1970s Origins of Accelerated Rise of Nonwhite Incarceration in the US

April 25, 2015

Case Study Using Data From the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The BOP is the one jurisdiction administering penal facilities in the United States that has maintained relatively accurate records since its 1930 founding, even though definitions of race have not been consistent.

1. Incarcerated federal prisoners on June 30, 1952 totaled 18,896 (75% White, 25% Nonwhite). [Federal Prisons 1952, Report of the Work of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Table 18, p. 75]

2. Incarcerated federal prisoners on an average day in 1970 totaled about 21,000 (71% White, 29% Nonwhite). [FBOP Annual Reports and BOP periodical data sheets]

NOTE: November 13, 1969, President Nixon ordered Attorney General John Mitchell to prepare a 10-year federal corrections system “reform” plan to construct new prisons and modernize existing ones. The BOP created its Long Range Master Plan (LRMP).

3. Incarcerated federal prisoners on September 11, 1977 totaled 30,343 (60.5% White, 39.5%. Nonwhite) [BOP Annual Reports and BOP periodical data sheets]

4. Between 1972 (when the BOP unveiled publicly its first LRMP) and 1977, the Bureau opened 21 new penal facilities capable of housing nearly 6,000 additional prisoners. In that same period of time the number of Nonwhite federal prisoners increased by approximately the same number — 6,000! In effect, the initial prison expansion was “reserved” exclusively for Nonwhite prisoners which proved to be a catastrophic prophetic warning of increased racial repression for the years ahead. When the rapid expansion began, especially after 1975 which revealed the first expansion in rates’ trends in BOP history, the incarcerated federal prisoner population quickly rose by 45%, but Nonwhite prisoner population experienced an extraordinarily disproportionate increase of 97%!

5. Incarcerated federal prisoners in September 2004 totaled 153,084 in BOP facilities, plus 27,234 in non-BOP contract facilities, for a grand total of 180,318 (24.5% White, 75.5% Nonwhite).

6. The BOP had an internal 2003 rated capacity of 106,046 prisoners. [Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2003, Table 8]. Thus, with over 153,000 internal prisoners (those not contracted out to private or state facilities) it operated at 144% capacity. Since 1970, the BOP’s internal capacity has risen from approximately 21,000 to 106,000 beds, a spectacular 300+% increase of 85,000 beds, while relying increasingly upon contractual facilities, which capacity has jumped from 4,000 to 27,000 beds, nearly a 500% explosive increase of 23,000 beds.

Thus, the BOP has over 34 years (1970-2003 inclusively) increased its capacity by a net additional 112,000 beds (85,000 + 27,000). In that same period of time, 1970-2003, the number of Nonwhite prisoners jumped an unbelievable 2,100%, from 6,100 in 1970 to more than 136,000 in 2003-04, an astonishing increase of 129,000 minority prisoners! Every one of the new 112,000 BOP beds has been filled by a Nonwhite prisoner!

Though White prisoners did jump more than 200%, from 14,000 in 1970 to 44,000 in 2003-04, an increase of 30,000, its rate pales when compared to the 2,100% increase for Nonwhite prisoners! The added BOP capacity of 112,000 beds easily accommodated 30,000 additional White prisoners. But even with this staggering expansion in prison capacity, the shocking explosion of Nonwhite prisoners has been produced by the rapidly expanding criminal law/crime control/industrial complex, including the ill-fated “war on drugs”. Over 54% of the FBOP’s inmates are doing time for drug offenses. [FBOP Quick Facts, September 2004]. This phenomena has dramatically outpaced the ability of the BOP to operate anything but a terribly overcrowded, racist system. [S. Brian Willson, “Racist Nature of Juvenile Facilities, Jails and Prisons in the United States” (Washington, DC: National Moratorium on Prison Construction, February 1978)].


The Broader Context of the US Love Affair With Incarceration and Torture

The US imprisons 2.5 million of its citizens on an average day in more than 9,000 jails and prisons, boasting the highest per capita detention rate in the world by far – 800 prisoners for every 100,000 people [Local jails: 745,000; state and federal adult prisons: 1,600,000; juvenile facilities: 141,000; and immigrant detention: 34,000 = Grand Total: 2,520,000 U.S. prisoners]. Rwanda has the second highest detention rate at 595; Russia comes in third at 568. The world’s average per capita detention rate is 146.

Equally startling, is the fact that on an average day 6.9 million US Americans are on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole (under local, state or federal government “correctional” supervision), or 3.2% of U.S. adult residents (1 in every 32 adults). But on any given day, 30 percent of African-American males aged 20 to 29 are “under correctional supervision” [Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor (London: Rouledge, 2003), 31].

More than 60 percent of US prisoners are from racial and ethnic minority groups yet they comprise only 36 percent of the general population. The US, with 4.6 percent of the world’s population, holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. At least 80,000 of these, and as many 110,000, are locked up in solitary confinement in facilities, often for years, such as at Pelican Bay Prison in California, and Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, among dozens of locations. Being held in solitary for more than 15 days was determined in 2011 by the UN Special Rapporteur to begin devastating, often irreversible physical and mental ill effects, and is therefore considered torture. Force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strikes in the US is also not unusual, itself another form of torture in violation of international law. Solitary confinement inevitably contributes to increased risks of prison suicides, of which hundreds are reported every year.

I studied the regular use of torture in Massachusetts prisons in 1981, where force feeding of striking prisoners was common; as was the withholding of rights and privileges such as necessary medicine, mail, or winter clothing during cold weather; the imposition of hazards such as flooding cells, igniting clothes and bedding, providing too little or too much heat, and spraying mace and tear gas; inflicting physical beatings of prisoners filing prison complaints or litigation, of those protesting conditions using hunger strikes; and various forms of intentional psychological abuse such as arbitrary shakedown of cells and brutal rectal searches, ordering prisoners to lie face down on cold floors or the outside ground before receiving food, and empty announcements of visitors or family only later to say it was a joke.

During the Spanish-American war in the Philippines, President Teddy Roosevelt proudly defended water boarding torture as part of the arsenal of techniques to achieve “the triumph of civilization over the black chaos of savagery and barbarism” of the Filipinos, or “googoos”. In Haiti in 1920, the NAACP investigated the conduct of US Marines who were murdering thousands of Haitians while practicing widespread torture to overcome a Haitian revolt of “savage monkeys” against the continuing unwanted U.S. presence there. The word googoo morphed into “gook” as the derogatory term used by US soldiers against the Vietnamese.

In 1931 President Hoover’s Wickersham Report (National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement) concluded that the use of torture (intentional infliction of various methods of pain and suffering) was “widespread” throughout the entire US criminal justice system. The US school of the Americas has been teaching torture (“interrogation”) to Latin American military personnel since 1946.

Over dependence on Incarceration and torture are US American values.


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