(27)


Figures 3 and 4 show crime that is measured by the NCVS. As you can see, since 1973, when the NCVS was initiated,(28) the index of all NCVS crimes has decreased rather steadily while the violent crime index has stayed constant. Figures 5 and 6 show crime that is measured by the UCR, also since 1973. Here an uneven pattern of increases and decreases is present for all crimes while violent crimes increased steadily and dramatically.(29,30)


Few matters are as clear as the answer to the question: Is there a relationship between crime and imprisonment?" Virtually everyone, from criminologists to wardens to social scientists to specially appointed task forces, answers the question the same way: "No." We would like to sketch just some of the arguments which illustrate this lack of relationship.

  1. Let us consider the data presented above. We can see that over the past 20 years one measure of crime (the NCVS) has decreased by 26% and the other measure (the UCR) has increased about 47%, and the imprisonment rate has increased by 200%. In addition, consider the fact that the UCR (Figure 4) decreased from 1980 to 1985 and then increased about the same amount between 1985 and 1990. These changes took place while imprisonment rates spiralled equally upward during both of these intervals (Figure 1). When all of this is added together, it is clear that putting enormous numbers of people into prison has not reduced the crime rate. A recent report from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency(31) presents these data in a summary form that is reproduced here in Table 3.

    Table 3. Changes in Correctional Populations Between 1980 and 1990.

    Population           1980		      1990		     % Change
    Probation	  1,118,097	            2,670,234		      139
    Jails		    163,994	              403,019		      146
    Prisons		    329,821	              771,243		      134
    Parole		    220,438	              531,403		      141
    Total             1,832,350	            4,375,903		      139
    UCR Index Crimes 13,400,000	           14,500,000	     	        8
  2. Consider the funnel effect, which demonstrates why most crimes don't even come into contact with the criminal justice system. Joan Petersilia, former president of the American Society of Criminology, and an employee of the conservative Rand Corporation, in an article entitled "Building More Prison Cells Won't Make a Safer Society," notes: "Of the approximately 34 million serious felonies in 1990, 31 million never entered the criminal justice system because they were either unreported or unsolved." Thus, she continues, only 10% of all crime ever entered the courts, about half of these resulted in convictions, and about a third of these resulted in imprisonment -- less than 2% of the total amount of crime.(32)
  3. Over half of all murders are committed by people known to the victim. In addition, virtually all murder is committed in fits of passion that are immune to rational consideration of consequences. We are not saying that murderers should not be incarcerated. We are saying that incarceration will not prevent murders. Similarly, it has been demonstrated again and again that the death penalty does not deter murder. These latter observations are illustrated by the data in Figure 2, which shows that the murder rate has remained more-or-less constant over the past 60 years, through periods of little imprisonment and through periods of massive imprisonment; through periods of the use of the death penalty and through periods when the death penalty was not used.
  4. Consider the question of supply. There is a virtually unlimited supply of people who will commit crimes associated with drugs. As soon as one person is removed from the labor market, another replaces him or her. Prisons will never be able to dent this supply.
  5. Virtually all experts agree that prisons cause people to become even more deeply embedded in a life of crime. Recidivism rates are over 50% within three years in most states.(33,34)
  6. The following comments are by people in the field who one would expect to be supportive of imprisonment. Thus their denials of the impact of imprisonment on crime merit attention:


We have examined imprisonment, crime, and the relationship between the two. What can a reasonable person conclude?

Elliot Currie has written an insightful book on crime and imprisonment.(40) In this book, Currie poses the question why the U.S. keeps pumping billions of dollars into the CJS, which everyone, he acknowledges, knows doesn't work: "Ifwe know as much about crime as I think we do, why haven't we already acted on that knowledge more consistently and constructively."(41) In other words, Currie is asking why the U.S. continues to pursue imprisonment strategies that don't work. The only answer that Currie can find for his question is that the U.S. doesn't understand what the research is showing. This is an extraordinary answer which shows where liberals must wind up on such a question. Here is a system that is spending $74 billion a year and Currie thinks it acts the way it does because it cannot find someone to explain what the research is saying. Let us try another possible answer.

