Mass Incarceration in Arizona Social Cultural and Legislative History Essay

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Mass Incarceration in Arizona: Trends and History

Mass incarceration is an example of one of the more profound injustices of our time. Arizona is one of the states in America that currently struggles with mass incarceration, as its penal system has spiraled out of control, becoming a factor of injustice, rather than a necessary and notable part of the justice system. This paper will look at how the penal system has changed—in Arizona and in America as a whole, and discuss how Arizona has also gotten on the corrupt bandwagon of for-profit prisons, something that does a tremendous disservice to all the citizens of the nation. Finally, this paper will examine the race relations in Arizona from a more historical perspective, ultimately demonstrating that mass incarceration impacts black and brown men more than white men, and is ultimately a form of segregation revived. This paper seeks to prove the undeniable connection between the big business of mass incarceration in Arizona and its racist past.

For-Profit Prisons

The prison system used to simply be a melancholy aspect of the greater justice system, a potential consequence of breaking the law (Gottschalk, 2006). Today in Arizona and elsewhere in the United States, it’s big business. Consider the following: “Largely a product of the era of mass incarceration, jails today churn an incredible 11 million people per year through their doors. Americans now spend more than $20 billion annually on jails, a sum that has grown fourfold since 1983. Yet on any given day, more than 60 percent of people sitting in jail are awaiting trial and presumed innocent. This ‘pretrial’ population drove 99 percent of jail growth from 2000-2015” (Rizer & Haggerty, 2017). Based on these bloated numbers, one can infer that there is some form of corruption or some sort of societal ill or imbalance, motivating this trend. The reality is that jails were originally created to be part of a tool in curbing crime. One would think, based on this logic that if jails were effective at reducing crime, there’d be fewer criminals. However, “recent studies show that even short stays in jail can spur a significant increase in a person’s likelihood to reoffend, while longer detentions correlate with even greater odds of recidivism” (Rizer & Haggerty, 2017). Part of this is in connection with how flawed and unjust the system is: the bulk of people currently in jail in Arizona haven’t even been convicted.

While rates of crime in Arizona are exceedingly high, the rate of reoffending is up 65 percent or higher: this is a big red flag that the preponderance of prisons isn’t helping recidivism rates, which is one of the more massive obstacles to the justice system. For example, Pima county is a place where 80% of those in jail haven’t even been convicted of a crime: this puts young people in danger of becoming substance abusers in jail, of being abused, of psychological damage in jail and a host of other dangers (Rizer & Haggerty, 2017). Luckily in Arizona, Supreme Court Chief Justice Scott Bales created the Task Force on Fair Justice for All (Rizer & Haggerty, 2017). One thing that this task force did that was so reputable was shine a light on how the increase in the pretrial population have been motivated by the cash bail system and hence ultimately recommended that “pre-trial detention should be avoided to the furthest extent possible” (Rizer & Haggerty, 2017).

One of the major issues with the proliferation of prisons in Arizona is that it reeks of injustice. Every single person in America has the inherent right, regardless of social class, race, or ethnicity, to expect a justice system that is unbiased, as dictated by our constitution. As a result, “We do not employ a private police force that is paid based on the number of arrests they make. We do not employ private prosecutors who are paid based on the number of convictions obtained.  We do not pay judges based on the amount of fines they collect” (Dacey, 2017). This is because incentivizing such actions would clearly create a disruption of justice by motivating the darker inclinations of human behavior, such as greed to motivate arrests. Rather than administering justice, officials of this system would be more inclined to arrest and jail people for their own personal gain. This would mean that vulnerable populations, such as minorities, would instantly become the “low hanging fruit” and likely to be most victimized by this set-up (Dacey, 2017). All persons in America are supposed to be guaranteed liberty: a justice system that incentivized officials in such a way would be completely disconnected to integrity.

