Skip to content or view mobile version

Home | Mobile | Editorial | Mission | Privacy | About | Contact | Help | Security | Support

A network of individuals, independent and alternative media activists and organisations, offering grassroots, non-corporate, non-commercial coverage of important social and political issues.

State of the Prison System

Otis L. Cavers | 27.04.2005 01:32 | Anti-racism | Repression | London | World

The city's first jail was a 7-by 5-foot cage built in 1693 for the detention of miscreants. Criminals convicted of minor offenses were sentenced to banishment, branding and public whipping. Charges such as counterfeiting, treason, spying, desertion from the Army, burglary, robbery, piracy, rape, sodomy and murder were considered capital offenses, and convicts were subject to execution by hanging.

All the world's a prison
All the world's a prison

The US is a prison
The US is a prison


Some of us are more locked up than others.
Some of us are more locked up than others.

i.e. you may be out there in 'minimum security' ?
i.e. you may be out there in 'minimum security' ?

But are as likely to go to prison as anyone else these days.
But are as likely to go to prison as anyone else these days.

The war on terrorism which builds upon and aggravates
The war on terrorism which builds upon and aggravates

the war on racism of "the war on drugs," is (also) an abject failure.
the war on racism of "the war on drugs," is (also) an abject failure.

Like Melampus, I can hear the worms in the edifice of the World Prison;
Like Melampus, I can hear the worms in the edifice of the World Prison;

They are discussing how thoroughly they have undermined its structure
They are discussing how thoroughly they have undermined its structure

US: According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 2.3 million men and women are now behind bars in the United States. Yes, the country that touts itself as the "land of the free" and the champion of freedom around the world incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any other country.

The human cost–wasted lives, wrecked families, troubled children–are incalculable, as are the adverse social, economic and political consequences of weakened communities, diminished opportunities for economic mobility, and extensive disenfranchisement.

African-American males are the most jailed gender of any nation or ethnicity in the world. Yet, the increasing power of a growing prison industry promises to incarcerate even higher proportions of African-American males in the future.

This burgeoning prison industry--boosted by a phalanx of callous politicians, stagnant local economies, media images of the black male as a criminal, and the inability of masses of young African-American males to overcome harsh socio-economic surroundings--promises to increase both the absolute numbers and proportion of African-American males held behind bars for the foreseeable future.

The prison industry is in the process of an even more dramatic expansion.

Private firms now own prisons and utilize their inmates as a labor force. This source of cheap labor is fed by harsher prison sentencing and mandatory incarceration under the "Three-Strikes law." As prisons become a bigger business, it's easy to see how convenient and lucrative such laws can be for those who own the prisons and its prisoners.

A Brief History of American Prisons

It's important to understand a little about the history of the American prison system in order to better understand its impact on today's communities and economy. The rise of prisons as agencies for punishing convicted offenders was a slow and gradual process that extended over several centuries, from crude beginnings in the 16th century.

While the most important ideas and practices that led to the establishment of prisons were associated with the American Quakers, there were early European strivings in this direction, which should be noted. The enclosure of peasant farming land in late medieval England greatly increased the number of paupers and vagrants, and the earliest institutions that may be regarded as forerunners of the modern prison were crude local structures employed to confine unruly vagrants. What was, perhaps, the first was opened in London, England in 1557.

A number of others were established during the course of the next half-century, and these early English institutions were known as Bridewells, from St. Bride's Well (circa London, England) the site of the institution created in 1557.

The closing of the English monasteries by Henry VIII, as a phase of the English Reformation, increased the number of vagrants and the need for more Bridewells. These were the earliest workhouses or houses of correction. They had concrete rooms, or large open dormitories, without any separate rooms or cells.
The movement to established workhouses for the poor spread throughout the continent of Europe, especially Holland and Germany, following 1560.

The first north European workhouse that took on the outstanding characteristics of the modern prison--cellular confinement and the use of hard work as a disciplinary and reformative measure--was that erected by Hippolyte Vilain at Ghent Belgium, in 1773. Another influence stimulating the origins of the prison was the Christian humanitarianism of the Catholic Church. Fillipo Franci, a Catholic humanitarian in Florence, set up a small workhouse for recalcitrant and vagrant boys around 1650.

This achievement was warmly praised by the great Benedictine scholar, Dom Jean Mabillon. The work of Franci and Mabillon is thought to have inspired the creation of the papal prison for delinquent boys, opened in Rome in 1704 by Pope Clement XI, as a section of the Hospital of Saint Michael. Another prison was built there for women in 1735. The hospital itself had a long history, going back as far as 1582.

