Brooks: What if the prison system were its own country?

by Incarcerated Flavors

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they lose”. 
Begin forwarded message:
From: Lois Ahrens <> Date: December 20, 2013 at 10:45:11 PM EST To: undisclosed-recipients:; Subject: Brooks: What if the prison system were its own country?
Brooks: What if the prison system were its own country?         Published: December 17, 2013 12:50 PM         By ROSA BROOKS, Foreign Policy
        You already know that the United States locks up a higher        percentage of its population than any other country in the        world. If you look at local, state and federal prison and jail        populations, the United States currently incarcerates more than        2.4 million people, a figure that constitutes roughly 25 percent        of the total incarcerated population of the entire world.
        A population of 2.4 million is a lot of people — enough, in        fact, to fill up a good-sized country. In the past, the British        Empire decided to convert a good chunk of its prison population        into a country, sending some 165,000 convicts off to Australia.        This isn’t an option for the United States, but it suggests an        interesting thought experiment: If the incarcerated population        of the United States constituted a nation-state, what kind of        country would it be?
        Here’s a profile of Incarceration Nation:
        Population size: As a country — as opposed to a prison system        — Incarceration Nation is on the small side. Nonetheless, a        population of 2.4 million is perfectly respectable:        Incarceration Nation has a larger population than about 50 other        countries, including Namibia, Qatar, Gambia, Slovenia, Bahrain        and Iceland. And though the population of Incarceration Nation        has dipped a bit in the last couple of years, the overall trend        is toward growth: over the last 30 years, the incarcerated        population of the United States has gone up by a factor of four,        making Incarceration Nation’s population growth rate more than        double that of India.
        Geographic area: This is a tough one, since I haven’t found any        way to accurately measure the physical space occupied by        Incarceration Nation. We have to do some educated guessing here.        There are more than 4,500 prisons in the United States. Let’s        assume that each of those prisons takes up about half a square        mile of land — a reasonable (and probably quite low) estimate        given that most prisons are, for security reasons, surrounded by        some empty space. That gives Incarceration Nation an estimated        land area of about 2,250 square miles: small, but still larger        than Brunei, Trinidad and Tobago, Luxembourg, Bahrain and        Singapore.
        Population Density: No matter how you look at it, Incarceration        Nation is a crowded place. If we assume a land area of 2,250        square miles, it has a population density of roughly 1,067        people per square mile, a little higher than that of India. Of        course, the residents of Incarceration Nation don’t have access        to the full land-area constituting their nation: most of them        spend their days in small cells, often sharing cells built for        one or two prisoners with two or three times that many inmates.
        In 2011, federal prisons were operating 39 percent above        capacity; in many state systems, overcrowding was much worse.        (In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court found that overcrowding in        California prisons was so severe it constituted “cruel and        unusual punishment”.)
        Demographics: A nation of immigrants: Like many of the smaller        Gulf States, Incarceration Nation relies almost entirely on        immigration to maintain its population. You might even say that        Incarceration Nation is a nation of displaced persons: most of        its residents were born far away from Incarceration Nation,        which has a nasty habit of involuntarily transporting people        hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from their home        communities, making it extraordinarily difficult for residents        to maintain ties with their families.
        In New York, for instance, one study found that “70 percent of        incarcerated individuals are in prisons over 100 miles from        their homes” — often in “isolated rural areas that are        inaccessible by direct bus or train routes.”
        Birthright citizenship? Though most residents are immigrants and        displaced persons, an estimated 10,000 babies are born each year        in Incarceration Nation. Most of those babies are deported        within months, generally landing with foster families. But        Incarceration Nation does have its own form of birthright        citizenship, if you can call it that: as many as 70 percent of        children with an incarcerated parent end up incarcerated        themselves at some point.
        Gender balance: International attention to gender imbalances has        tended to focus on China, India and other states, but        Incarceration Nation has the most skewed gender ratio of any        country on Earth: men outnumber women by a ratio of about 12 to        1.
        Racial and ethnic makeup: If Incarceration Nation were located        in a geographical region matching its racial and ethnic makeup,        it would probably be somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere,        perhaps near Brazil. Roughly 40 percent of the incarcerated        population is of African descent, another 20 percent is of        Hispanic descent, and the remaining 40 percent are Caucasian or        mixed. For the average American, this means that one’s odds of        spending time in Incarceration Nation depend greatly on gender        and race: a white woman has only a one in 111 lifetime chance of        ending up incarcerated, while a black man has a whopping one in        three chance.
