Prison-Industrial-Complex-hands-on-bars11_1A new study suggests that the recent nominal decline in America’s prison population may be a case of political bait-and-switch.

The government has trumpeted a reduction in the number of federal and state inmates over the past three years, to 1.57 million in 2012, down fractionally from a peak of 1.62 million in 2009.

But a report released Wednesday reveals a countervailing trend: The number of prisoners serving life sentences reached a record of nearly 160,000 last year. Of those, 49,000 were serving life without the possibility of parole, up 22.2 percent since 2008.

One in nine American prisoners is locked up for life, according to the study, “Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America,” by Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst with the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit criminal justice advocacy group.

“Unfortunately, lifers are typically excluded from most sentencing reform conversations because there’s this sense that it’s not going to sell, politically or with the public,” Nellis told WhoWhatWhy.

“Legislators are saying, ‘We have to throw somebody under the bus,’” added Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group. “And it’s the lifers who get thrown under the bus.”

Nellis found that the trend toward more life sentences holds true across the ideological breadth of America–from blue states like California, Washington, Pennsylvania and New York, to red states like Texas, Georgia and Louisiana, to purple states like Florida, Ohio and Nevada.

California Is Lifer Leader

With 40,362 lifers, California had one-quarter of the country’s life-sentenced population. Other lifer-leading states were Florida (12,549), New York (10,245), Texas (9,031), Georgia (7,938), Ohio (6,075), Michigan (5,137), Pennsylvania (5,104) and Louisiana (4,657).

“I was surprised by the consistency of the increase across the states,” Nellis said. “There really isn’t any state out there that isn’t growing its lifer population. There seems to be no ideological barrier.”

California also had the highest proportion of lifers, at a remarkable 30.1 percent of its 134,000 inmates. Other leaders by percentage were Utah, 29.2 percent; Nevada, 21.5; Massachusetts, 19.4; New York, 18.8; Alabama, 16.6, and Washington, 15.4.

Predictably, there are stark racial elements to the data. Just under half of all lifers were black, but the percentage was much higher in some states and in federal prisons: 77.4 percent in Maryland, 72 percent in Georgia, 71.5 in Mississippi and 62.3 percent in the federal system.

In most statehouses and on Capitol Hill, economic considerations prompted reconsideration of the politically expedient “nail ‘em and jail ‘em” laws that proliferated in the 1980s and ‘90s, stuffing prisons beyond capacity.

Under a sentencing reform ethos that has gained traction with both major political parties, lawmakers accede to more leniency for nonviolent offenders but demand perpetual imprisonment for “hardcore” criminals.

Their motivations? In theory, politicians are protecting themselves against “soft on crime” campaign bromides.

But keeping America’s roughly $80 billion prison industry humming pays political homage to any number of grateful beneficiaries: powerful prison unions, which are invested in maintaining flush membership rolls; the hundreds of penitentiary company towns coast to coast that depend on the commodity of felons; and private prison behemoths like Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, which made the fiduciary dynamics of incarceration clear last year when it offered to buy prisons in 48 states–as long as the states agreed to keep the facilities 90 percent full of convicts.

Paying Later for Geriatric Care

But there is another important economic consideration: More life sentences today mean higher health care costs to taxpayers down the line for geriatric prisoners.

A 2012 report by Human Rights Watch on America’s burgeoning population of senior citizen prisoners estimated that health care costs for geriatric felons can be up to nine times greater than for younger inmates. (More conservative estimates have placed the number at two to three times as high.)

The Vera Institute of Justice reported last year that states pay an average of $31,000 per year per inmate, but the figure is much higher in some locales. For example, the Independent Budget Office in New York City reported last month that the city’s average per annum prisoner cost is $168,000.

The increase in lifers is due in part to enactment of new laws that have quietly “broadened the definition of these hardcore offenders, the so-called ‘worst of the worst,’” Nellis said.

As a result, about 10,000 prisoners were serving life for nonviolent offenses in 2012, Nellis reported. About 64.3 percent of all lifers were in for homicide, 13.7 for sexual assault, 14.1 for assault, robbery or kidnapping, 4 percent for a property offense and 2 percent for drugs.

“It’s an area that has driven me nuts for years,” said FAMM’s Stewart. “The number of nonviolent offenders serving life is ridiculous.”

She said America’s “love affair” with interminable sentences has skewed our sensibilities.