The movement for a more humane body of criminal law, as aspect of the 18th-century period of enlightenment, also encouraged the rise of prisons.

The greatest figure here was Cesare Beccaria, who published his famous "Essay on Crime and Punishments" in 1764. In this, he argued vigorously for the abolition of brutal crime codes, with their multiplicity of capital crimes and barbarous corporal punishments.

The English reformer, John Howard, who was stimulated by both Beccaria's ideas and his own experience with the terrible conditions in British jails and prison thugs at the time, took up the battle to reform the English criminal law and to erect better jails.

Howard twice visited the papal prison at Saint Michael. In 1779, aided by Sir William Blackstone and Sir William Eden, Howard succeeded in getting the English Parliament to pass an act to establish "penitentiary houses," based on the idea of cellular confinement and the employment of prisoners. Although this law was never systematically carried out, several improved local jails and penitentiary houses, containing cells, were constructed.

The first to be built were the two constructed on the cellular pattern by the Duke of Richmond in Sussex (England) in 1775 and 1781. The most important was that erected at Wymondham in Norfolk, in 1785, under the direction of Sir Thomas Beevor. This provided for solitary confinement in cells, for the segregation of the sexes, and for hard labor by inmates.

It had considerable influence on American reformers, for it was studied by the Philadelphia Prison Society and warmly commended by them in a pamphlet published in 1790.

The building of prisons also aroused the interest of the great British legal and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham, and he worked out a plan for a circular prison with outside cells, which became famous in history under the name of the "Panopticon," or "inspection-house" because of the ease with which the whole institution could be observed from a central position within.

Bentham derived the idea from the plan of a factory designed for easy supervision. He first outlined his architectural plan in 1791. No Panopticon was constructed in England, though the Millbank prison, on which construction started in 1812, was so designed that all the cells could be seen from a central position within the institution.

A few Panopticon prisons, with modifications of Bentham's original plan, were erected on the continent in the early 19th century. The only truly circular prison erected in the United States was the first Western Penitentiary of Pennsylvania, opened in 1826.

This reflected fairly faithfully the Panopticon layout, but the walls of the cells were so thick and the cells so dark that this defeated Bentham's plan of easy inspection from the central inspection point. The Virginia State Prison, opened in 1800, showed some influence of Bentham's ideas, but it was in no sense a true Panopticon structure. It was designed by Benjamin Latrobe and based on plans secured by Thomas Jefferson, while ambassador to France.

The first prison system in the United States was in Philadelphia. The city's first jail was a 7-by 5-foot cage built in 1693 for the detention of miscreants. Criminals convicted of minor offenses were sentenced to banishment, branding and public whipping. Charges such as counterfeiting, treason, spying, desertion from the Army, burglary, robbery, piracy, rape, sodomy and murder were considered capital offenses, and convicts were subject to execution by hanging.

As the city built larger and more permanent jails over the next century, local reformers shifted away from the use of corporal punishment and toward the institution of fines, restitution and imprisonment to penalize offenders.

By 1721, houses of correction and workhouses replaced the smaller prisons that had once stood in central Philadelphia (the "city of freedom"). In 1794, by act of the Pennsylvania State Legislature, the death penalty was reserved solely for persons convicted of murder in the first degree. Once public spectacles, executions were performed inside the prison walls beginning in 1834.

The practice of imprisonment for debtors was imported from England. A debtor, once imprisoned, was in a worse situation than a criminal, as a criminal's sentence would expire, but a debtor had no hope for release except for payment of his debt. Debtors were housed together with criminals and were responsible for their own keep. Unable to obtain charitable relief, some perished from starvation or want of medicine.

By the Pennsylvania State Legislature Act of 1705, debtors were given a nominal public allowance, along with liberty to provide for their own necessities. At the same time, limits were placed on the length of their prison terms. Those unable to pay their debts were sentenced to servitude for a period not to exceed seven years following release from prison.

The practice of imprisoning debtors continued until 1841. Conditions in Philadelphia's early prisons were deplorable, and a board of prison inspectors was created in 1790. The board immediately undertook to separate male prisoners from female prisoners, and convicts from untried prisoners. Other reforms included barring liquor from city prisons, paid labor, better clothing and food, and the establishment of regular religious instruction.

In 1828, a House of Refuge was established in Philadelphia for the purpose of separating experienced adult offenders from juvenile delinquents (males under 21 and females under 18) committed for crimes such as incorrigible or vicious conduct and vagrancy.

