Thursday, February 28, 2008

We're still number one!

1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars, New Study Says:
For the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars, according to a new report.

Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of American adults is about 230 million, meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars.
To put it in some perspective:
The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world. China is second, with 1.5 million people behind bars. The gap is even wider in percentage terms.
Germany imprisons 93 out of every 100,000 people, according to the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College in London. The comparable number for the United States is roughly eight times that, or 750 out of 100,000.
Urahn said the nation could not afford the incarceration rate documented in the report.
"We tend to be a country in which incarceration is an easy response to crime," she said. "Being tough on crime is an easy position to take, particularly if you have the money. And we did have the money in the '80s and '90s."
Now, with fewer resources available, the report said, "prison costs are blowing a hole in state budgets."
On average, states spend almost 7 percent of their budgets on corrections, trailing only health care, education and transportation.
In 2007, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, states spent $44 billion in tax dollars on corrections. That is up from $10.6 billion in 1987, a 127 percent increase when adjusted for inflation. With money from bonds and the federal government included, total state spending on corrections last year was $49 billion. By 2011, the Pew report said, states are on track to spend an additional $25 billion.
It cost an average of $23,876 dollars to imprison someone in 2005, the most recent year for which data were available. But state spending varies widely, from $45,000 a year in Rhode Island to $13,000 in Louisiana.
"Getting tough on crime has gotten tough on taxpayers," said Adam Gelb, the director of the public safety performance project at the Pew center. "They don't want to spend $23,000 on a prison cell for a minor violation any more than they want a bridge to nowhere."
Just a couple years ago, that figure was 1 out of every 136 US residents behind bars. To think that relatively speaking, those can now be called "the good old days." This, my friends, is the much ballyhooed "land of the free." When more than one in one hundred Americans is in prison, it's pretty safe to say that the "land of the free" is little more than a slogan bereft of meaning. Might as well string together a set of nonsense syllables. By contrast, Venezuela has the lowest incarceration rate in the Americas.

Of course we've been "number one" in incarceration rate for a while now. The US is essentially a gulag nation. We'd been heading in that direction for all of my adult lifetime (in other words, roughly a quarter century), as part of a "get tough on crime" kick that began during the early days of the Raygun era. As I noted a couple years ago while discussing Chris Floyd's essay Gates of Eden: A Nation in Chains:
Floyd goes on to note how the whole Prison Industrial Complex has evolved since the Nixon years, in the process making it crystal clear that both major parties have been involved in its development at the expense of its citizens and residents, as well as to the detriment of what the Constitution was supposed to stand for. It's pretty difficult to crow about how "free" and "democratic" our nation is when our government is so intent upon imprisoning its own people at a rate that would have made Stalin envious.

Floyd's conclusion is worth chewing on as well, given the current xenophobic wave of anti-immigrant hysteria that seems to have engulfed the nation:
Like the war on drugs, the equally ill-conceived war on immigrants will be directed at the poorest and most vulnerable, not the "coyote" gangs who profit from this human trafficking – and certainly not the American businesses and wealthy Homelanders who love the dirt-cheap labor of the illegals. Those for-profit prisons will soon be filled to bursting with this new harvest.

A nation's true values can be measured in how it treats the poor, the weak, the damaged, the unconnected. For more than 30 years, the answer of the American power structure has been clear: you lock them up, you shut them up, you grind them down – and make big bucks in the process.
When I was a young activist way back when, I recall the US ranking just behind the Soviet Union (which has since collapsed) and South Africa's Apartheid regime (which has thankfully been replaced). Our GOP types were demanding policies that would only swell the ranks of the imprisoned, and the Democrats seemed eager to go along (either to appear "tough on crime" or because they themselves were hostile to the very notion of a free society). Really, the only folks who seemed to have voiced a serious concern about the modern day police state that we've witnessed during this generation were the various leftists (whether Green, socialist, etc.), libertarians (and there is a good deal of variety among libertarians ranging from the LP to anarchist), and those activists on the front lines of the various civil rights and human rights struggles.

