How Pennsylvania’s Prison Population Exploded: Part One

July 2, 2016
By Martha Conley

prison_population.pngSome say Richard Nixon and his “Southern Strategy” paved the path to mass incarceration beginning in 1968, in the aftermath of the Civil Rights revolution in the South.  Many, if not most, Southern whites were incensed at the integration of public accommodations, schools and the extension of voting rights to black people in the South. As Dan Baum reported in a Harper’s Magazine article in April 2016, John Erlichman, who served in Nixon’s White House, told him that Nixon was concerned about two enemies: the anti-war left and black people.  Baum quoted Erlichman as saying:

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting people to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.  We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.  Did we know we were lying about the drugs?  Of course, we did.”

As history reveals, the “war on drugs” was waged primarily on black people, and black communities were disrupted. Black people are still paying a price for integration and being vilified night after night on the evening news for social disorganization not of their making.

Republican strategist Lee Atwater confirmed Erlichman’s statement in an interview with Rick Perlstein recorded in 2012 in The Nation. Atwater said:

“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘nigger, nigger, nigger’. By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’–That hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states rights, and all that stuff…. Now you’re talking about cutting taxes, all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites….”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) must also shoulder much of the blame for mass incarceration, as it created the legislation that made mass incarceration possible. ALEC was founded in 1973 by conservative operatives. It styles itself “America’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism.” One of its main functions is to provide model legislation to member legislators that promotes a radical right agenda. There are currently seven legislators in Pennsylvania (all Republican) who are members of ALEC. According to a report by The Western States Center in 2000, titled, “The Prison Payoff. The Role of Politics and Private Prisons in the Incarceration Boom,” mass incarceration was the creation of ALEC and exemplified the overlap between corporations and public policy. According to the report, Pennsylvania was ALEC’s test case.

Then Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge was a member of ALEC in 1994 when it made prison privatization and tough on crime legislation a major policy initiative. In 1995, the Pennsylvania Legislature sponsored 30 crime bills in Pennsylvania and Governor Ridge signed them into law, leading to the incarceration boom. Mandatory life without parole for first and second degree murder, (previously 20 years to life), trying juveniles as adults and putting them in adult prisons, harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, and a boom in prison construction are just some of the gifts of the 1995 crime bills.

A 2014 article in Fortune Magazine detailed a study of the 10 most corrupt states in the United States. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to Pennsylvanians that our commonwealth made the list, coming in at number five. The study listed construction, salaries, bond issues, corrections, and police departments as prime sources for corruption within a state. Pennsylvania went from eight prisons in 1986 to twenty-six prisons in 2016.  In 1980, the budget for the Department of Corrections was 90 million dollars. In 2015, the budget was two billion dollars. Most of the prisons were built in rural areas and have served as an employment program for the mostly white people living in those areas, with disastrous consequences for the mostly black inmates targeted by mass incarceration and prison construction policies. According to the National Research Council, in 2014, policy changes, not crime rates, resulted in the tripling of the prison population.

According to an article in The Guardian dated December 3, 2013 one of the model bills adopted by ALEC in partnership with the National Rifle Association was Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. The law was used as a template and ALEC disseminated it to other states across the country

By the way, after creating havoc in millions of people’s lives across the United States through mass incarceration, ALEC now claims to be a leader in criminal justice reform.

Martha R. Conley is a lawyer in Pittsburgh and serves as co-chair of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty Pittsburgh and is an official visitor of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.


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