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In Arizona at this time, there is a certain level of this type of corruption present because the private prison business is booming, and its something, which only benefits corporations. Throughout America, opponents to the private prison system have had to use their voices, speaking out about the desire of the government to add thousands more prisons around the nation, something that you take around $50 million to create. Obviously, the private prison system creates a tremendous burden for taxpayers, when all educated citizens know that such money would be better used funding schools or used to rehabilitate the homeless. But an undeniable aspect of our government is in support of incarceration-for-profit and this injustice and corruption of government needs to be changed immediately. Looking back, in 1980 America only had a half a million people in prisons: today that number is 2.3 million. “The U.S. today has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners.  We put as many people in prison as China and Russia combined” (Dacey, 2017). The corruption began to seep into the U.S. system began around 1980 when the federal and local governments started to share some of their duties in running prisons to private, profit-motivated major corporations. Clearly this was a huge mistake, as it was only going to connect greed with the prison system. “CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA) and GEO Group control most of this "market," or the human inventory in profit-producing prison cells.  The private prison industry is now the fourth-largest prison system in the United States, and CCA alone is the fifth largest” (Dacey, 2017). The sheer corruption that acts as a foundation of this system is completely staggering and unconstitutional. It is amazing that this system is allowed in America at all.

Manipulating the Legal System

Prisons quite simply used to be about crime and punishment, and protecting the members of society from dangerous criminals. However, within the private prison system, officials within our society are motivated to lock people up and ensure they stay locked up. Private prisons receive money from the government in compensation for every day the spaces in the walls remain occupied, comparable to how motels and comparable businesses work. Hence, these private corporations know that the more of their cells that are full, the more profits to be made for all people who hold shares in the company. To increase in the corruption and longevity of this crooked business, the big companies hire powerful lobbyists to sponsor legislation and attempt to influence lawmakers to pass laws that will be more conducive to putting people in jail and ensuring they stay there longer. “For-profit prison corporations spend generously on political campaigns to make sure that more of the prisoner inventory is directed to them, and so they can command 20-year government contracts with 90 percent occupancy guarantees – such as with the Arizona Department of Corrections – where the taxpayer holds the bag even when the crime rate goes down” (Dacey, 2017). Even more disturbing is that since motivated by money, for-profit prisons aren’t inclined to release prisoners. Corruption permeated all aspects of this system. Researchers have found that for-profit prisoners will tend to create bogus incident and disciplinary reports that impact parole dates (Dacey, 2017). Prisons are scary, often seemingly lawless places that can cause tremendous amounts of trauma to the individual. In prisons, cellmates learn how to abuse drugs, commit crimes, and engage in violence, while suffering enormous psychological scarring. Within the for-profit prison system, high rates of recidivism abound, a sign of the inherent failure of the system, but probably to the warped minds that run this system, they see it as a positive thing, as if these repeated prisoners are like “repeat customers”

Disrupting the for-profit prison system is something that needs to occur so that justice might reign again. Another way in which the egregious shame of mass incarceration can be disrupted is by pushing for drug sentencing reform. There is an aspect of mass incarceration that has been motivated and enabled by the opioid crisis in America. With the opioid crisis impacting people of all races and social classes, the powers that be, really have a duty….....

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Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press.

Dacey, J. R. (2017, January 8). Viewpoints: Private prisons are costly - and unconstitutional. Retrieved from ed/2017/01/08/private-prisons-arizona-dacey/96120404/

Fealk, R. (2018, February 9). Arizona: A case study in why we need drug sentencing reform. Retrieved from commentary/arizona-case-study-why-we-need-drug-sentencing-reform

Gottsfield, R. L. (2017, August). Fixing Arizona’s Mass Incarceration Dilemma | Morrison Institute for Public Policy. Retrieved from incarceration-dilemma

Gottschalk, M. (2006). The prison and the gallows: The politics of mass incarceration in America. Cambridge University Press.

Rizer, A., & Haggerty, J. (2017, September 14). Our Turn: Want less crime? Put fewer people in jail. Retrieved from ed/2017/09/14/jail-reform-focus-pretrial-detention-crime/493424001/

Wacquant, L. (2002). From slavery to mass incarceration. New left review, 13.

Whitaker, M. C. (1997). In search of Black Phoenicians: African American culture and community in Phoenix, Arizona, 1868-1940.

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