Have Prisons Become America’s New Social Safety Net?


Yesterday, during a break at the Socrates Society San Francisco Salon on “The Future of American Democracy” moderated by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, I had a conversation with one of my fellow seminar participants that shook me. She is active in helping transition convicts out of jail back into society by facilitating initial job placements in charitable organizations.

Commenting on the issues of income inequality in our country that we had just been discussing in the seminar, she asserted that, from her own personal experience working with convicts, “prison is now the safety net for low income people in San Francisco. You know where your next meal is coming from and you have greater security than out on the street.”

The most profoundly disturbing thing about what she said was that it makes total sense to me. When we consider some of the root causes for this grotesque fraying of America’s social contract with the less fortunate, we can start by recognizing that the decimation of the US public education system has negatively impacted upward economic mobility in this country for decades.

Today, as we approach the November election, one must recognize that America is at an inflection point in many ways. My greatest hope for our country is that we will not look back a decade from now and recognize too late the clear signposts of the beginning of the end of the American dream.

Some 2006 year-end statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs on the American prison population:

Summary findings

On December 31, 2006 —

– 2,258,983 prisoners were held in Federal or State prisons or in local jails – an increase of 2.9% from yearend 2005, less than the average annual growth of 3.4% since yearend 1995.
– 1,502,179 sentenced prisoners were under State or Federal jurisdiction.
– there were an estimated 501 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents – up from 411 at yearend 1995.
– the number of women under the jurisdiction of State or Federal prison authorities increased 4.5% from yearend 2005, reaching 112,498, and the number of men rose 2.7%, totaling 1,458,363.
At yearend 2006 there were 3,042 black male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 black males in the United States, compared to 1,261 Hispanic male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic males and 487 white male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 white males.

Our American democracy houses more prisoners than any other country in the world. Recent research from the Pew Center supports the case for a steady decline in upward mobility for the lowest segments of our society. At the multi-year prison population growth rate stated above, today we have approximately 0.77% of the American population in prisons. Is this any way to think about providing sanctuary for the poor in the American social contract? I don’t think so, and I hope that we will elect political leaders who will be honest enough to not only call-out the social crisis that afflicts the poor in our country, but actually galvanize the political will that we must summon if we are to break this devastating trend.

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