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New Left Review 7, January-February 2001

Why look at the famous incarceration rates of the US only from the standpoint of the consumer—America’s two million prisoners? David Ladipo shows how practical and profitable they are for the producer—attracting investment and generating employment where small towns and impoverished counties need them most. What could be more rational than sentencing laws that keep the industry booming?



Bill Clinton memorably entered the White House eight years ago over the body of poor, lobotomized Ricky Ray Rector, whose execution he had hurried back to Arkansas to attend. As he departs, the American prison population stands at two million, an all-time high, up from 1,429,000 in 1992, with a disproportionately soaring rate of incarceration among young black men. His administration saw the introduction at Federal level of the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ sentencing policy (imposing life prison-terms, without parole, on a third conviction) and increased penalties for drug-related crimes in the Sentencing Commission’s mandatory guidelines. It actively promoted ‘truth-in-sentencing’ provisions (prisoners forced to serve at least 85 per cent of their sentences before parole), pumping Federal funds into prison-building projects in states where such practices prevailed. Small wonder that Gore and Clinton failed to protest at the 700,000 or so (predominantly black) Florida voters disenfranchised as a result of previous felony convictions; these were policies they had been conniving at for the past eight years.

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David Ladipo, ‘The Rise of America’s Prison-Industrial Complex’, NLR 7: £3

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