Really? Not enough people in U.S. prisons?
Attorney General Jeff Sessions | AP

Incredibly, in a speech given in Nashville on March 15, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his goal is to increase the country’s prison population. In the attorney general’s mind what the U.S. needs is more and more mass incarceration.

Sessions began his address with an attempt at levity by remarking, “We’ve got some space to put some people.”

Either he was trying to curry favor with an increasingly capricious Trump or he was expressing his own racist bent toward people of color or, more likely, both.

But for this being a serious address, his delivery could be taken as pure comedy or a journey into the inner sanctums of insanity.  Sessions lamented the fact that the federal prison population had declined in recent years, from 220,000 to 180,000 and in his harangue committed to the pursuit of longer sentences in the future.

Sessions advocated mandatory minimum sentences which have been strongly condemned by the supporters of criminal justice reform. He spoke at a conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). I must add that there was hardly any  public notice that he was coming to Nashville. The only notice I saw was in the local newspaper that ran a small column on his speaking in the city on the very day of his presentation. Sessions declined to disclose to the paper the subject of his speech.  It appeared he was “sneaking” into Nashville to avoid any protest demonstrations.

His advocacy of increasing the inmate population flies in the face of national sentiment and a movement to roll back mass incarceration. The United States has become a “prison house of its own people,” borrowing as I am from Lenin’s characterization of Czarist Russia at the beginning of the last century. It has been estimated that one in every 100 U.S. residents is in prison. The U.S. infamously stands out among the nations of the world as the “incarceration capital” of the globe.

The U.K. recently refused to extradite a prisoner to the U.S. because of its inhumane prison conditions.

But again inconceivably, Sessions says there are not enough human beings in this nation’s jail cells, notwithstanding, the undisputed fact that the U.S already has the world’s highest incarceration rate. The figures are staggering and disgraceful for a nation that touts itself as the “land of the free.” The United States has two percent of the world’s population, but has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated.

Men compose 90 percent of the prison population with an incarceration rate 14 times that of women. These men are in the vast majority red, black and brown and are mostly in their 20s and 30s. Incarceration rates for African Americans and Latinos are greatly higher than for whites. Black men are incarcerated at a rate of 3,074 per 100,000; Latinos are incarcerated at 1,258 per 100,000; and white males are incarcerated at 459 per 100,000.

Native Americans are incarcerated at a rate of 38 percent higher than the national average and

Indigenous men are incarcerated at four times the rate of white men. Native women are incarcerated at six times the rate of white women.

But this is not enough for Mr. Sessions. Perhaps, he is also disturbed that in 2010 the country’s overall prison population saw a decline of 0.3 percent, for the first time since 1972, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

We must look at the “dog whistle” in his speech to the IACP. From the above cited statistics the implication is that since there are more people of color in jail than whites, the reason is that people of color are more likely to break the law than whites. Sessions asserted in his address that putting more people in prison would increase community safety. Proceeding from that premise, the solution is to put more people of color in prison because they are a danger to the public. This will promote community security.

Interestingly enough, the Davidson County Sheriff, Daron Hall, (Nashville is in Davidson County) declined to attend the conference. He criticized Sessions’ assertion that putting more people in prison would increase community safety. Hall stated in an interview with the press that,  “It’s unfortunate that the attorney general or anybody else for that matter believes that jail space should be filled. We should all want our communities to be safer but filling jail beds or prison beds has never proven to do that.”

Locally, Nashville’s inmate population has dropped dramatically in the last few years. It has decreased by 30 percent since 2015, Hall reflected. He added that the goal is to decrease the jail population even more by sending fewer misdemeanor suspects to incarceration before trial. The improvements are also a result of public activism on the part of the city’s communities of color.

In the meantime Sessions continues in his attempts to peddle an increasingly antiquated, backward message that is out of sync not just with the nation’s communities but apparently even with the country’s law enforcement agencies.


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He was an organizer and delegate to the First and Second Intercontinental Indian Conferences held in Quito, Ecuador and Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Recently, he has been an active participant and reporter in the Standing Rock struggle in North Dakota. He is an attorney and is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty. He is also writing a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war of the late 20th century. He is also the recipient of several Eagle Awards by the Tennessee Native American Eagle Organization and a former Director of Native American Legal Departments and a Tribal Public Defender.