How to fight unemployment? Put 1.82 million US citizens in prison!

Peter Johnson (editor of explains the how a massive prision population of 1.8 million people affect the unemployement figures.

There has been a big fuss lately about the record unemployment levels in the United States. Unemployment in the US currently stands at 4.3%. But this figure deserves closer examination. First of all, a large proportion of the new jobs being created are not quality jobs with healthcare and retirement benefits, and long-term job security. Rather they are what have come to be known as "McJobs". These are often "flexible", short-term or contract positions for which the employers pay no benefits. Suffice it to say that Manpower, Inc., a temporary employment agency, is the fastest growing employer in the country. Women and youth are the main targets of these exploitative jobs, as the idea of "flexibility" appeals to them. Gone are the days of providing for your family by holding down one quality job for life. At the present time, not only do multiple members of a household have to find work in order to make ends meet, but many Americans have to work two and even three jobs at a time! This leaves no time for family, continued education, cultural and community events, involvement in politics, travel, etc. Many American workers get home from job #1, take a shower and a half-hour nap, then head to job #2. After that, they eat a flavorless, pre-prepared dinner and go to sleep for a few hours, only to continue the exact same cycle the following day. The impressive unemployment figures conceal the reality of the situation - the fact that many of these "jobs" are not even worth having.

Another factor which needs to be looked at is the appalling number of Americans who are not searching for employment because they are prevented from doing so by the state - in other words, they are behind bars. In Marxist terms, the state is a tool of class repression, and in the final analysis can be reduced to "armed bodies of men". This includes the military, police, prisons, and bureaucracy, etc., which run and maintain it. In terms of incarcerating its own citizens, the United States stands alone among industrialized "democracies". According to the Justice Department, from 1971 to 1997, the US prison and jail population grew from fewer than 200,000 to a whopping 1.74 million. Since then, the incarcerated population has risen 4.6 percent, or 80,400 inmates to 1.82 million inmates on December 31, 1998. This means that one in 149 Americans is behind bars. This is roughly equivalent to the entire population of Houston, Texas, the country's fourth largest city, and twice as much as the population of San Francisco. The US prison population, which has doubled every 10 years, has increased ten-fold in a little over a quarter century. The US makes a big deal over human rights abuses in China and elsewhere, yet there are half a million more Americans in prison than in China - which has a population nearly five times as large!

When compared to other similarly developed countries, the uniqueness of the US position is even more glaring. In 1995, the most recent year for which comparative figures are available, the US imprisonment rate was 600 per 100,000 citizens. The average for other similarly developed nations was between 55 to 120 per 100,000. Japan had a rate of just 36 per 100,000. Even those countries closest to our levels, Spain and the United Kingdom were far below us - at a rate roughly one-sixth of ours, with Holland and Scandinavia around one-tenth. We are also alone amongst "advanced" nations in our extreme use of the death penalty. This barbaric act needs to be fought against and abolished. A state which does not represent the interests of the majority, should not have the power to take the life of one of its citizens, as this power can easily be abused, as has been done in the past.

Also disturbing are the figures for minority groups. In 1997, the year for which the most recent ethnic breakdown is available, the federal and state prison population was 49 percent black. By the mid-1990s about one-third of all young black men were either in jail or prison, parole or probation, or under pre-trial release. The number of Hispanic prisoners has also quintupled since 1980 alone. The situation for incarcerated women has not improved either. From 1970 to 1996 the female inmate population grew thirteenfold - from around 5,600 to 75,000. Of course, if you are black and female, the situation is even worse. The prison incarceration rate for black women has exceeded that for white men ever since 1980.

The fastest growing segment of the prison population is those sentenced for drug-related crimes. The drug trade is a violent and exploitative business, and drugs such as heroin and cocaine target the working class and youth, and are even introduced by the police themselves in order to breed further ignorance and violence amongst the population - especially among minorities. While we are not in favor of the legalization of drugs, we must fight against their criminalization as well. The "war on drugs" has really done nothing to stop the influx of drugs to this country, but it has done wonders for the police in their efforts to put more minorities and youth behind bars - minor offences often carry sentences of up to ten years!

The living conditions in US prisons have also deteriorated drastically. The inmates have to suffer not only from abusive guards, but they are crowded like sardines with other, often extremely violent prisoners. State prisons are operating at a 13 to 22 percent over-capacity, while federal prisons are 27 percent over capacity. This is an appalling abuse of their basic rights as human beings.

Also amazing is the fact that prison labor continues to be used in this country. More than 30 states have legalized the use of prison labor by private companies. This is extremely poorly paid labor with no union rights, overtime, vacation, health or other long-term benefits. Prisoners are used to make license plates, do telemarketing, book airline tickets, even to help ship Bill Gates' Windows software. Incredibly, there are still even chain gangs in some states. There has also been a move towards the privatization of prisons, as it can be quite a lucrative business. In Ohio, Honda pays inmates $2 an hour to do a job for which UAW workers were paid $20.

The bottom line is that these men and women, were they on the "outside", would be part of the "official" labor force. They would be in need of employment, searching for work, or would have to be added to the unemployment rolls if there was no work available. By keeping this astonishing number of people out of the official labor pool, the unemployment figures are artificially lowered. Of course, the maintenance of the prisons requires large amounts of public expenditure - money which could otherwise be used for education, healthcare, public works and job creation, or other social investment. This would help reduce the number of "criminals" by changing the conditions which lead to crime - poverty, ignorance, discrimination, etc. Of course in the corrupt, bureaucratic, repressive, and shortsighted system of government we now live under, their solution is to throw more people in the slammer (even if there is no more room) instead of addressing the causes of the people's desperation. And the reason they take this approach is because there is no other way that they can deal with it. There is simply no solution to this problem under capitalism. Only when the resources, technology, and knowledge of humanity are put to use for the common good will the conditions which breed crime be eliminated. And this can only come about under socialism.

As socialists we need to demand an end to the unconscionable imprisonment of so many potentially productive members of society and abolish the savage practice of state-sponsored executions - the death penalty. We need to demand an end to the exploitative practice of prison labor, and to the inhumane, over-crowded conditions in the prison system. Most importantly, we need to demand quality jobs for all, with benefits, paid vacations, healthcare and lifelong educational opportunities.