For those with a pop culture interest, we'll simply note that the punks and rappers of the 1980s and early 1990s were the harbingers of what we see before us today. Check out old Dead Kennedys tunes like "California Uber Alles" (later updated as "We've Got a Bigger Problem Now" at the dawn of the age of Raygun, and later covered and modified by Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy) and "Saturday Night Massacre"; or the anger expressed by those most targeted in such tunes as NWA's "Fuck tha Police" or Ice-T's "Cop Killer".

If I were to have any advice for aspiring immigrants to the US, I would say it is best to ditch the whole "land of the free" or "land of opportunity" nonsense. The ugly reality is one of fatcats whose bank accounts swell as the prison population increases and of in-bred KKK wannabes acting as mercenary border patrols. That's certainly not a politically correct thing to note, but it's difficult to deny. At this point, the US is a financial and military powerhouse and little else. I don't see that changing much regardless of which of the two major parties is in charge of the White House or Congress.
I think it bears repeating that back around the mid to late 1980s, there were a few of us around who were outraged that the US was in the same league as the Soviet Union and the Apartheid regime in terms of the proportion of human beings imprisoned - in fact during the Raygun era, those were the only two regimes who imprisoned a greater proportion of their populations. A large part of the problem was, and still is, the "war on drugs."

Once more, I'd admonish my partisan Democrat friends to not get too giddy about possible Democrat party domination in DC, as the Clintonistas were - if anything - overzealous when it came to expanding the current prison-industrial complex. Once more, I'd suggest a serious perusal of some alternatives to the Democrats (the Greens, for example). Once more, I expect such advice to fall on deaf ears. Going back to Chris Floyd's essay referenced earlier, perhaps we can say that the American Zeitgeist (or at least that of the nation's ruling classes) has been all too receptive to more and more prisons and imprisoned:
Earlier this month, the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London released its annual World Prison Population List. And there, standing proudly at the head of the line, towering far above all others, is that shining city on the hill, the United States of America. But strangely enough, the Bush gang and its many media sycophants failed to celebrate – or even note – yet another instance where a triumphant America leads the world. Where are the cheering hordes shouting "USA! USA!" at the news that the land of the free imprisons more people than any other country in the world – both in raw numbers and as a percentage of its population?

Yes, the world's greatest democracy now has more than two million of its citizens locked up in iron cages: an incarceration rate of 714 per 100,000 of the national population, the Centre reports. The only countries within shouting distance are such bastions of penological enlightenment as China (1.55 million prisoners, plus some unsorted "administrative detainees"), Russia (a wimpy 763,000) and Brazil (330,000), whose exemplary prison management has been on such prominent display this week.

Inside the Homeland, the state of Texas sets the pace, as you might imagine. During George W. Bush's tenure there as governor in the 1990s, Texas had the fastest growing prison population in the country, almost doubling the national rate, as the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice reports. In fact, by the time Dubya was translated to glory by Daddy's buddies on the Supreme Court, one out of every 20 adult Texans were "either in prison, jail, on probation or parole," the CJCJ notes; a level of "judicial control" that reached to one in three for African-American males. George also killed more convicts than any other governor in modern U.S. history as well – a nice warm-up for the valorous feats of mass slaughter yet to come.

But although the U.S. prison population has soared to record-breaking heights during George W. Bush's presidency, America's status as the most punitive nation on earth is by no means solely his doing. Bush is merely standing on the shoulders of giants – such as, say, Bill Clinton, who once created 50 brand-new federal offenses in a single draconian measure, and expanded the federal death penalty to 60 new offenses during his term. In fact, like the great cathedrals of old, the building of Fortress America has been the work of decades, with an entire society yoked to the common task. At each step, the promulgation of ever-more draconian punishments for ever-lesser offenses, and the criminalization of ever-broader swathes of ordinary human behavior, have been greeted with hosannahs from a public and press who seem to be insatiable gluttons for punishment – someone else's punishment, that is, and preferably someone of dusky hue.
My emphasis added.

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