The schedule of the house for juveniles was exact, with activities scheduled for more than 15 hours every day. Residents rose at 4:45 a.m. They bathed, gathered in worship, and went to school. They had a half-hour breakfast commencing at 7 a.m., and were then sent to work until 12 noon, which was their lunch hour.

The residents heard lectures or lessons until 1 p.m., and returned to work until 5 p.m. They were allowed one half hour for dinner and recreation before returning to school from 5:30 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. Following prayers, the juveniles were locked in for the night by 8 p.m.

In 1829, a state law was enacted, sentencing inmates to hard labor. Philadelphia inmates toiled in nearby stone quarries. They cultivated the ground, farmed, and gathered ice during the winter. They also worked in the bakery and kitchens, and manufactured clothing, hats and shoes. Female inmates sewed and laundered.

Solitary confinement, work and religious guidance were important parts of the 18th-century prison reform, just as recreation, social services and education spearheaded 20th-century reforms. Originally intended to separate the inmate from criminal influences and to compel him to meditate on his life experiences, by 1910, solitary confinement was conceded to be ineffective in the reform of inmates.

The start of educational programs for adults in the 1930s, the introduction of professional social workers and the expansion of recreational programs in the 1950s, and the development of new vocational training and work-release programs in the 1960s marked the transition from the correctional system to a program-oriented system.

African Americans and the Prison System

It should be noted that the history of the American penal system briefly outlined here reflects the experiences of primarily white offenders. The system's barbaric beginnings and its harsh treatment of its prisoners is only a small fraction of African-American experiences during this time period.

Throughout most of the penal system's history, African Americans were enslaved and, insofar as business is concerned, were a commodity to be bought and sold. After slavery ended, almost any African American could be a victim of the "people's justice."

This system of punishment was meted out by ordinary citizens against African Americans without benefit of trial, representation or the pretense of justice. Blacks were hunted, raped, lynched and murdered as alleged retribution for alleged wrongs against white citizens. Therefore, proportionately few blacks were imprisoned as criminals, and therefore did not experience the same penal system that their white counterparts had experienced.

It should also be noted that after slavery ended, many African Americans remained a source of cheap labor for other Americans.

Modern Prisons and the African-American Male

Perhaps the single greatest force behind the growth of the prison population has been the national "war on drugs." The number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased twelve-fold since 1980.

In 2000, 22 percent of those in federal and state prison were convicted on drug charges. Even more troubling than the absolute number of persons in jail or prison is the extent to which those men and women are African American. Although blacks account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population, 44 percent of all prisoners in the U.S. are black. Census data for 2000, which included a count of the number and race of all individuals incarcerated in the U.S., reveals the dramatic racial disproportion of the incarcerated population in each state--the proportion of blacks in prison populations exceeds the proportion among state residents in every single state.

In 20 states, the percentage of African Americans incarcerated is at least five times greater than their share of resident population.

The official figures confirm what those who live in African-American communities know only too well: too many African Americans are behind bars, particularly black men. Indeed, nearly 5 percent of all black men, compared to 0.6 percent of white men, are incarcerated. In many states (as is the case here in California) that rate is far higher.

According to Human Rights Watch's calculations, based on the 2000 U.S. Census, in 12 states, more than 10 percent of African-American men ages 18 to 64 are incarcerated. The Justice Department reports that nationwide, a similar percentage of black men in the age ranges of 20 to 29 are behind bars.

The absolute level of black incarceration should be cause for national concern. But so should the striking disparity with white incarceration. Nationwide, black men of all ages are incarcerated at more than seven times the rate of white men, according to the Justice Department.

The national war on drugs has perhaps been the primary factor behind the extraordinary rates at which black are incarcerated. Drug offenses account for nearly two out of five of blacks sent to state prisons.

More African Americans are sent to state prison for drug offenses (38 percent) than for violence (27 percent). In contrast, drug offenders constitute 24 percent of whites admitted to prison, and violent offenders constitute 27 percent. African Americans are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for drug offenses at far higher rates than whites.

This racial disparity bears little relationship to racial differences in drug offenses. For example, although the proportion of all drug users who are black is generally in the range of 13 to 15 percent, blacks constitute 36 percent of arrests for drug possession.

African Americans constitute 63 percent of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons. In at least 15 states, black men were sent to prison on drug charges at rates ranging from 20 to 57 times those of white men.

Latino and Native Americans are also incarcerated in numbers vastly disproportionate to their numbers in the overall population. Almost 70 percent of U.S. prison and jail populations are people of color, and nearly all are poor.

