American Gulag

Recently, the United States achieved the dubious honor of boasting the largest prison and jail population on earth. It reached this zenith by surpassing cash-strapped Russia - long its only rival as a mass imprisonment society - after Russia released thousands of inmates so as to save money. A few years earlier, as America rushed to lock up ever more of its population for ever-pettier offenses, the absolute size of its incarcerated population surpassed that of China - despite China's population being more than four times that of America. According to research conducted by the British Home Office, America now incarcerates over one fifth of the world's total prisoners.

There is something bitterly ironic in this. For America really is a land of liberty, a place where lives, often scarred by injustice elsewhere, can be remade. How tragic, therefore, that over the past twenty years, the country's political leaders have so often decided to deal with many of the most noxious side-effects of poverty - from chronic drug use and the establishment of street drug markets, to hustling, to gang membership and the spraying of graffiti on public buildings - through a vast over-reliance on incarceration.

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How doubly tragic that this has occurred in tandem with a political assault on the Great Society anti-poverty programs put in place during the 1960s; that the investments in infrastructure, public education, public healthcare and job training which might curtail crime more effectively are, instead, being replaced by massive public expenditures on building new prisons to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of low-level offenders. With such vicious cycles of crime, punishment and dis-investment in poor communities it is no surprise that the prison population has expanded to such an extent.

The numbers buttressing this sprawling prison system are extraordinary. Approximately two million Americans are now serving either prison or jail time, over one million of them for non-violent offenses (a preponderance of these either for drug use or low-level drug sales). Per hundred thousand residents, the US has an incarceration rate over five times that of England, six times that of Canada, and seven times that of Germany.

Somewhere in the region of 10% of African American men in their twenties live behind bars. In some states, where a single felony conviction is enough to bar the offender from ever being able to vote again, over one quarter of African American males are disenfranchised. High levels of disenfranchisement in Florida likely played a critical role in the much-disputed electoral victory of President Bush.

Since 1980, a virtual ``prison industrial complex'' has arisen, with phenomenal rates of new-prison construction abetted by lucrative construction and prison-guard union lobbies. Several states, including California, now spend more on prisons than they do on higher education. Despite dramatically falling crime rates over the last ten years (which most criminologists attribute more to demography - there have simply been fewer young men of late - than incarceration), prison populations have continued to soar. Much of that increase has more to do with public perceptions about supposed crime waves and ham-handed public and political responses to occasional headline-capturing murders, than any actual underlying crime rate.

As the actual number of truly heinous crimes has in fact fallen, increasingly it is small-time hoodlums, drug users, and mentally ill people who have been drawing long spells behind bars. America today has five times as many prisoners as it did in 1980.

One of the most dismaying developments is the spread of so-called ``three-strikes-and-you're out'' laws. California's version, passed by citizen referendum in 1993 and ratcheted into place by state legislators in 1994, provides for the life imprisonment of any criminal with two previous serious convictions who is found guilty of any third felony. By the end of last year there were about 7,000 people serving life sentences in California under this law. Many thousands of them are serving life for small-time ``Third Strikes'': minor drug crimes, car theft, petty fraud, burglary, and drunk driving (even graffiti spraying, to the tune of $400 damage, which has now been reclassified as a felony).

One such man is fifty-eight year old heroin addict Billy Ochoa, who is serving a staggering 326 years in a supermax (super maximum security) prison for $2,100 of welfare fraud. Because he had been convicted of several burglaries over the previous decades, when Ochoa was caught making fraudulent applications for food stamps and emergency housing vouchers in Los Angeles, he was tried under the Three Strikes law and given sentences on thirteen separate counts to be served in one of the toughest, most secure prisons in America. Ochoa's sentence, apart from its extravagant cruelty, may ultimately cost taxpayers as much as a million dollars.

In many high security American prisons, inmates are routinely kept in virtual isolation, fed in their cells, allowed out for only half an hour of exercise a day, sometimes denied a TV, a radio, or even decorations for their concrete walls - conditions which have been documented to drive many of them into states of serious psychosis. How can things have come to this America?

Now is the time - with the world watching America fight to defend its values - for the worst excesses of its criminal justice system to be addressed. It is a tragedy that a great democracy should have so ugly and vast a prison system corroding both its reputation and its polity.