The US is a Nation of Prisons
I've beat this drum before, more than once. If the American government sent out forces to round up the entire population (every man, woman, and child) of both Vermont and New Hampshire and threw them into massive concentration camps, it would not come close to equaling the total number of Americans currently held in the nation's prisons and jails. America holds 2.2 million of her citizens prisoner. That is 1% of the adult population of the country.
Twenty percent of all of the people held prisoner everywhere in the world are imprisoned by the United States. (Source: King's College London) There are more Americans in prison in the US than Chinese imprisoned in China (1.55 million). The ratio of imprisoned citizens (738 for 100,000 population) in the US is the highest in the world. That is nearly double Cuba's ratio (487) and way more than Iran (194). For comparison, Great Britain has imprisoned 142 citizens per 100,000 population, Canada 116, France 91, and Sweden 75.
The state of Texas (not chosen at random) holds 223,000 of its citizens in prisons and jails. That is more than live in the city of Plano. Adding in probation and parole, over half a million Texans are controlled by the state Department of Criminal Justice. The state prison system alone consumes almost 200 square miles of Texas real estate. The greatest concentration of prisoners is in Anderson County where almost 14,000 humans are imprisoned by the state. The entire population of Anderson County is only 55,000.
The reasons are two-fold, racism and fear. In some states, the number of African-American citizens imprisoned is astonishing. In South Dakota, nearly 5% of the African-American population is held captive. In 12 states, at least 3% are serving time. The nationwide average is 2.3%. An unthinkable 12% of young Black males (ages 25-29) are imprisoned. Laws that disenfranchise felons burden our nation's African-Americans. In Iowa, over one-third of the African-American citizens are ineligible to vote because of felony convictions. In Virginia the number is 20%, 208,000 individuals. Nationally, 2 million African-Americans citizens (8.25%) have been stripped of their right to vote by the government.
What, do you suppose, would happen to any politician who ran on a "reduce the United States prison population by 2/3 in four years" platform? For all of our bluster about being "the Home of the Brave," Americans are a timid, frightened people. When George Bush said that the 30-month sentence Scooter Libby got was "excessive" he was right in that almost every sentence handed out by the American justice system is excessive. We have demanded that our government throw people in prison for decades for petty crimes that might earn a maximum two-weeks confinement in Canada. Some examples:
- 20 years for having 1.5 ounces of crack cocaine.
- 20 years for raising marijuana for his brother with AIDS.
- 55 years for selling marijuana.
- 50 years to life for shoplifting.
America has developed an unique form of Police State. It is not so much interested in protecting the power of the state as it is in suppressing minorities. And, we have done it to feel saver. It hasn't worked. We feel less safe now than we did in 1973 when the prison population was only 300,000 nationwide. So, we demand even harsher sentences and even more prisons built. All the while we grow even more fearful.
We have done this in a uniquely American way, developing a Prison-Industrial Complex to profit from the oppression (the linked article is a decade old and is out-of-date only in that the prison industry has grown exponentially since then). UpDate: NBC has this story about suicide at a squalid prison-for-profit in Texas.
Other Sources: Jurist (University of Pittsburgh), Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Sentencing Project, Texas ACLU, Human Rights Watch (1997), Prisonsucks.com