Latinos are the fastest-growing group behind bars. From 1985 to 1995, the Latino population jumped from 10 percent to 18 percent of all state and federal inmates. And in 2000, 45 percent of all prisoners were unemployed at the time of their arrest.

The rest reported an income of less than $10,000 per year. Evidence shows than 94 percent of all state prisoners nationwide are people from predominantly poor communities.

It has been said that for years the legal system preyed on the poor and uneducated. In January 2005, a new report found that the shift in funding from education to prisons is having a devastating impact on African-American men. In a policy brief, "Education and Incarceration," the Justice Policy Institute shows that by 1999, one in 10 white male dropouts and an astonishing 52 percent of black male high school dropouts had prison records by their early thirties.

Coming on the heels of a new Justice Policy Institute survey that showed that 6.6 percent of all Americans--11 percent of men and 32 percent of African-American men--are likely to end up in prison if current incarceration rates hold, the Justice Policy Institute brief shows that African-American men in their early 30s are nearly twice as likely to have prison records (22 percent) than bachelor's degrees (12 percent).

The Prison System and African Americans: A Profitable Combination

While the effects of these numbers are probably well known in African-American and other minority communities, its effect on the economy is not as well-known. Incarceration rates have contributed to a shift in the business of prisons: privatization. Under privatization, the African-American male re-emerges as a commodity, as prisoners are used as slave labor to the benefit of previously depressed rural communities and large corporations.

Privatization of prisons, as with other industries, is the private ownership of prisons by corporations who, in turn, are on contract with state and the federal government to house and rehabilitate prisoners. Currently, three companies have emerged as leaders in the prison industry: Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, founded in 1953 by a former FBI official; the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), founded in 1983 by the investors behind Kentucky Fried Chicken; and Pricor. These companies have worked with rural communities since the '90s to build additional prisons and utilize the prisoners as labor.

Jobs and Prisons

During the mid-80s farm crisis and the loss of factories and jobs, many rural communities suffered tremendous losses, from which some never fully recovered. Since then, many of these same communities have experienced an economic turnaround by being "host" communities for private prisons.

Some of these communities have bid for the opportunity to have private prisons built, which represents new jobs and an infusion of new money into a previously economy depressed area. A rural area in New York, which is home to the Coxsaxie-Greene Correctional Facility, is a prime example: the prison employs about 1,200 people and houses 3,000 prisoners.

With a population of 7,000, prison inmates are half of the population. Communities in rural areas need the year-round employment offered by prisons, and, although salaries vary, there are usually good benefits compared to other rural area jobs. In addition, municipalities also benefit from prisons in the form of increased utility revenue.

In addition to jobs, the prisons fuel a variety of high- and low-tech industries, including surveillance and electronic monitoring, food service, medicine, supplies, health care, drug treatment programs, telecommunications, lenders, architectural firms, and the construction trades (including masonry, fencing, barbed wired, etc.) as the prison industry continues to boom.

Private prison firms enjoy huge profits. During the '90s, CCA and other firms posted profits of $207 million. They are working with these communities to increase the possibilities of having prisons built in rural areas by offering incentives through their combined legislative lobbying arm, the American Legislative Exchange Commission (ALEC), which, among other things, lobbied strongly for California's "Three-Strikes law." A law that results in increased incarcerations and extended prison sentences.

Private prison companies have been known to offer a variety of incentives to communities as part of the bargain, including million-dollar loans for local minority businesses.

Labor and Prisons

State and federal prisoners generate billions per year in sales for private businesses, and sometimes compete with the private labor sector for jobs and contracts. This is a far cry from community service and clean-up crews.

There are reports of prisoners employed packing Spaulding golf balls; taking hotel reservations; making uniforms for McDonalds; testing blood for medical firms; repairing copiers for Konica; making jeans for Kmart and JC Penney; handling circuit board assembly for firms such as IBM and Texas Instruments; making furniture for Eddie Bauer and car parts for Honda; taking credit card ticket orders for TWA; and making those famous "Gangsta Blues" jeans promoted by the California Department of Corrections. Other reports have prisoners packaging Windows software for Microsoft Corporation.

The American Correctional Association, an association of providers of services to prisons, holds an annual trade show where products used in prisons are shown to prospective purchasers. Prisoners are paid as little as 35 cents per hour. They don't have the right to organize, strike, or file a grievance. They cannot refuse to work, but they can be fired.

When prisons out-compete the local labor force, the American labor force and even overseas labor forces--where cheap and slave labor conditions are well-known--it becomes clear that prison labor is slave labor.

