America’s Prison Addiction

23:52 Fri 03 Aug 2007. Updated: 01:34 04 Aug 2007
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One of the problems America has that I didn’t mention yesterday is the number of people it imprisons—another thing I haven’t heard much about from the Democratic Presidential candidates.

Over two million Americans were in prison in 2006, more than in any other country. American per capita rates of incarceration are generally between three and eight times as high as other Western developed nations. For a country as rich as the United States, that’s ridiculous, and for a country that claims to be based on ideals of individual freedom, that’s shameful.

The prison population has quadrupled since 1980. It should be clear that the population itself has not. A huge part of the increase has been due to the “War on Drugs”, and ridiculous numbers of inmates are imprisoned for non-violent offenses—the estimate is about one million of them.

And prison is awful. Perhaps that’s fine with a lot of people, given the focus on punishment in this society. But I think it’s worse than most people know, and I think that most people don’t want to know how bad it is. Given overcrowding, the fact that almost nobody cares about prisoners, and the psychological effects such a setup creates (see the Stanford Prison Experiment—despite problems with the experiment, it makes very clear that the potential for abuse is massive), it should be clear that individuals will have very bad, likely traumatic, experiences while in prison. If they’re non-violent, their experiences may be worse. Put another way, if they’re “weak” in terms of their ability to handle conflict, or perhaps even just in terms of their physical strength, they will suffer more than if they’re “strong”. The most likely lessons to be learnt from being in prison are hardly those that lead to caring and considerate participation in society after prison.

There are probably facilities that aren’t that bad. There are probably facilities that are worse. Who gets put where, and for how long, and with what kind of protection, seems to be dependent on luck, race, and connections. The “justice system” acts as if these differences don’t really exist, and further pretends that the conditions don’t make for “cruel and unusual punishment”—which would be unconstitutional.

The fact that the acronym PMITA (as in, “he’s going to PMITA federal prison”) has achieved fairly widespread use reflects quite horrifically on this society. The idea that male-on-male rape is a major feature of prison life is basically acknowledged and accepted by the culture, but in tandem with official denials, and again the pretense that the conditions of prison aren’t that bad, or are somehow “outside the control” of the system as a whole. If the sentences were realistically constructed, e.g. “I sentence to you five years in federal prison and a twenty percent chance of being raped in that time”, that would clearly violate the Constitution. Most people recognize that this is what a five-year sentence really means (even though white-collar criminals go to different prisons most of the time—another rather major issue), with a significant threat of beatings and possibly death as well, but somehow as a society this is just accepted.

Even for the one million or more violent offenders.

The prison population is also skewed by deep-seated racism, racism that is simply rank and festering, yet is also somehow accepted as part of the package.

The focus on punishment, rather than any other approach, runs through American society, magnified by a media that thrives on creating fear and on highlighting the most horrific crimes, encouraging most people to desire permanent imprisonment for the many dangerous crazies lurking just outside their doors.

The interface with the unbelievably hypocritical “Drug War” leads, as noted above, to the incarceration of huge numbers of nonviolent offenders (twenty percent of prisoners are in on drug offenses). This is cynically and disgustingly exploited by many of the groups with vested interests in the whole system—for example, prison guard unions have lobbied (hard, with significant cash) against attempts to make drug sentencing less harsh, because such changes would reduce the number of prisoners, which would ultimately cost the guards money. Companies have lobbied likewise, as the sector of privatized prisons has been growing rapidly.

And, of course, the more people you incarcerate, the more likely you become to imprison the innocent, as the system creaks under the strain and shortcuts become necessary. What’s the error rate in terms of false positives? We could guess at one percent, which seems extremely generous to the criminal justice system. If it’s one percent, and I suspect it’s significantly higher, then that’s twenty-two thousand people. Twenty-two thousand people in prison, in horrible prison conditions, for crimes they didn’t commit.

Two point two million behind bars, right now, many at the mercy of corrupt guards and/or other inmates. One million of them committed non-violent offenses. And it seems likely that twenty thousand or more are wrongly convicted. Twenty-five percent of the entire world’s imprisoned population here in this country that has five percent of the world’s population, and the conditions of imprisonment are, on average, deeply disturbing. And we spend about sixty billion dollars a year to do this. These are all signs of a highly dysfunctional society.

4 Responses to “America’s Prison Addiction”

  1. Lev Says:

    Tadhg— that was truly a jeremiad. I take exception not to your substance but to your tone… there’s an almost O’Reilly-like quality to the moral indignation that you show for anal rape (an ancient and honorable tradition, in and out of prisons). Instead of lamenting the imminent doom of the our society, it’s better to embrace anal rape and accept it as a manifestation of our human capacity for cruelty and brutality. Either that, or to quit sentencing minor drug offenders to length prison terms.

  2. kevintel Says:

    There is indeed a lot of moral indignation in your post, I would say generally.

    The thing is, what’s the alternative? In a number of states in the Middle East, for example, they’ll give you a hiding and cut something off. The offender gets the message, and there’s no prison term. It’s one solution. Another is shipping them off somewhere, which is what the enterprising British Empire did; it is now Australia, a sought-after travel destination. In medieval times, authorities were highly creative about punishment, and getting executed for a crime was something one might hope for, as the easy option.

    It sounds to me a little like you’re concerned that prison inmates might actually view prison as a very undesirable place to be. They might even feel punished. Really, it’s supposed to be a shite place to be, the idea being that when you get out that you seriously consider behaving yourself and trying not to get put back there.

    Also, punishment of the innocent has been an eternal problem. As long as society punishes people for crime, you’re going to have people who are getting wrongfully punished. This is not a problem of the punishment, but of the system of establishing guilt or innocence.

  3. lusciousblopster Says:

    plenty here to provoke discussion which is a good thing – differences between prisons, punitive justice (as opposed to rehabilitative or other kinds), white collar criminals getting very different treatment (a favourite topic of mine), male-on-male rape (no prizes for why this often seems to elicit more horrified responses than male-on-female rape, while to me the acceptability, including in joke form within popular culture, of referencing prisoners becoming other prisoners’ ‘bitches’, seems to be connected to ideas of male ‘needs’ for sex and sex as a form of power, tropes which are then seen as having inevitable outcomes in an all-male environment). what isn’t talked about here, and of course not everything can be, but would be interesting to discuss more, would include a discussion of laws and their purpose/necessity, whether prisons are necessary, if so in what forms, what their aims are, whether incarceration/restriction of freedom is sufficient punishment, incentives for imprisonment when prisons are attractive or at least superior to potential prisoners’ outside lives, all-female prisons and incidences of abuse and female-on-female rape, and the american obsession with guns and gun violence which is also massively disproportionate to its population and to the numbers of guns in circulation, but which would appear to be intimately linked to the incidence, perception and punishment of certain crimes. racism relating to prisons/criminal justice is of course a massive issue, and needs to be addressed not only in terms of racism among individuals in the criminal justice system (police, judges, juries, prison guards, parole boards etc) but also in terms of the definition of and approach to crimes (sentencing for crack vs powder cocaine possession, or for burglary vs embezzlement for example).

  4. lusciousblopster Says:

    oh i forgot – the main point of posting a comment, was simply to say, well done on not posting yesterday – the start of a new chapter. enjoy it.

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