The land of the free is a nation of prisons. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts has sounded the alarm on the high rate of prison growth in this country.

By 2011, one out of every 178 U.S. residents will live in prison if current policies do not change, according to the study titled “Public Safety, Public Spending: Forecasting America’s Prison Population 2007-2011.”

By that time, America will have more than 1.7 million men and women behind bars in federal and state prisons, an increase of nearly 200,000 from 2006. That increase could cost American taxpayers as much as $27.5 billion more – $15 billion for prison operations and $12.5 billion for beds – than they are now spending on prisons over the next five years, according to the report.

At the present rate, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana and Vermont can expect their prisons to grow by a third or more, while Colorado, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming will experience a 25 percent growth.

In raw numbers and per capita, America imprisons more people than any other nation in the world. The United States, a mere 5 percent of the world’s population, incarcerates a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

What is fueling this prison boom? It boils down to policy choices.

More and more people are being incarcerated with longer and longer sentences, particularly for nonviolent offenses. Prisons are overcrowding. Parole is a thing of the past in some places, mandatory minimum sentences are the rule of the day and the concept of rehabilitation has been abandoned.

As state budgets tighten and prison spending goes out of control, education and badly needed social services fall by the wayside.

Sadly, opportunistic politicians pander to white America’s fear of black and brown criminality. Lawmakers enact “get tough on crime” measures that provide catchy slogans and the appearance of action but do little to provide creative, effective solutions to society’s ills.

As a result, we have the war on drugs, which has really become a war on communities of color and the poor, with laws punishing crack cocaine users far more severely than those who use powdered cocaine.

Prisons have become the new company towns. Now that factories and jobs have been lost to globalization, many depressed rural areas turn to the building of new prisons for job creation and economic growth. And the raw materials for these new factory towns are black and brown and poor white inmates.

Corporate greed fuels the prison boom, and results in exploitative business practices. For example, some inmates are charged exorbitant rates (such as $20 for a 15-minute in-state call) for phone calls to their family members.

Fortunately, there are signs of hope as people question the vast investment in incarceration and seek creative alternatives to the prison industrial complex.

The Supreme Court is revisiting how much latitude federal judges should have in sentencing. Two years ago, the high court struck down the mandatory federal sentencing guidelines and made them advisory instead. The guidelines had sometimes forced judges to increase a criminal defendant’s punishment based on information that had never been proved to a jury, resulting in a violation of the constitutional right to a jury trial.

Some states are recognizing what a drain the prison craze has on their budgets and are looking for more sensible solutions.

This prison madness is not about serving justice or protecting the public. It is about warped public-policy priorities, a lack of leadership and protecting powerful interests.

We cannot make society whole by locking millions of people up and expecting our problems to go away.

David A. Love is a lawyer in Philadelphia and a writer for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues. Readers may write to the author at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703 or e-mail: [email protected]

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