As laws are enacted that ensure mandatory and longer sentences, this slave labor force is ensured for the future. As the use of African-American male prison inmates continues to increase, in large part due to legislation, the merest pretense of rehabilitation as a goal of incarceration has been abandoned.

Today's prison system is big business that will continue to grow if all indicators remain constant. Corporations and entrepreneurs have seen the financial opportunities the prison system offers to the unscrupulous. As recent experiences with big business confirm, the almighty dollar is first and foremost, and regard for justice and the individual of little consequence.

With every ill effect there is a result: the destruction of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and hope for the future. America, the great experiment in democracy, is failing segments of its society.

Photo Credits: Page 5: Karl Josker, CDC, Page 6: CDC, Prison Policy Initiative, Karl Josker, Page 8: Prison Policy Initiative, Karl Josker


Three Strikes

Over 65 percent of those imprisoned under Three-Strikes in California are non-violent offenders. According to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, African-American males sentenced in state courts on felonies receive prison sentences 52 percent of the time, while whites just receive them 34 percent of the time.


All the world's a prison

Some of us are more locked up than others i.e. you may be out here in "minimum security" but are as likely to go to prison as anyone else these days.


Unlock the Box:

The United Front to Abolish the SHU is dedicated to shutting down Security Housing Units (SHUs) in California prisons. The SHU is one type of control unit, which are solitary or small group confinement cells. The inhuman conditions in control units, including total sensory deprivation, amount to torture. The United Front to Abolish the SHU demands that all control units be abolished across the country.



Otis L. Cavers
- e-mail:
- Homepage:

Upcoming Coverage
View and post events
Upcoming Events UK
24th October, London: 2015 London Anarchist Bookfair
2nd - 8th November: Wrexham, Wales, UK & Everywhere: Week of Action Against the North Wales Prison & the Prison Industrial Complex. Cymraeg: Wythnos o Weithredu yn Erbyn Carchar Gogledd Cymru

Ongoing UK
Every Tuesday 6pm-8pm, Yorkshire: Demo/vigil at NSA/NRO Menwith Hill US Spy Base More info: CAAB.

Every Tuesday, UK & worldwide: Counter Terror Tuesdays. Call the US Embassy nearest to you to protest Obama's Terror Tuesdays. More info here

Every day, London: Vigil for Julian Assange outside Ecuadorian Embassy

Parliament Sq Protest: see topic page
Ongoing Global
Rossport, Ireland: see topic page
Israel-Palestine: Israel Indymedia | Palestine Indymedia
Oaxaca: Chiapas Indymedia
All Regions
South Coast
Other Local IMCs
Bristol/South West
Social Media
You can follow @ukindymedia on and Twitter. We are working on a Twitter policy. We do not use Facebook, and advise you not to either.
Support Us
We need help paying the bills for hosting this site, please consider supporting us financially.
Other Media Projects
Dissident Island Radio
Corporate Watch
Media Lens
Earth First! Action Update
Earth First! Action Reports
All Topics
Animal Liberation
Climate Chaos
Energy Crisis
Free Spaces
Ocean Defence
Other Press
Public sector cuts
Social Struggles
Terror War
Workers' Movements
Major Reports
NATO 2014
G8 2013
2011 Census Resistance
Occupy Everywhere
August Riots
Dale Farm
J30 Strike
Flotilla to Gaza
Mayday 2010
Tar Sands
G20 London Summit
University Occupations for Gaza
Indymedia Server Seizure
COP15 Climate Summit 2009
Carmel Agrexco
G8 Japan 2008
Stop Sequani
Stop RWB
Climate Camp 2008
Oaxaca Uprising
Rossport Solidarity
Smash EDO
Past Major Reports
Encrypted Page
You are viewing this page using an encrypted connection. If you bookmark this page or send its address in an email you might want to use the un-encrypted address of this page.
If you recieved a warning about an untrusted root certificate please install the CAcert root certificate, for more information see the security page.

Global IMC Network

satellite tv


estrecho / madiaq
la plana
northern england
nottingham imc
united kingdom

Latin America
chile sur
cmi brasil
cmi sucre
puerto rico


South Asia

United States
hudson mohawk
kansas city
minneapolis/st. paul
new hampshire
new jersey
new mexico
new orleans
north carolina
north texas
rogue valley
saint louis
san diego
san francisco
san francisco bay area
santa barbara
santa cruz, ca
tampa bay
united states
western mass

West Asia


fbi/legal updates
mailing lists
process & imc docs