Some Statistics about the US Prison Population
First, let’s be clear about how many people we are talking about. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, with 2,228,424 prisoners. In other words, the US is only 5% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s prison population. That’s double the amount of China, who ranks second with 1,701,344, yet has a population five times greater than the US.
- 97% of 125,000 federal inmates have been convicted of non-violent crimes.
- 66% of the one million state prisoners have committed non-violent offenses.
- 16% of the country’s prisoners suffer from mental illness.
- More than half of the 623,000 inmates in municipal or county jails are innocent of the crimes they are accused of.
- Of these, the majority are awaiting trial.
America is Exceptional: Why?
When it comes to refusing to let prisoners vote, the US is exceptional among the world’s democracies. Most democratic societies including most of Europe, Scandinavia and even Israel allow their prisoners to vote. This is because most democracies realize that in order to have a democracy, the right to vote must be seen as inviolable, irrevocable and fundamental to civic life.
The US is unique not only in its refusal to allow prisoners to vote, but also in the way that prison LABOR remains an integral and increasingly important part of America’s overall industrial output. The USA is unique in the way that it exploits its own citizens through a criminal justice system that amount to quasi-slavery.
Prisoners are Citizens
When you are convicted of a crime in the US, the State does not strip you of your citizenship. As long as a person remains a citizen of the US, that person has not just the right but the OBLIGATION to vote. In a democracy, it is the duty of every citizen to vote. Being incarcerated does not mean someone stops being a citizen.
The Prison Industrial Complex
Thanks to prison labor, the United States is once again an attractive location for investment in work that was designed for Third World labor markets. A company that operated a maquiladora (assembly plant in Mexico near the border) closed down its operations there and relocated to San Quentin State Prison in California. In Texas, a factory fired its 150 workers and contracted the services of prisoner-workers from the private Lockhart Texas prison, where circuit boards are assembled for companies like IBM and Compaq.
“The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself,” says a study by the Progressive Labor Party, which accuses the prison industry of being “an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect to forced slave labor and concentration camps.”
The topic of prison labor has even been an issue in the 2020 Presidential Primary, where candidate Kamala Harris came under fire for having opposed an early prisoner release program for prisoners in California because it would have caused a disruption to the State’s labor pool.
The Boston Bomber and the Slippery Slope
The Practical Reasons for Allowing Prisoners to Vote
For every 100 people eligible to vote in the United States, at least 2 of them are in jail. When we have Presidential elections that turn on only 1% or 2% difference in the electorate, this can be a deciding factor.
For example: in 2016, Hillary Clinton lost the state of Michigan to Donald Trump by a margin of only 0.23% of the vote, or 10,704 votes. Michigan locks up a high percentage of its people, In 2016 Michigan had over 64,000 prisoners in their jails and prisons, a majority of whom were people of color. Allowing prisoners to vote in Michigan could thus have had a major impact on the outcome of the election.
It’s All About Racism
Aha!! I hear Republicans scream – you Democrats just want to increase the number of people who will vote for you! This is a specious argument, because it presupposes that either (1) the US “criminal justice system” is a racist institution that locks up poor, indigenous, black and brown people disproportionately, or that (2) the person making this accusation is themselves a racist who believes that such people are inherently or innately more criminal than their own base. In the case of the former, the solution is not to strip people of their rights, but to create a more just system. In the case of the latter, well … racism is not a legitimate basis of argument.
EuroYankee is a dual citizen, US-EU. He travels around Europe, writing on politics, culture and such. He pays his US taxes so he gets to weigh in on what is happening in the States.