Currie and many others get stuck and can move no further because they assume that the purpose of the criminal justice system is to prevent crime. Consider a quote from another leading liberal in "criminal" "justice" reform, Norval Morris, a professor of law at the University of Chicago who has written excellent articles and books critiquing the CJS: "The whole law-and-order movement that we've heard so much about is, in operation, anti-black and anti-underclass. Not in plan, not in design, not in intent, but in operation."(42) Thus, also according to Morris, the direction of the CJS is an accident.

If liberal critics of the CJS would just turn the problem around and not ask why the CJS fails at its stated purpose but rather ask what purposes a system like this could have, then they could find an answer. Let us examine Table 4 which presents the characteristics of the CJS that have been established above:

Table 4. Characteristics of the "Criminal" "Justice" System

We would suggest that a system with these characteristics might be seen, not as a crime prevention system, but as a system whose foremost purpose is to control of people of color. Remember what events preceded the growth in imprisonment that started in 1972. That year followed in the midst of the F.B.I.'s COINTELPRO program; the assassination of dozens of leaders of the Black Liberation Movement and the imprisoning of hundreds more; the assassination of George Jackson on August 21, 1971; and the rebellion at Attica on September 9 - 13, 1971. Then just a few months later, the imprisonment rate started to spiral upwards, and has not yet stopped doing so. Furthermore, 1972 was also the year that the first Control Unit was opened -- as one wing of the U.S. Penitentiary at Marion.

When this historical context is added to the statistics about crime and imprisonment and the rampant racism of U.S. society, it seems clear that the hypothesis that prisons are institutions for control of people of color is a far more viable one than the notion that prisons are an effort to prevent crime. In fact, the only support for the latter hypothesis would appear to be the assertions of some of those who run the prison system and politicians.

It seems worthwhile to elaborate on this point. There is no viable evidence that prisons prevent crime. There is an abundance of evidence, a small proportion of it presented above, that prisons don't and can't prevent crime. In addition, every serious analyses of the history of incarceration reveal the same historical thrust: prisons and other systems of punishment are for social control, not crime control. For example, in 1939 Rusche and Kirchheimer wrote a very important book showing that the systems of imprisonment throughout history were simply reflections of the economic systems that existed at given times. These systems were not about crime prevention; they were about the relations of production.(43) Foucault, in his seminal book, Discipline & Punish, has shown that the evolution of state punishment had little to do with crime and everything to do with the exertion of the state to maintain its power: " . . . one would be forced to suppose that the prison, and no doubt punishment in general, is not intended to eliminate offences, but rather to distinguish them, to distribute them, to use them"(44) or: "We are aware of all the inconveniences of prison, and that it is dangerous when it is not useless. And yet one cannot 'see' how to replace it. It is the detestable solution, which one seems unable to do without."(45)

CEML belives that one of the main functions of progressive struggle is to counter the prevailing ideology. If this is correct, then fighting to establish the real purpose of the "criminal" "justice" system is meaningful work. At the same time, it is not easy work, to say the least. Many progressive publications show no understanding of or interest in these issues. We in CEML have often posed the slogan "Not One More Cell," only to be opposed by other progressive people. When we have asked why they disagree, they note that crime is a serious problem and we have to offer some solutions. We couldn't agree more that crime is a serious problem, and that solutions are needed. But prisons have nothing to do with preventing crime. They haven't; they don't; and they can't -- ever. Until we all understand this and have the courage to put forward the notion that we need real solutions, not diversions which are nothing more than racist attacks on people of color, we will not be able to move our pursuits for a human society any further.

This gives us still one more reason to fight against law and order hysteria and the racist use of imprisonment in our society. Rather than devoting our resources and energies to proven failed strategies like the use of massive imprisonment, we should instead pursue those strategies which will build a truly human society and thus prevent crime. These strategies include struggling to eliminate white supremacy and poverty while building an economy that meets human needs rather than the desires of profiteers. Rather than creating a nation of prisons we should be allowing the emergence of a nation of human beings.