“A 30-year sentence isn’t enough now. It has to be a life sentence–or [at least] 50 years,” she said,.” “We have become so accustomed to the idea that you had your chance, you blew it, and now you’re in prison forever. Rehabilitation and redemption, especially for any violent crime, is no longer even part of the conversation. There is no political will for that.”

“Tens of thousands of people are being sentenced to death by incarceration, with prison terms that far exceed the lifespan of the defendants,” said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a Florida-based prisoner advocacy non-profit.

Wright speaks with unusual authority on the subject. He was sentenced to 25 years to life for killing a man in a drug-related robbery near Seattle in 1987. He was released after 17 years. Had he committed his crime a few years later, after politicians began their mandatory minimum frenzy, he might still be in prison.

“One of the main drivers of the prison boom hasn’t necessarily been more crime or more criminals,” he said. “It’s that people who go to prison are staying much longer.”


Do Long Sentences Deter Crime?

Do draconian sentences reduce crime? Probably not much. In recent years, research has raised questions about the role that longer sentences and the policy of mass imprisonment have played in the country’s crime decline.

A 2010 report by the Sentencing Project concluded that the certainty of punishment, not the severity, has a far greater deterrent effect.

“Existing evidence does not support any significant public safety benefit of the practice of increasing the severity of sentences by imposing longer prison terms,” the report concluded.

Research also has shown that older inmates and former lifers who are paroled are far less likely to commit new crimes. In one example, a report on lifer recidivism by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation earlier this year concluded that former lifers commit new crimes and are returned to prison “at markedly lower rates” than other ex-convicts.

Wright said the explosion of life without parole sentences in the past 20 years—often used as an alternative to condemnation to Death Row–is particularly inequitable.

“A guy who gets a three-strikes conviction for robbing a place by holding his finger in his pocket (Larry Fisher, in Washington state in 1994) is serving the same life-without-parole as Gary Ridgway, who killed 48 people,” he said. “There’s a serious disconnect there.”

WhoWhatWhy asked Nellis, the lifer report’s author, why Americans should care.

“People across the political spectrum in our country say they believe in second chances,” she said. “We need to separate who we are mad at from who we are afraid of, and when we do that we’ll see most of these people who are in prison for life are no long threats to public safety. When we get past [the] pain and anguish of the crimes they committed, we’ll see it’s really not serving anyone to keep them in prison.”

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Missie Baker

Such a complicated issue and with the stench of big business making profits from treating humans as commodities this warrants serious investigation. Victims deserve our sympathies and support but the punishment should fit the crime. I’ve read about two convicts with life sentences, one spending 40 years in solitary and the other spending 35 years so far. Imprisonment in a concrete box for life. The supermax prisons for the worst offenders seem an unthinkable unbearable alternative to the death penalty. I wish there were reasonable alternatives. I’ve read France has a limit of twenty years for even the worse offenses. There are no quick fixes. Thanks for writing about this here.


To get a tight handle on it requires a careful reading of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Otherwise minds just scramble around and around butting their heads against walls and doors that won’t open. At the present time, prisons themselves are big business and provide employment for the unskilled and minimally educated. To redo them says Foucault, that is up to the prisoners themselves to lead the way on this. Not something to be done from above to them.


Foucault is a great starting point for this conversation — but a lot has changed, and accelerated, since he was around. Just my opinion, but I think Pierre Bourdieu’s stuff best illuminates the link between post-industrialist capitalism and the rise of the penal state. Private companies will always be in the mix in America, but the so-called “prison-industrial Complex” is something of a sideshow compared to the mainsprings of the trend.


The Grid is getting tighter and the mesh finer with less and less wiggle room. Prisons are such big biz now, so corporate that I think you are right. They are unfixable just like capitalism.


Of course things have changed “but the more things change, the more they remain the same” eh. The Foulcauldian Grid of power/knowledge/capital/normality is still in place. It is stronger than ever, tighter, the mesh is finer, less wiggle room, etc. The design on the surface may look different, but the underlying structure is the same. Nietzsche through Baudrillard through DeLillo shows how to not change it but destroy it. It must destroy itself and we must use judo against it. Foucault says out greatest danger now is confinement and surveillance.


Will the writers and interviewers please please please read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.

