Thanks in large part to the War on Drugs, the United States houses the world’s largest prisoner population. More than 2 million Americans are behind bars. With less than a quarter of its population, we even have more prisoners than China. This is one of the great scandals of present-day America, and it doesn’t receive the serious attention it deserves from politicians and mainstream media. And the GOP, led by the Trump Administration, plans to make it much worse.
At a time when we should decriminalize nonviolent offenses and lower the prison population, Trump has threatened to escalate the federal government’s enforcement of marijuana laws. Even states that have legalized the plant may face federal interference. Jeff Sessions, the new attorney general, is a far-right hardliner who once declared, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He couldn’t care less about discriminatory, race-based policing, and substance criminalization has long been understood as a vehicle to target minority communities.
Sessions is also a big booster of the private prison industry, and is paid generously for his advocacy. In his last year in office, President Obama made the widely praised decision to phase out the federal government’s contracts with for-profit prisons. Already that decision has been reversed by Sessions. Stock in the private prison industry, which contributed millions to Trump’s presidential campaign, is already soaring. The industry is well-known to be rife with abuse.
Trump’s immigration policies will be a further financial boon to private prisons. Under Trump, ICE has been given greater leeway. The agency has targeted schools, arrested people at routine check-ins and people seeking help, and even staked out church homeless shelters. It’s a concerted roundup that is indeed akin to the Nazi roundup of Jews in Europe. For the morally depraved Sessions and his donors, there is money to be made caging these human beings.
And if Republican state legislatures have their way, immigrants and marijuana smokers will be joined in their for-profit prison cells by liberal activists. Several state legislatures have debated bills to criminalize peaceful protest, a right enshrined in the First Amendment. Trump’s presidency has brought angry citizens into the streets and town halls as never before. This dictatorial regime and its congressional enablers would like nothing more than to outlaw that dissent.
It’s interesting to note that Sessions is the latest member of Trump’s administration to come under fire for undisclosed connections to Russian officials. Russian president Vladimir Putin is a strongman role model of Trump’s who’s shown no hesitancy to jail his political rivals. As the Russia plot thickens, the similarities between Putin and Trump’s apparent law enforcement agenda become ever more striking.
The benefits to Republicans of mass incarceration are enormous. For one thing, big business can exploit the nearly free prison labor. But more than that, perhaps, is the desire to impose criminal records on liberals with the aim to prevent them from voting. Republicans acknowledge that the voter ID laws they push for, which disproportionately target low-income minorities, help them win elections. As Trump continues to peddle lies about the electoral system, he is signaling massive voter suppression. Criminalizing liberal activism is another piece of that plan.
A central theme of Trump’s campaign was law and order. He lies about the nation’s murder rate, he lies about the rate at which immigrants commit crimes, and he lies about the threat from terrorism, exaggerating all three and warning that only he can fix them. At the same time, he dismisses any connection between the escalation of hate crimes and his own demonizing rhetoric.
Just last week a white terrorist shot two Indian-American men because he thought they were Iranian. Trump mentioned it only in passing at his speech before Congress. A rise in anti-Semitism prompted Trump to wonder whether Jews were making threats against themselves to make him look bad. This is a man who sees criminal activity in every one of his political opponents, but ignores it willfully when it’s one of his own supporters. “Law and order” means smash immigrants and anyone who’s anti-Trump.
Between crackdowns on legalized pot, ICE raids in multicultural neighborhoods, an attorney general who’s beholden to private prisons, the criminalization of basic constitutional rights, an authoritarian president backed by fascistic zealots, and our fiercely divided political climate, the threat of American mass incarceration has never been greater. Like the gulags and the concentration camps, tens of millions could be sent away. Prisons may prove to be one of the strongest anti-liberal weapons in the Trump/Bannon regime.