The Guardian • Issue #2060

4th July: land of the un-free

Hands behind prison bars.

Image: (CC BY 4.0)

Americans love to celebrate the 4th of July, commemorating their independence from Britain in 1776. School children and adults are taught that the United States is the “land of the free,” the freest country in the world. It is far from that.

The history of any country is reflected in its laws and judicial system. The US enforces the deprivation of freedom in a vain attempt to solve its crime rate. This has achieved massive numbers of incarcerations, with some states still enforcing the death penalty. Its law enforcement and criminal justice systems are heavily biased by blatant classism and racism.

Rates of family incarceration were disproportionately higher for communities of low-income and colour. This has meant that of all ethnic groups in prison, African Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, and Native Americans have the highest rates of incarceration.

The US has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, and shamefully holds 20 per cent of the world’s incarcerated people. At the end of 2021, 1,840,622 people were incarcerated in state or federal prisons or local jails. This is a 500 per cent increase over the previous forty years. It was brought about by changes in sentencing law and policy, not through any increase in crime rates, which have changed very little since the 1980s.

Todd Schulte, President of prison reform group said, “our current criminal justice system is harming our economy, communities, and families and undermining the promise of what America can and should be.”

Half of Americans have family members who have been incarcerated. A 2018 study showed that 113 million adults, out of a population of 225 million, had an immediate family member formerly or currently incarcerated. One in four adults has had a sibling incarcerated. One in five has had a parent sent to jail or prison. One in eight has had a child incarcerated, with 63,000 young people now in confinement. More than 6.5 million adults have an immediate family member currently in jail or in prison.

The US criminal justice system holds 2.3 million people in its 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails. People are also locked up in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centres, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the US territories.

Every year, over 600,000 people enter prison, and 10.6 million go to jail. Most people in jails have not been convicted, but are there because they are too poor to pay the bail bond. The median felony bail is US$10,000, which is the equivalent of 8 months’ income for the typical defendant. If they take a bond loan, 10 per cent must be paid upfront and 5 per cent is paid as a processing fee.

On any day, around 150,000 are convicted, usually serving misdemeanour sentences of under twelve months. There are 840,000 people on parole and 3.6 million people on probation. In some states people are incarcerated for unpaid debt.

Nonviolent drug convictions are a major feature of the federal prison system. Drug possession, a victimless crime, accounts for the incarceration of almost half a million people. There are around one million drug possession arrests each year. Each such arrest causes a criminal record damaging employment prospects and increasing the likelihood of longer sentences for future offences.

Over 13,000 people are held in federal prisons for criminal convictions of immigration offences, and 10,600 more are held pretrial by US Marshals. Another 49,000 people are detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for being undocumented immigrants. A 2005 report showed 27 per cent of federal prison inmates were foreigners. Of the 22,000 people involuntarily detained in state psychiatric hospitals and civil commitment centres, many are not convicted, but are detained indefinitely.

People of colour, who have greater rates of poverty, are overrepresented in the prisons and jails. These racial disparities are particularly stark for Black Americans, who make up 40 per cent of the incarcerated population, despite representing only 13 per cent of US citizens.

According to the US Bureau of Justice in 2018 black males accounted for 34 per cent of the total male prison population, white males were 29 per cent, and Hispanic males, 24 per cent. The imprisonment rate for black males was 5.8 times higher than white males. The imprisonment rate for black females was 1.8 times higher than for white females.

While capital punishment has been abolished in twenty-three states and Washington, DC, thousands of inmates still face the death penalty elsewhere. As of 1st October 2022, there were 2,363 on death row: 994 White, 970 African-American, 330 Hispanic, 45 Asian, and 24 Native Americans.

Seven out of ten prisoners on death row have less than a high school diploma and more than 10 per cent have a mental illness. It is illegal to sentence anyone to death who has a limited intellectual capacity, such as Downs Syndrome, but there is much anecdotal evidence that it does happen. In 1992, Bill Clinton went out of his way to execute a prisoner who left part of his last meal “for later,” not understanding that there would be no later for him.

People of colour have accounted for a disproportionate 43 per cent of the 1,348 people executed since 1976. Today 55 per cent of those awaiting execution are Black. Recently 136 people were exonerated from death row, after new DNA analyses proved they had not committed the crime.

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