This is the first in a series of five articles on the state of prison systems in the U.S. and Latin America. The articles have been adapted from a five-part paper written spring quarter 20l7 by students taking the course, Illicit Markets in the Americas taught by Lynn Holland.
The U.S. Prison System and How It Hurts the Poor
Over the last several decades, the U.S. prison population has greatly expanded due in part to measures arising from government’s drug war. These measures, including the increased use of mandatory minimum sentencing, have disproportionately affected the poor and ethnic minority groups. Other problems that continue to harm the poor include the persistent use of bail, the lack of adequate reintegration programs, and the proliferation of prison-associated fees imposed on the families of prisoners.
The Drug War
The “drug war”, currently making a revival, has entailed a series of measures which have disproportionately affected the poor in this country. Soon after declaring the “war on drugs” in 1971, President Richard Nixon established the powerful Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), to greatly expand the size and scope of federal drug control activities. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared illegal drugs to be a national security threat as First Lady Nancy Reagan launched a privately funded anti-drug campaign to encourage youth to “Just Say No” to drugs. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 allocated $1.7 billion to the anti-drug crusade and included mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses specifically for the distribution of cocaine. The Act also imposed penalties for “crack” cocaine offenses which were far more severe than those for the more expensive powder cocaine offenses. The result was that the poor, who used the cheaper crack cocaine, suffered harsher penalties than those who used the more expensive cocaine powder. This in turn led to a dramatic increase in racial disparities in the prison population.
Two years later, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 included more severe mandatory minimum sentences (first time offenders would receive a five-year minimum sentence for simple possession of cocaine, even with no intent to sell), the elimination of federal benefits (such as student loans), and the use of the death penalty for serious drug-related convictions. The following year, Reagan established the Office of National Drug Control Policy to coordinate drug-related policies, security measures, diplomatic objectives, and government research, with the goal of eradicating illicit drug use, manufacturing, and distribution, and drug-related crime. Successive directors became known as “Drug Czars.”
While the matter has been debated, it is widely held that the drug war contributed substantially to the rapid rise in the prison population after 1974. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. prison population at 2,239,751 in 2013, was the highest per capita rate in the world. By comparison, China with the next highest rate and four times the population of the U.S., had a prison population of only 1,640,000.  By 2012, inmates whose most serious offense was a drug offense constituted 52 percent of the federally sentenced population.
In recent years, mandatory minimum sentencing has been somewhat curtailed and judges have been given greater discretion in certain cases at both the state and federal level. Unfortunately, the trend has not yet affected the thousands of people still stuck in prison for crimes that would have resulted shorter sentences if they had been committed just a few years later.
The Cost of Bail
Another practice that keeps the poor incarcerated longer is that of bail. A recent study of the New Jersey jail population found that nearly 40 percent of the prisoners were being held solely because they couldn’t meet the cost of their bail. Another study found that defendants at Rikers Island, New York City’s jail complex, were detained prior to being tried for a median of 68 days. This included some 400 who had waited for over two years for trial. Such individuals serve time without having been convicted of a crime simply because they are poor while their wealthier counterparts are able to walk free before their trials begin.
A working class person without the means to post bail not only loses time while in jail, that person may also lose his or her job for missing work and residence if he or she is unable to pay rent. The bail system also encourages suspects to simply plead guilty even when innocent, since the alternative is to be held in jail until trial. Pleading guilty, however, puts a permanent mark on the person’s record and criminal convictions make finding a job extremely difficult. Thus the current bail system results in high levels of pretrial and preventative detention, punishing the accused without guilt ever having been established.
In Washington D.C., some measures are being taken to amend the bail system. Judges there can now set bail only if the defendants can afford it. In addition, pretrial services provide specialists who can assess whether a defendant is dangerous or a flight risk, and provide alternatives to incarceration such as drug test monitoring, tracking ankle bracelets, or calling to remind the defendant of the trial.
