The ACLU released a report on life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and the shocking numbers of inmates who are incarcerated for the rest of their lives with no hope of getting out — for committing non-violent crimes, usually drug-related. There are money interests in keeping people incarcerated, but there are also cultural and psychological ones. Long sentences are entrenched in the law through mandatory minimums, but they’re also seeded in our national psyche as “normal”:
The U.S. imprisons more people than any other society in the history of the world, with more than 2 million people currently behind bars, and private companies are gunning for more (PDF). The Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), just one of several private prison companies, netted $1.7 billion dollars in 2010. CCA’s president and CEO, Damon Hininger, made $3.2 million in 2010. The Geo Group, another top prison company, raked in $1.2 billion and paid its CEO, George Zoley, $3.4 million the same year. The federal government and state governments across the nation funnel money into these private prisons, making them a multibillion dollar industry.
Like many other businesses, the private prison industry lobbies aggressively for its interests — not a problem in theory until you remember that its primary interest is building and filling prison beds. CCA spent more than $18 million on federal lobbying from 1999 to 2009 and nearly $1 million in 2010. From 2000 to 2010, the three biggest for-profit prison companies made more than $6 million in political contributions.
The ACLU report focuses on nonviolent offenders who have been formally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But those individuals are, as the ACLU’s deputy legal director, Vanita Gupta, told me, “just the tip of the iceberg in terms of excessive sentencing and incarceration.” Many more people are serving long prison terms — of hundreds of years — that are effectively life sentences without parole, Gupta said. “We have become inured to excessive sentencing. It’s just become the new normal.”
Compared with life in prison, 10 years sounds short. But think about what you were doing 10 years ago, and then imagine yourself being locked in a 6-by-8-foot cell since then. Our cultural perception of what is a long sentence has become so skewed by the ubiquity of life imprisonment and sentences of 50 years, 100 years and even multiples of 100 years that we have entirely lost perspective on what it means to deprive people of their personal liberty for such exorbitant amounts of time.
Full piece is here.
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