Prison Nation: Locking Up Surplus Labor in America

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Does bigger mean better?  Yes, for the conventional wisdom on the U.S. economy, the world’s largest in terms of output, or gross domestic product.  Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is perhaps the leading voice for this view.

Accordingly, citizens of developing nations will prosper if their leaders emulate the U.S. model of growth.  Lost in such rhetoric is the fact that the American economy also creates a big labor market surplus.  Typically, the likes of Thomas Friedman sidestep this ongoing human tragedy of the grow-or-die U.S. economic model.

Capital accumulation itself, as well as market conditions of supply and demand, constantly generates a surplus of labor.  There are always too many workers for too few jobs.  Where do some of these job seekers end up?

One answer is behind bars, especially in the USA.  According to a recent report by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 2.2 million people held in federal or state prisons in December 2005, a 2.7 percent increase from 2004.  The average annual increase of the U.S. prisoner population has been 3.5 percent since 1995.

There is a gender dimension of this incarcerated population.  The average annual rate of growth for incarcerated women has been 4.6 percent versus 3 percent for men during the past 10 years.

Moreover, the U.S. prison population is not counted in Uncle Sam’s employment surveys.  There were 7.4 million persons unemployed nationwide in December 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.  Now add the 2.2 million incarcerated people for a total jobless figure of 9.2 million.

African American men in their late 20s were locked up at a rate three times that of Hispanic men and over seven times the rate of white men.  The racial disparity of young male prisoners mirrors and magnifies the unemployment pattern of the Labor Department’s household survey of December 2005 by racial groups (Tables A-2 and A-3).  The jobless rate for black men over age 20 was 8.8 percent versus 5.1 percent for Hispanic men and 3.9 percent for white men.

African American females “were more than twice as likely as Hispanic females  and over 3 times more likely than white females to have been in prison on December 31, 2005,” according to the Justice Department.  “These differences among white, black, and Hispanic females were consistent across all age groups.”  The unemployment rate for white women age 20 and up was 3.4 percent versus 8.1 percent for black women and 6.6 percent for Hispanic women.

Without a doubt, harsh laws that sentence non-violent drug offenders to prison are propelling the rise of the U.S. prison population.  At the same time, national minorities of both genders are more likely than their white counterparts to be unemployed.  In short, U.S. prisons are caging surplus workers whose labor the American economy increasingly does not need.

This spiral of unemployment and imprisonment is not an unfortunate byproduct of an otherwise rational economy.  To the contrary, it is an irrational economy that requires more and more prison cells for those who have no chance of finding their way onto payrolls.  Why should people of any developing nation wish to emulate the job and prison conditions of the U.S.?

Seth Sandronsky is a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and a co-editor of Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper He can be reached at:

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