The U.S. correctional system is the worst of America’s domestic disgraces. More people languish behind bars in the United States than in any other country, except perhaps China if we factor in the unknown numbers in labor camps. As the Economist summed it up:
America has around 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of its prisoners. Roughly one in every 107 American adults is behind bars, a rate nearly five times that of Britain, seven times that of France and 24 times that of India. Its prison population has more than tripled since 1980. The growth rate has been even faster in the federal prison system: from around 24,000—its level, more or less, from the 1940s until the early 1980s—to more than 219,000 today.
Much of the blame for this falls on the war on drugs, particularly the policies spearheaded by the Reagan administration, escalating through the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. But ending the drug war will not address the whole problem. Drug offenses account for about half of federal inmates but closer to a quarter of state inmates. Many others face punishment for non-violent property crimes. Even some of the truly vicious criminals, however, experience conditions that the state should never inflict on anybody.
In practice, U.S. imprisonment has become an institution of slavery, torture, and rape. New studies indicate that about two hundred thousand inmates fall victim to sexual abuse each year. The rates are highest in the juvenile system. What’s more, the assailants are not who you might think they are:
The new studies confirm previous findings that most of those who commit sexual abuse in detention are corrections staff, not inmates. That is true in all types of detention facilities, but especially in juvenile facilities.
In American popular culture, it is common to joke about prison rape, as though there’s something funny about someone with no chance of escaping being brutally violated day after day. It is also accepted as part of the implicit sentencing. But a justice system worth the name doesn’t inflict rape on anyone, even the worst criminals. Torture and sexual abuse as punishment have no place in any society that claims even a casual appreciation of what it means to be civilized.
Another outrage: At any given time, about 80,000 American prisoners endure solitary confinement, a punishment developed in the early nineteenth century and banned by much of the world as a form of torture. It fails the Eighth Amendment test on cruel and unusual punishments, considering that it is not only cruel but was unheard of at the time of the Constitution’s ratification.
In solitary, prisoners suffer day and night in tiny cells, kept from virtually all human contact, for months at a time. They are fed through a slot in his door and isolated from light. Many prisoners are not allowed to read, watch TV, or have practically any personal possessions at all.
Within the last month, Herman Wallace was released when a judge vacated his conviction after 41 years in solitary in a Louisiana prison. Four decades of this type of torturous imprisonment is an immoral punishment for any crime. As it so happens, some people end up in solitary who were never even accused of committing violence against anyone. Cameron Douglas, actor Michael Douglas’s son, ended up in prison on drug charges. After nine years of incarceration, he failed a drug test—they can’t keep drugs out of prison, of course—so they stuck him in solitary.
If solitary inmates try to pass a note to another prisoner, the punishment is another six months in solitary. Some face years and years of solitary—even a lifetime—who never did anything but acted naturally, as any animal or human would, if stripped of all their agency, confined to a minuscule cage.
The rest of the industrialized world looks upon America’s prison population in horror and disbelief. The sheer size and scope of the system dwarf practically all the penal systems in the world, the vast majority of them by an order of magnitude. The cruelty of America’s system easily surpasses that of almost any other developed country. The disproportionate nature of U.S. punishments probably makes some foreign sadistic tyrants, who lack the material means to construct such an enormity, green with envy.
It is hard to imagine anything going on within the borders of the United States that is worse than the correctional system. There are many other awful injustices—most of which have a direct or indirect relationship to the prisons. The police have become totally out of control. The public schools typically treat children as low-security prisoners or worse. Child protective services, coerced institutionalization for the “mentally ill,” and the dehumanizing treatment of undocumented immigrants, including their confinement to concentration camps along the border, all come to mind, and almost all involve something related to or resembling the standard correctional system. Outside the borders, the U.S. wages bloody wars and engages in systematic abuse in its foreign detention camps. Yet nothing scandalous in Guantánamo should ever shock an American who knows anything at all about what happens every day in hundreds of prisons in America.
In a sane world, the domestic atrocity known as American prisons would be discussed in mainstream media outlets on a daily basis, forcing politicians to speak about this nearly unfathomable outrage. Defenders of the status quo typically demand those who radically critique this system to explain their own ideal alternative. Well, maybe there is no ideal alternative, but we do know for sure that the current system is 100% morally unacceptable and cries for constant national attention until increasingly better alternative ideas do get a chance at being seriously tried. We do know that the vast majority of people in prison do not belong in any kind of detention center, and that those who might warrant institutional confinement should nevertheless not face rape and torture on a regular basis. We know the system is rotten enough that figuring out its proper replacement should be a fixture of perennial debate until the replacement occurs.
In a sane world, no presidential or congressional election would go by without millions clamoring to know: “What are we going to do about the prisons?” Unfortunately, most people don’t care much about the prisons and those inside them. But systems of inhumane horror have a tendency eventually to ensnare those who thought they were immune. If you think you or someone you love could never wind up in prison, you really have been neglecting to educate yourself. We must stop this madness before it eats America whole.
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