In 1973, the U.S. prison population was 330,000. Today, we have well over two million people locked up. What happened? NPR traces the beginning of the War on Drug to Nelson Rockefeller's decision to get tough on drug pushers, addicts, and users 40 years ago to combat a heroin epidemic in New York City.
Rockefeller, New York's Republican governor, had backed drug rehabilitation, job training and housing. He saw drugs as a social problem, not a criminal one.
But the political mood was hardening. President Richard Nixon declared a national war on drugs, and movies like The French Connection and Panic in Needle Park helped spread the sense that America's cities were unraveling.
Late in 1972, one of Rockefeller's closest aides, Joseph Persico, was in a meeting with the governor. He says Rockefeller suddenly did a dramatic about-face.
"Finally he turned and said, 'For drug pushing, life sentence, no parole, no probation," says Persico.
That was the moment when one of the seeds of the modern prison system was planted.
In January of 1973, Rockefeller proposed mandatory sentences of 15 years to life for drugs charges, even for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The "get tough" laws spread across the country, and so did new prisons. Forty years later, almost half a million people are employed by the prison industry and private corporations make profits by running them. Read the whole story at NPR. Link
Find more statistics on incarceration at Wikipedia. Link