China has 1.3 billion people and a reputation for locking people up for no reason at all. America has a little under a quarter of their population at 303 million citizens and a reputation as The Land Of The Free. So, which nation has the largest prison population on earth, by 700,000? The United States, with 2.2 million people in prison to China’s 1.5 million. Even Russia, the one-time King of the Gulags with millions served, these days has only 875,000 prisoners out of a population of 142 million, well below the per-capita rate of detention in America. What gives? We’re worse than China and Russia when it comes to locking people away in prison, that’s what gives. Numbers don’t lie and facts are facts.
Why is this? Drugs, mostly. For forty years America has been fighting a War on Drugs. Losing miserably too, with the biggest losers being the million plus prison inmates incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Since Richard Nixon declared war on substances and the people who consume and sell them in a New Prohibition, there is more recreational drug use in America then ever, and more untaxed billions being removed from the United States than anyone thought possible. And this from substances that are mostly made of weeds and wild flowers that would be as cheap as bananas and as profitably taxable as cigarettes if they were legal.
Of course the most deadly and widely abused substance in America is alcohol, which is a legal and accepted part of the fabric of society, with only about 10% of drinkers becoming alcoholics. America once outlawed alcohol but after a dozen years came to it senses and repealed Prohibition after seeing the rise of large organized crime cartels of murderous thugs growing wealthy and brazen by dealing in illegal booze. The demand never slackened for alcohol no matter what the law said so it was made legal again and taxed heavily so that the production and sale of alcoholic beverages is a reliable revenue stream for local, state and federal treasuries, and an affordable vice for millions of Americans. Just like cigarettes, the second-biggest killer substance.
So far America is forty years too late coming to their senses on recreational drugs, which, just like alcohol, people will find and purchase at incredibly high prices no matter what laws are enacted. Just as with the repeal of the alcohol prohibition, no new addicts will be created by legalizing drugs. It’s the same 10% of the population that consumes 90% of the alcohol and the drugs. The other 90% are not prone to addiction, period. That’s the way it is, what the medical facts and official statistics tell us, not the way uninformed alarmists would have us imagine it to be. But still we fight the wrong war, and instead of providing effective treatment for addicts we lock them in prison where they can obtain drugs just as easily as they do on the streets and learn new criminal skills to support their prohibitively expensive addictions when they are released.
Another reason for our high prison populations is our blowhard politicians who like to sell themselves as the new sheriff in town and pass strict laws involving mandatory sentences for relatively minor crimes. That takes away any sentencing discretion from experienced judges, the men and women who deal with criminal trials every single day and have developed a feel for who are the hardened criminals worthy of a long sentence and who are not, those young people at a crossroads in their lives who might benefit from an understanding judge giving them a second chance to prove themselves. Mandatory sentencing condemned these youngsters to harsh prisons that make no effort at rehabilitation and where they learn to be accomplished criminals from the pros. And so the raw material for the prison industry, human beings, are honed and shaped to be good customers of the prison system their whole lives.
A good case in point for Look-At-Me-I’m-Mr.-Tough-Guy-On-Crime was New York State Governor George Pataki back in the 1990’s. In a bid to win the endorsement of the powerful prison guards union when he was up for reelection, Pataki with the stroke of a pen banned any education of prisoners past the 8th grade level, pulling the plug on many an ongoing education and ensuring recidivism on a grand scale, keeping the prison guards very busy indeed. The proposed reason was that prisons are meant to punish and that the state shouldn’t have to pick up the tab for an education many of the prison guards could not afford for their own children. None of them ever stopped to think that even with longer mandatory sentences, sooner or later these people would be getting out and moving back into society.
Who would most people want to move to their street; a man or woman who has been educated to function in society and perhaps learned valuable job and life skills or a guy who has been lifting weights, playing basketball and learning new criminal skills for 15 years? What costs society more? Pataki and his political ambitions are long gone but a lot of the fruits of his decision ought to be eligible for parole any day now. Any volunteers to rent these people a spare room? Any guesses how many redeemable young men and women are now untrained adults with the stigma of being a felon will wind up back in the slammer sooner rather than later? And how many innocent victims will these ruined, wasted people take with them before they are caught again? Thanks George, wherever you and your mighty pen are these days. Mostly likely a gated community with armed guards.
Yet another reason, perhaps the most disturbing one of all for our outsized prison population, is the popular trend of the privatization of prisons, incarceration for profit. America has been so prolific in sending people to jail that maintaining huge prison populations is putting a strain on state treasuries. No society is built to imprison such a large percentage of its citizens. Unfortunately, instead of rethinking the wisdom of taking the key and locking up every Tom, Dick and Harriet who couldn’t afford a decent lawyer (another huge hole in our notion of equal justice before the law), many states have taken to turning over their prisons to corporations, a recipe for social disaster if ever there was one.
