Land of the Free?

By Namit Arora | Apr 2007 | Comments

Incarceration_rates_worldwideWhich country has the highest incarceration rate in the world? The United States of course. The prison population in the US has more than quadrupled in the last quarter century. Some 2.2 million are behind bars in prisons increasingly packed to the hilt. The US, with 5% of the world's population, holds 25% of the world's prisoners. Writing in Mother Jones a few years ago, Gregg Segal offered an explanation: 

How did this happen? How did a nation dedicated to the principle of freedom become the world's leading jailer ? The answer has little to do with crime, but much to do with the perception of crime, and how that perception has been manipulated for political gain and financial profit. From state legislatures to the White House, politicians have increasingly turned to tough-on-crime policies as guaranteed vote-getters. That trend has been encouraged by the media, which use the public's fearful fascination with crime to boost ratings, and by private-prison companies, guards' unions, and other interests whose business depends on mass-scale incarceration.

Prisons certainly aren't expanding because more crimes are being committed. Since 1980, the national crime rate has meandered down, then up, then down again -- but the incarceration rate has marched relentlessly upward every single year. Nationwide, crime rates today are comparable to those of the 1970s, but the incarceration rate is four times higher than it was then. It's not crime that has increased; it's punishment. More people are now arrested for minor offenses, more arrestees are prosecuted, and more of those convicted are given lengthy sentences. Huge numbers of current prisoners are locked up for drug offenses and other transgressions that would not have met with such harsh punishment 20 years ago.

According to the International Center for Prison Studies, 738 per 100,000 people in the US are in prisons (1 in 37 adults has served time) -- 5 times higher than W. Europe and 25 times higher than India. Singapore, infamous for its absurdly tough laws, incarcerates less than half that many. The number sentenced to prison in China is 118 per 100,000. Even factoring in the estimates of China's secret incarcerations provided by rights activists and dissidents-in-exile, its incarceration rate, despite its commie authoritarianism, is not much higher than in the US.

Human Rights Watch has pointed out that prisoners in the US also suffer from neglect, poor medical care, and rampant sexual abuse,

Most inmates had scant opportunities for work, training, education, treatment or counseling because of taxpayer resistance to increasing the already astonishing U.S. $41 billion spent annually on corrections and because of the prevailing punitive ideology that applauds harsh prison conditions. Idle inmates with long sentences, little hope of early release (and hence little incentive for good behavior) and jammed into poorly equipped facilities, sometimes became violent: in 1998 (the most recent year for which data was available), fifty-nine inmates were killed by other inmates, and assaults, fights, and rapes left 6,750 inmates and 2,331 correctional staff injured seriously enough to require medical attention. Rivalry and tension between race-based prison gangs lay behind many individual assaults and sometimes escalated into violent riots.

Men in prison were subject to prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, whose effects on the victim's psyche were serious and enduring. Inmate victims reported nightmares, deep depression, shame, loss of self-esteem, self-hatred, and considering or attempting suicide. Victims of rape [do visit this link], in the most extreme cases, were literally the slaves of the perpetrators ... "rented out" for sex, "sold," or even auctioned off to other inmates. Despite the devastating psychological impact of such abuse, few if any preventative measures were taken in most jurisdictions, while perpetrators were rarely punished adequately by prison officials.

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