        Health: Incarceration Nation doesn’t do so well here. One recent        study found that the incarcerated are “more likely to be        afflicted with infectious disease and other illnesses associated        with stress.” Tuberculosis rates, for instance, are 50 to 100        percent higher for inmates than for the general U.S. population.        (If Incarceration Nation were a real country, it would have the        highest TB rate in the world.) More than half of Incarceration        Nation’s citizens are mentally ill, with depression rates        roughly on a par with those experienced by citizens of        Afghanistan. Another recent study found that for every year        spent incarcerated, life expectancy dips by two years.
        Human Rights: Incarceration Nation is a police state. ‘Nuff        said.
        Economics: Incarceration Nation doesn’t make it easy for        outsiders to understand its unique economy, but it’s possible to        gather a few data points.
        Per Capita Spending: Judged by per capita government spending,        Incarceration Nation is a rich country: its government spends an        average of about $31,000 per year on each incarcerated citizen.        (State by state, costs vary. Kentucky and Indiana spend less        than $15,000 on each inmate per year, while in New York State,        the per capita cost per inmate is more than $60,000 a year. In        New York City, per capita costs for jail inmates reach an        astronomical $168,000 per year.)
        Internationally, only little Luxembourg spends as much on its        citizens as Incarceration Nation; among the generally wealthy        states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and        Development, average per capita spending is under $15,000, and        Sweden, France, Germany, Canada, the United States and the        United Kingdom all spend under $20,000 per year on each citizen.
        Gross Domestic Product: Incarceration Nation doesn’t have a GDP,        per se, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t turn a profit —         sometimes, and for some people. For American taxpayers, aid to        Incarceration Nation is pretty expensive: looking at just 40        U.S. states, the Vera Institute of Justice found that the cost        to taxpayers of incarceration in these states was $39 billion.        Overall, federal and state governments spend an estimated $74        billion on prisons each year. (This doesn’t count spending on        state and local jails.) How much is $74 billion? It’s higher        than the GDP of more than half the countries in the world,        including Lebanon, Paraguay, Nepal and Lithuania.
        Some people make a lot of money from Incarceration Nation.        Incarceration Nation employs about 800,000 people as prison        guards, administrators and the like — almost as many people as        are employed in the entire U.S. automobile industry — and in        some rural areas, prisons are the main employers. But the real        money goes to the operators of private prisons and the companies        that make use of prison labor.
        Overall, private prisons house roughly 10 percent of        Incarceration Nation’s residents, and large private prison        companies (such as CCA, the Geo Group, and Cornell Companies)        boast impressive annual revenues. In 2011, for instance, CCA —         which urges potential investors to take advantage of “highly        compelling corrections industry dynamics” — has an annual        revenue of over $1.7 billion, and its CEO, Damon Hininger, was        the happy recipient of some $3.7 million in executive        compensation in 2011.
        Labor Standards: If you think low labor costs in countries such        as China and Bangladesh are a threat to U.S. workers and        businesses, labor conditions in Incarceration Nation will        dangerously raise your blood pressure. Take UNICOR, a.k.a.        Federal Prison Industries, which employs 8 percent of “work        eligible” federal prisoners. Hourly wages offered by UNICOR        range from 23 cents an hour — about on a par with garment        workers in Bangladesh — to a princely $1.35 for “premium”        prisoners, comparable to the hourly wage of Chinese garment        workers. That’s a good deal less than the $2 average hourly wage        for a manufacturing worker in the Philippines, or the $6 an hour        average wage for Mexican manufacturing workers.
        Who benefits from these low wages? The U.S. Department of        Defense, for one. The DOD is UNICOR’s largest customer; in        fiscal year 2011 it accounted for $357 million of UNICOR’s        annual sales. UNICOR makes everything from Patriot missile        components to body armor for the DOD: In September 2013, for        instance, the DOD announced that the Army has awarded UNICOR a        “$246,699,217 non-multi-year, no option, firm-fixed-price        contract . . . to procure Interceptor Body Armor Outer Tactical        Vests for various foreign military sales customers.”
        This is a great deal for everyone except the population of        Incarceration Nation, since they’re stuck with forced labor at        wage levels that would make many third world employers blush. No        one likes to talk about this, of course: “We sell products made        by prison labor” isn’t the kind of slogan likely to generate        consumer enthusiasm. But to those in the know — as an online        video promoting UNICOR’s call-center services boasts — prison        labor is “the best-kept secret in outsourcing.”
        Maybe Incarceration Nation really is a foreign country.
        Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a fellow        at the New America Foundation. She served as a counselor to the        U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2011 and        previously served as a State Department senior adviser.