Even the most jaundiced conservative skeptics should give the Left credit for spotting a growth industry. Ever since the explosive growth of America's correctional system began in the late 1970s, the so-called "prison industrial complex" (to use Angela Davis' phrase) has ranked near the top of the radical left's enemies list.
Advocating for prison reform, indeed, is a worthy cause. In many ways America's prison system represents the worst of big government. Racist gangs (black and white) run many prisons, male-on-male rape has grown increasingly common, and almost 70 percent of those leaving correctional facilities end up back inside within a few years. Things have only gotten worse as the prison system has grown: Since the late 1970s America's incarceration rate has increased six-fold. Today, America has, by far, the highest incarceration rate in the developed world. But the Left's rants against prisons are based on illogical thinking, incorrect statistics, and outright falsehoods; they tend to distract attention from the real problems.
To start with, ample investment in prison infrastructure has brought important benefits. While American crime rates were the highest in the developed world during the 1970s and early 1980s, British Home Office found last year that America now has the lowest crime victimization rate of any large western nation. Community-based policing strategies, demographics, and, perhaps, the 1990s' economic boom played a role in cutting crime. But any honest calculus reveals that prisons have helped too. But the Left doesn't acknowledge any of this. In introducing wrongheaded legislation to reduce sentences for the street-level drug dealers who terrorize inner cities extreme-Left congresswoman Maxine Waters contended that stiff drug sentences had lead to prisons being overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders. She's wrong: The Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that the overwhelming bulk of the increase results in prison populations stems from longer sentences for violent criminals. (Most "non-violent" drug offenders actually have convictions for violent offenses anyway.)
Jesse Jackson's oft-repeated rant accusing prisons of being racist also falls short. In fact, a study from Linda Chavez' Center for Equal Opportunity shows that blacks actually get shorter sentences than similarly situated whites for nearly all offenses. (The trends CEO found may actually be evidence of racism: Since the great majority of crime is intra-racial, its probable that crimes committed against blacks get less punishment than those committed against whites.) Black murderers, it's worth noting, also get the death penalty less often than their white counterparts.
Same goes for the common canard — argued most persuasively in Joel Dyers' book The Perpetual Prisoner Machine — that America locks people up to make money. When I called him, Dyer told me that he sees the prison system as a manifestation of the real enemy: capitalism. While dying farm towns can get over-enthusiastic about the opening of a new prison, the industry remains a rather small one. Only about five percent of inmates live in profit-making prisons and most private corrections firms lose money.
The left's caricature of the prison system as a brutal, racist, ineffective operation run for the profit of the wealthy, in other words, has (no surprise) little relationship with reality. Even worse, this caricature ignores very real problems. Take, for example, the problem of race in prison. Prisons represent a fertile breeding ground for racism of all stripes-nearly all white prison gangs are explicitly racist-but, since anti-white racism amongst blacks is at least as much of a problem behind bars, the Left can't bring itself to say much about it.
Male-on-male prison rape, likely the most ignored crime problem in the U.S., also gets little attention from most leftwing prison activists. Although Edward Kennedy has long pushed the issue in the Senate, conservative Republicans Jeff Sessions and Frank Wolf have emerged as the leading champions of important anti-prison rape legislation in the House. Squeamishness about confronting black racism probably explains this strange myopia as well. While white racist gangs pick on blacks with alarming frequency, the demographics of America's prisons mean that prison rape is overwhelmingly a crime which blacks commit against whites. And, therefore, politically incorrect for the Left to talk about.
More recently, the Left has even begun to stand in the way of effective rehabilitation programs. A recent study from The Urban Institute (no right-wing bastion) indicates that programs that let inmates work for money are among most promising path to rehabilitation and reduced recidivism. Tell that to the Prison Activist Resource Center, the far Left's leading prison-activist collective. It opposes just about all efforts to move prisoners into the private sector work force.
America has a serious crisis in its prison system. Some groups on the Left — most prominently Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants — have reasonable programs for fixing them. So do many on the right. Indeed, the largest non-profit focused exclusively on prisons today is almost certainly Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship — a conservative Christian ministry. But in all too many cases, lies from the far Left have come to substitute for good policy. Radical leftists aren't just wrong when they rant against the prison system; they actually damage the cause of reform.