Nation Of Inmates: The Impact On Poor And Minority Communities

On any given day, we have about 2.3 million people behind bars in federal, state and local facilities.

Al Jazeera examines the impact of America's high incarceration rate on its penal system and on poor and minority communities. There are more prisoners in the US than any other nation in the world, with the U.S. making up five percent of the world's population, but accounts for 25 percent of its prison population. In just the last three decades, the number held in U.S. federal prisons has spiked by nearly 80 percent.

"There has been in this country over the last 30 years a relentless upward climb in the incarcerated population and disturbing as the situation is with the federal prison system, that is really only the tip of the iceberg because the federal prison system is only about 10 percent of the total number of people incarcerated in this country. On any given day, we have about 2.3 million people behind bars in federal, state and local facilities."

- David Fathi, ACLU National Prison Project

The number of inmates in U.S. federal prisons has increased from about 25,000 in 1980 to 219,000 in 2012, according to a report by the US Congressional Research Service.

The report says the federal prison system was 39 percent over its capacity back in 2011...and the situation is worse for high and medium security male facilities.

High-security prisons were overcrowded by 51 percent, while medium security prisons were overcrowded by 55 percent in 2011.

A report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), states that overcrowding has contributed to worse safety and security conditions for both inmates and staff.

The overcrowded facilities have contributed to a multibillion dollar demand for private prisons. The industry claims it is helping the government save money. But others argue that for-profit prisons only increase the incentive to incarcerate more people.

Nearly half of those incarcerated in federal prisons are drug offenders. Another 16 percent of inmates are in prison for offenses related to weapons, explosives and arson. Those convicted of immigration violations make up 12 percent of the federal prison population.

"Policy makers have come to the realization, on a state and federal level, that you can't necessarily build yourself out of a crime situation, that we just can't continue at these numbers to incarcerate people, and the impact on state budgets and the money spent on a federal level to deal with mass incarceration has just left us in a lot of ways unprotected in other areas."

- Matthew Mangino, a former DA in Pennsylvania

And the impact of mass imprisonment spreads far beyond the prison walls.

Sociologists have found that the rise in incarceration rates reduce social mobility and ensure both prisoners and their families remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.

In the U.S., minorities make up over 70 percent of the federal prison population.

Demographically, African-Americans - who represent 12 percent of the US population - make up 37 percent of federal prisoners, and Latinos - who are 16 percent of the population - make up 35 percent of prisoners, according to Al Jazeera.

So, what is the impact of the high incarceration rate on the US penal system and on poor communities?

To discuss this, Inside Story Americas with presenter Shihab Rattansi is joined by guests: David Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project; Matthew Mangino, a former district attorney in Pennsylvania; and Marc Mauer, the executive director of The Sentencing Project, and author of the book "Race to Incarcerate."

About Diane Sweet

Diane Sweet's picture
Senior Editor, Lives in a gerrymandered district in Michigan.

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