Americans in Prison

Anytime you come across two articles on the current state of American prisons, it’s probably worth sharing.

1. LA Progressive, examines the plight of African-American men in prisons, which is reaching (or already has) epidemic proportions. The notes that “More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.”

2. Over at the Chronicle, there is a glib — not sure if that’s the word I’m looking for — article about bringing back flogging or corporal punishment. Punishment in society has been abolished, in favor of rehabilitation and in essence, incarceration.

We are in denial about the brutality of the uniquely American invention of mass incarceration. In 1970, before the war on drugs and a plethora of get-tough laws increased sentence lengths and the number of nonviolent offenders in prison, 338,000 Americans were incarcerated. There was even hope that prisons would simply fade into the dustbin of history. That didn’t happen.

From 1970 to 1990, crime rose while we locked up a million more people. Since then we’ve locked up another million and crime has gone down. In truth there is very little correlation between incarceration and the crime rate. Is there something so special about that second million behind bars? Were they the only ones who were “real criminals”? Did we simply get it wrong with the first 1.3 million we locked up? If so, should we let them out?

America now has more prisoners, 2.3 million, than any other country in the world. Ever. Our rate of incarceration is roughly seven times that of Canada or any Western European country. Stalin, at the height of the Soviet gulag, had fewer prisoners than America does now (although admittedly the chances of living through American incarceration are quite a bit higher). We deem it necessary to incarcerate more of our people—in rate as well as absolute numbers—than the world’s most draconian authoritarian regimes. Think about that. Despite our “land of the free” motto, we have more prisoners than China, and they have a billion more people than we do.

Sometimes I think America is just staring down the barrel of a gun, waiting for the trigger to be pulled. It almost happened in 2008. If your car was spinning its wheels in a ditch for 30 years, wouldn’t you eventually call a tow truck to pull it out instead of, you know, throttling the gas? Feels like America is just throttling the gas in a ditch.

Still, I suppose I’d rather do that in America than in any other country in the world.

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