Mass Incarceration and Criminal Organizations
With mass incarceration on the rise in the U.S., criminal networks have actually gained in membership and influence. Under conditions of crowding, the ranks of prison gangs swell and gang organization becomes more articulated. These conditions transform the prison setting into a kind of headquarters for organizing street level criminal activity, displacing state authority in communities, and coordinating mass violence.
The prison also becomes a kind of training ground for new recruits. In order to survive, younger and less violent inmates are typically forced to make alliances and become more hardened as they seek to survive within the prison system. Crowded prisons also mean closer and more continuous contact among inmates allowing for a greater dispersion of organizational knowledge.
The task of walking out of prison and returning to community life as a law abiding citizen can be daunting. Functioning programs that aim to rehabilitate former inmates and prepare them for jobs when they leave are few and far between. Having a criminal record makes it difficult to land that essential a job interview, much less the job itself. These tremendous challenges have contributed to a national recidivism rate of 50 percent. Two-thirds of parolees who return to prison do so because of parole violation. Scheduling conflicts with parole officers are common and some officers do little to help accommodate parolees. Depending on where one lives, the parolee may have to pay the parole program, a requirement that has actually caused some to return to selling drugs.
On top of that, many former inmates find themselves saddled with a whole new set of costs stemming from their period of incarceration. These can include medical co-pays, charges for phone calls and video visitation, fees related to booking, probation, DNA testing, and police transport, court costs and even the services of a public defender. These fees have grown immensely over the years as private enterprise has made its way into the prison industry. One report has shown that families pay an average cost of $13,607 for conviction-related costs including restitution and attorney’s fees. At the same time, nearly half of the families surveyed stated that they were unable to pay the fees. Ignoring the charges can lead to a warrant for arrest, refusal of access to public housing, or the denial of one’s driver’s license.
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Prison crowding and its self-reinforcing effect on gangs and crime along with the soaring public expense of mass incarceration have created new pressure for prison reform and crime prevention. While still in office, President Obama encouraged early intervention with young people, making certain, for instance, that young Black and Latino boys are not suspended at higher than average rates. We can also do more to invest in education and the development of job skills both within and outside of the prison system. We can encourage the replacement of bail with less discriminatory ways of keeping tabs on defendants. The multitude of fees imposed on the families of prisoners should be reexamined and eliminated where possible including those imposed for public defenders. Finally, we can continue to revise mandatory minimum sentencing.
In the end, those who have done time in our nation’s prisons and jails will not be the only beneficiaries of these reforms. Since most inmates in the U.S. will eventually be released and returned to the community, it is in all our interest to give them a better chance of success.
 American Civil Liberty Union, Fair Sentencing Act, ACLU Foundation 2017, https://www.aclu.org/issues/criminal-law-reform/drug-law-reform/fair-sentencing-act
Sacco, Lisa “Drug Enforcement in the United States: History, Policy, and Trends” Analyst in Illicit Drugs and Crime Policy, pg. 9 October 2, 2014. Accessed on June 3, 2017
 Walmsley, Roy “World Prison Population List (tenth edition)” International Centre for Prison Studies. Accessed on June 3, 2017. Accessible at: http://www.apcca.org/uploads/10th_Edition_2013.pdf
 Ingraham, Christopher “Why we spend billions to keep half a million-unconvicted people behind bars” The Washington Post June 11, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/11/why-we-spend-billions-to-keep-half-a-million-unconvicted-people-behind-bars/?utm_term=.b1a3302d9f78
 Wiltz, Teresa “Locked Up: Is Cash Bail on the way out?” The PEW Charitable Trusts Accessed on June 3, 2017. Retrievable by: http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2017/03/01/locked-up-is-cash-bail-on-the-way-out
 Tanzina Vega, Costly Prison Fees Are Putting Inmates Deep in Debt, CNN Money, September 18, 2015, http://money.cnn.com/2015/09/18/news/economy/prison-fees-inmates-debt/index.html