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American Gulag Pt. 1: The US Prison Industrial Complex

Rachel Herzing
Date Published: 
August 01, 2005
    In April, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released the most recent statistics about who is imprisoned in United States’ prisons and jails. According to BJS, by June 30 of last year the US imprisoned more people than ever: 1,410,404 people were held in state and federal prisons, an additional nearly 700,000 people were held in local jails, resulting in an unprecedented 2.1 million people caged in the United States’ adult jails and prisons. When considering all those under correctional control – behind bars, on probation or parole – the number jumps to nearly 7 million people.

While the number of people the US cages is the highest in the country’s history (up 2.3% from last year’s numbers) and by far the highest in the world, the information released by the BJS closely follows a 32-year continuous rise in US imprisonment rates. The staggering number of people behind bars is also solidly within the context of continually falling crime rates. In fact, the US finds itself facing historically low crime rates.

It is not news that these numbers don’t include many of the people imprisoned in one way or another by the US. For instance, while the numbers reflect those youth who find themselves in the adult system, it does not represent the over 100,000 youth locked away in the juvenile justice system’s cages (including private and tribal cages). While many of those locked in state and federal prisons and in jails are people without US citizenship, these numbers do not reflect the hundreds of thousands of people who spend time in immigrant detention cages during the course of a year in the US. I don’t even know how to start counting the number of people imprisoned as a result of US military actions – even higher numbers to contribute to the already unfathomable totals.

Business as usual

So, why does all this merit comment? The trends above are persistently durable and these statistics demonstrate business as usual for the US prison industrial complex (PIC). Additionally, the break down of who is most directly targeted and whose communities represent the fastest growing segments of the imprisoned population continue to represent the most vulnerable segments of the US population.

Despite their consistency and seeming permanence the trends are still remarkable. It’s worth commenting that the US imprisons more people than any other country in the world. It’s worth commenting that there isn’t a correlation between what’s called crime and the punishment of imprisonment. It’s worth commenting on the reality that locking more and more people in cages for longer and longer periods of time is not creating healthy, stable neighborhoods and families but more disordered and tenuous ones.

While jails, prisons, detention centers, probation, parole, and all the other elements of the PIC that lead people to find themselves in cages do an extremely efficient job of alienating, disappearing, and killing entire segments of the population – what I believe to be the real functions of the PIC – they lack the same efficiency in solving the social, economic, and political problems they are allegedly meant to tackle. As we have seen over the past few decades, locking people in cages and having them mark time does not make us safe. It does not provide a deterrent to people who might find themselves engaged in extralegal activities. It does not cultivate the kind of changes in prisoners that would allow them to return home “fixed” and any more capable of successful participation in their neighborhoods and families than they were before they were imprisoned. It does not silence dissenting voices.

It’s worth commenting on the priorities of legislators and policy makers who continually favor punishment and containment over education, health, and other supportive services. It’s worth commenting that the hyper-aggressive policing and surveillance that have been woven into the fabric of day-to-day life mean that we’re faced with entire neighborhoods that are occupied zones. It’s worth commenting that sentencing reforms such as mandatory minimums have resulted in many more people facing much more prison time. It’s worth stating that the PIC must be dismantled.

Taking action

But more than commenting, it’s worth taking action. That’s why it’s important to support projects that reduce our contact with the police and help us know what to do when we do face police contact; work to ban the box on employment forms that question whether or not a person has a felony conviction; organize to keep youth in their homes and neighborhoods instead of finding “more humane” ways to lock them up; expose the myth that prisons bring economic growth to depressed communities; work in solidarity with prisoners who plan strikes and work stoppages; flip the common sense that uses the PIC as the first response to fear, confusion, or harm; and support our friends and family members in getting shelter, food, and employment as they come home from jails and prisons.

On August 13, people from across the country will be meeting in Washington, DC, to stand united against US imprisonment. It will be an important event and I hope people will join the effort to raise voices of dissent and take action against the trends of policing and imprisonment that have helped the US to lead the world in imprisoning its own people. You can find out more about how to participate in this event at

If the BJS numbers represent business as usual, then we need to carry on with the usual business of applying pressure to the people and systems that make the business of the PIC possible.


—Rachel Herzing organizes with Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization dedicated to abolishing the prison industrial complex.