How did it come to be that America’s prison population is the largest in the civilized world, and what hope is there of changing the course of this troubling trend? The aptly titled new documentary The Biggest Prison System in History, produced as part of the provocative The Empire Files series, examines the origins of this epidemic and boldly points fingers at the institutions and power brokers who profit from the incarceration of more than two million American citizens.
“The U.S. has only five percent of the world’s population,” recites the film’s correspondent Abby Martin, “yet a stunning twenty-five percent of its prisoners.” With many of America’s prisons stretched thin and struggling to operate far beyond capacity, the scourge of mass incarceration propels a series of egregious human rights violations and demeans the country’s moral standing in the rest of the world.
The abuses suffered by victims of the United States prison system are myriad, but the motivations behind these atrocities can usually be whittled down to one key factor: money. Even the phones provided for prisoners are devices for generating obscene amounts of profit. According to data presented in the film, America’s prisons are now largely equipped with pay phones that charge for every minute of use. The phone coverage provider kicks back a whopping 42% of its revenue to the states, which exceeds a staggering $150 million dollars annually. Corporations work in concert with the prison system, employing inmates for behind-the-scenes production jobs for pennies on the dollar. Prison contracts are awarded to the lowest possible bidders, a phenomenon which severely compromises the quality of everything from food to medications to health care.
The Biggest Prison System in History also explores the roles that poverty and race play in maintaining our status as the world’s largest prisoner population, the system’s deficiencies in caring for the mentally ill and failure to adequately invest in productive rehabilitation services. This hard-hitting and unflinching film provides valuable insights into a system that operates largely in shadow from most Americans, and points to a variety of cultural and societal ills that contribute to its continued dominance.