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INCARCERATION NATION

In profile: The US as

– You already know that the United States locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. 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. This 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 its population has dipped a bit in the past couple of years, the overall trend is toward growth: over the past 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: There are more than 4,500 prisons in the United States. Let’s assume each takes up about half a square mile – a reasonable (and probably low) estimate given most prisons are, for security reasons, surrounded by 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: 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, residents 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.

Some 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.

An estimated 10,000 babies are born each year in Incarceration Nation. Most 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: 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, 20 percent is of Hispanic descent, and the remaining 40 percent are Caucasian or mixed.

Health: One recent study found that the incarcerated are “more likely to be afflicted with infectious disease and other illnesses associated with stress.” 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.

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.) Sweden, France, Germany, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom all spend less than $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 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.)

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 Cos.) boast impressive annual revenue. In 2011, CCA – which urges potential investors to take advantage of “highly compelling corrections industry dynamics” – has an annual revenue of more than $1.7 billion, and its CEO, Damon Hininger, was the happy recipient of some $3.7 million in executive compensation.

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: In September, for instance, the DOD announced 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: “We sell products made by prison labor” isn’t a 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.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. She wrote this for Foreign Policy.

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