 The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown
P.O. Box 578172
Chicago, IL 60657-8172
(312) 235-0070 

  1. David J. Rothman. The Crime of Punishment. New York Review of Books, February 17, 1994, p 34-38.
  2. New York Times, October 28, 1994, p 1.
  3. Projections based upon the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 1993, Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Section 6, 1994.
  4. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1992, Washington, D.C.: Bureau of the Census, 1993.
  5. New York Times, 1994; Sourcebook, p 600.
  6. Marc Mauer, Americans Behind Bars: A Comparison of International Rates of Incarceration, The Sentencing Project, Washington, D,C. 1991.
  7. In order to allow for international comparability Mauer used rates which included people in jails plus those in prison, since many countries do not make distinctions between these two groups. We call this the incarceration rate. In the U.S., where there are important distinctions between jails and prisons, it is more common to use only the number of people in prison when calculating rates. We follow this convention in this paper and call this the imprisonment rate. 8 Marc Mauer, Americans Behind Bars: One Year Later, The Sentencing Project, Washington, D,C. 1992. 9 Marc Mauer, Americans Behind Bars: The International Use of Incarceration, 1992-93 ,The Sentencing Project, Washington, D,C. 1994. 10 ibid
  8. Mauer, 1994
  9. Patrick Langan and Lawrence Greenfield. Prevalence of Imprisonment. Washington D.C.: US Department of Justice, 1985.
  10. Chicago Tribune, September 23, 1990, p 1.
  11. Jerome G. Miller, Search and Destroy: The Plight of African American Males in the Criminal Justice System, Alexandria, VA: National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, 1992.
  12. Jerome G. Miller, Hobbling a Generation, Alexandria, VA: National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, 1992.
  13. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1993.
  14. Ibid, p 161
  15. James Austin and Barry Krisberg, Press Release, NCCD, San Francisco, CA, 1994
  16. Sourcebook, p 2-3.
  17. Mauer, 1994
  18. Austin and Krisberg, 1994. Interestingly, all of these costs are notable underestimates as the plagues of the U.S. in the 20th century, AIDS and TB, enter and spread in the prisons. Even the U.S. prison system will be forced to deal with some allocation of funds for medications and hospitalizations for these epidemics, as well as for the increasingly aging population of people who will never be let out. 22 Chicago Tribune, October 14, 1994, p 7.
  19. Lynn S. Branham, The Use of Incarceration in the United States, American Bar Association, 1992, p 21-22.
  20. Heather Bruce. "Clinton disburses domestic violence grants. The Boston Globe, March 22, 1995, page 21.
  21. Sourcebook, p 247, 352.
  22. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, Vol 41, May 1992
  23. James Austin and Marc Mauer, "Crime Explosion" is a Myth. USA Today, January 27, 1994.
  24. Sourcebook, p 247.
  25. Sourcebook, p 352.
  26. The UCR is measured by the number of crimes per 100,000 population. The NCVS is measured by the number of crimes per 1,000 people age 12 and older. Thus, although the patterns between these two measures may be compared, their magnitudes are not comparable.
  27. James Austin and John Irwin. Does Imprisonment Reduce Crime? San Francisco: National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 1993, p 5.
  28. Petersilia Joan. Building More Prison Cells Won't Make a Safer Society. Corrections Today, 1992, p 170-171.
  29. Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Americans Behind Bars, New York, 1992.
  30. Elliott Currie. Confronting Crime. New York: Pantheon Press, 1985, p 76-81.
  31. Cristy Visher. Incapacitation and Crime Control: Does a Lock 'Em Up Strategy Reduce Crime? Justice Quarterly, 4, 513 - 543, 1987, p 519.
  32. Currie, Confronting Crime, p 349-350.
  33. Morris Thigpen. The Atlanta Constitution, June 26, 1989.
  34. Jill Smolow. Lock 'Em Up and Throw Away the Key. Time, February, 7, 1984 p 55.
  35. The 1993 Criminal Justice Crisis Index, Washington, D.C., Justice Fellowship, 1993, p 10.
  36. Currie, Confronting Crime
  37. ibid, p 18
  38. Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1990.
  39. G. Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer. Punishment and Social Structures. New York: Columbia University Press,1939.
  40. Michel Foucault. Discipline & Punish. New York: Vintage Books, 1979, p 272.
  41. ibid, p 232.

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