Missie Baker

Here’s another telling statistic:

(AG)Holder said the United States accounts for just 5 percent of the world’s population but incarcerates almost a quarter of the prisoners around the globe.
Prison planet. You build ’em, we fill em.


As you read this article 10 Citizens were arrested for marijuana possession. They will spend an average $4000 trying to stay out of prison. None ever hurt anyone!


The number one growth business in our country is building prisons.I think that fact explains a lot.

Dave Lindorff

Nice piece Dave. And very important. Since old people rarely commit crimes, and since people do change, the whole notion of life in prison without parole is both stupid and an obscenity. In most of Europe, the concept doesn’t exist. The Norwegian rightwing nutjob who slaughtered dozens of teenagers is sentenced to, I believe, 16 years, renewable after a mental evaluation. In Finland, which I visited this summer, the longest legal sentence, even for murder, is 11 years (also renewable). There is no such thing as a life sentence.

America is a sick place.

Dave Lindorff

Missie Baker

“Department of Justice statistics show
that prisoners 55 or older recidivate at a rate of
just 2 percent. (Timothy A. Hughes et al., Trends
in State Parole, 1999–2000, Bureau Just. Stat.
Special Rep. (Oct. 2001),
content/pub/pdf/tsp00.pdf.) Other studies have
indicated that there is virtually no recidivism for
individuals age 60 or older. (See, e.g., Kyung Yon
Jhi & Hee-Jong Joo, Predictors of Recidivism
Across Major Age Groups of Parolees in Texas,
Just. Pol’y J., Spring 2009.)

and from a Human Rights Watch report, Jan 28, 2012:

The report found, for example, that the number of sentenced state and federal prisoners 65 or older increased at 94 times the rate of the overall inmate population between 2007 and 2010. The prevalence of state prisoners serving life sentences or sentences of 20 years or more ensures that many inmates will not be released from prison until they are extremely old, if
at all.


Yes it is a very logical piece of writing. But it ignores the importance of the Foucauldian Grid of power.knowledge/capital/normality. LIfe imprisonment is to keep them in there. Keeping them in there is to keep the corporation power of the prisons going. They are now an important part of the economy. Dissemble them and we have mass unemployement, especially in smaller towns where they are the employer of last resort. As Michael Moore shows in his two Flint MI films: people who used to work side by side in the now defunct auto industry there, are now facing each other from both sides of the cages.


Really? and how would you feel about it if the inmate in question had killed your loved one? Would you actually feel they should EVER see the light of day on the other side of the electrified fence? I seriously doubt it.

Melissa Jackson

i believe we are not to judge or bring down judgment,my 19 year old was killed by a coward and yes id like him to pay..but it wont bring back my son and this coward lives a ark life inside or out

Melissa Jackson

can i share your words? check out the petition im trying to help get as many ppl to agree



I predict a solution will arise to this burgeoning American prison population that costs so much. As the economy continues to crater and as the legal and illegal immigrant population continues to swell bring in more and more low IQ, unskilled, low-potential people, and as the spawn of increasing numbers of single parent “households” produce more and more violent crime, more and more convicts there will be a swing to a solution.

I predict that the solution will be a return to execution as a way of terminating the problem. To paraphrase Stalin: no person, no problem. Why warehouse when society can cheaply eliminate, especially when a depression is going on. Even the most “liberal” goody two shoes will chose to eat rather than starve if it means capital punishment delivered swiftly is the only perceived way to cut costs.

Dan Kurt

Cathy Allmon

I work as a freelance investigator for two inmates in Arkansas Womens Prison in Newport, Arkansas. They have done 42 years, they were sentence by a jury to life with parole in 15 years. The prosecutor in their case had been disbarred in 1973 and was facing felony charges himself, but was still allowed to prosecute this case. There were certain jury members who did not want to find them guilty but the jury foreman told them that if they found these two women guilty of the murders, they could give them life with parole in 15 years and both women would be free in 15 years.

That is not the worst part: the so-called prosecutor sent a letter to the judge after these women were locked in prison, saying that the sentence was void unless someone altered the papers, so the judge sent a handwritten letter to the Arkansas Department of Corrections asking them to alter the committment orders. In my investigation the ADC said they did not alter any papers.

So these two women have sat in prison for 42 years on a void sentence.

Arkansas Justice is an Injustice to me because they will not do the right thing and release these women after serving their time for their crime