Like corporations by their very nature always do, they economize on the “production floor” wherever they can and maximize their profit potential at every opportunity. So look for the quality of treatment of American prisoners to begin to approach the “cruel and unusual punishment” threshold forbidden in the United States Constitution as these prisons for profit do the barest minimum to house, clothe and feed their involuntary customers. Customers who, by the way, have no choice in the matter of where they “shop” and have no complaint department to turn to. And as far as keeping their (unsatisfied) customers, prison corporations have been busily lobbying state and federal legislators to pass even stiffer sentencing laws and laws to limit appeals.
You know a corporation is successful and quite profitable when it can afford to mount expensive lobbying campaigns. Too many legislators are more than happy to accept bribes and gifts to vote for things they are strongly disposed to vote for anyway in order to win law and order points from the voters.These are the same voters that they themselves frightened about crime with their idiotic rhetoric in order to draw attention away from their complete incompetence. Too many legislators also don’t mind a bit selling the ideals of America to the highest bidder and are absolutely cowardly about doing what is right as opposed to what is popular or expedient. Taking a moral stand and reexamining our obviously bankrupt approach to criminal justice is beyond their abilities or inclinations.
So, in a nation that has begun dabbling in private armies for profit, what’s to prevent some jurisdiction from privatizing their police force in order to save money? That would surely lead to an even greater percentage of our citizens becoming prisoners as cops-for-profit would be highly motivated to enforce laws that would lead to prison sentences, with perhaps the arresting officer receiving a generous bonus for each inmate delivered to a private prison. Poor neighborhoods and minority citizens would be even more vulnerable than they are now to such “culling.”
A further reason for keeping a population larger than the combined populations of Alaska, North and South Dakota under lock and key is the tremendous infrastructure in place to maintain this shameful status quo. There are hundreds of thousands of people gainfully employed in anti-drug law enforcement, guarding prisoners, supplying and maintaining prisons and working in the criminal justice system or as defense attorneys, parole and probation officers. It’s an integral part of the economy, and one that is more and more becoming surreal in some cases. One county in upstate New York has no less than five prisons within its borders, in effect making it one huge company town dependent completely on that single industry, and the recipient of an unreal flood of federal funds since prisoners count in the census, thus making that area eligible for the same revenue as if there were many, many times the actual residents. Would anyone in that county oppose life sentences for jaywalking?
Then you have the billionaire murdering drug cartels that are the biggest beneficiaries of the War on Drugs. They have bribed countless United States law enforcement officials and have corrupted Mexico and several South American nations to the brink of becoming failed states, potential Somalias in America’s own backyard. How dangerous is allowing that? These mega drug profits have not been lost on insurgent military organizations bent on taking over nations, such as FARC in Columbia and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the gangsters merely invest their millions in mansions, bimbos, private jets and casinos until the next would-be kingpin knocks them off, the Taliban turns heroin profits into modern weaponry that kills American soldiers and destabilizes a dangerous, potentially nuclear armed region of the globe. To legalize and regulate their product would leave them in charge of a crop about as valuable as sorghum and unable to wage war effectively or finance their extensive propaganda networks.
The revenue stream of taxes similar to the bonanza of alcohol and tobacco taxes and the jobs in new American industries would make up for the shift in the infrastructure that cutting the prison and criminal justice systems in half would cause. Things will shake themselves out just as they do after every sea change in policy or financial realities. We cannot sustain the prison system as a growth industry. How many more Americans can we possibly lock up when we already lead the world in that category by a staggering 700,000 human beings? When the totalitarian regime of China offers a more lenient, humane and eminently more fair system of criminal justice, there’s some serious thinking that needs to be done here in the Land Of The Free.
It is nothing less than a national disgrace and a crisis of enormous moral and cultural significance, one more sleazy example of America For Sale. While there are many people who deserve to be in prison, there are certainly not 2.2 million Americans who fall into that category. This is a great evil in this land that needs to be fought, evil cleverly disguised as morality, evil that makes itself difficult to assail since to do so is to defend convicted felons. Evil that appears to be nobody’s fault and is simply the price to pay to live in an orderly society. Nothing could be further from the truth. Orderly societies don’t lock away such a large proportion of their own citizens. There’s lots of them around and they don’t do this. Human nature is the same everywhere with the same proportion of people with criminal tendencies, here and elsewhere. What’s our problem?