Conservative Americans often speak of “American Exceptionalism“, as if the USA was the most advanced and gifted country on Earth. Of course, they are not referring to the land and the topography of the country; They are referring to the American people and American institutions.
One of those institutions is the US prison system, which is actually multiple prison systems in this country. Federal prisons, state prisons county prisons, city jails and so forth now house an enormous population of over 2.2 MILLION people. An inordinate proportion of these prisoners are minorities; and an inordinate proportion of them are incarcerated for non-violent drug-related offenses. Some of the prison population are waiting execution.
Seen another way, in the USA the rate of incarceration is 743 people per 100,000 population. This exceeds the rate of any other country on the planet, including those nations that sponsor terrorism, discrimination, bigotry, violence, religious extremism and fundamentalism, and lack of respect for human rights. That’s an awesome fact to process. You can find many more shocking statistics on this subject HERE.
There are multiple factors that are causing this “love affair” with incarceration in the USA. The prison population began to rise dramatically beginning in the early 1980’s after the election of Ronald Reagan as president of the USA and the emergence of the religious right at that time. “Get tough on crime” laws were passed, including laws against non-violent drug offenses, for which extremely heavy sentences were imposed.
Additionally, during the Reagan era of contracting out as many inherently governmental functions as they could get away with (they even tried to contract out the largest and best air traffic control system in the world…but failed), the administration of many prisons across the country was, and continues to be contracted to private for-profit companies. In many though not all cases, food quality and medical treatment have deteriorated while inmate violence, including rape, has increased. As with any business, proper care is not the prime objective: profit is.
To make matters worse, the USA prison system uses solitary confinement as a form of inmate control and punishment, even though the United Nations has declared solitary confinement at a form of torture.
And finally, in many states of the USA, children that committed certain felonies at age 14 or 15, who are convicted at age 16, are receiving life-time prison sentences without the possibility of parole!!!
What this says about attitudes in this country is that we are an utterly brutal society. Not only that, but we also seem incapable, even considering the alarming incarceration rate of this country, to stem the tide of criminal offenses in the USA. A 2002 study survey showed that among nearly 275,000 prisoners released in 1994, 67.5% were rearrested within 3 years, and 51.8% were back in prison. So much for effective deterrence and rehabilitation…
Obviously, this present method of “correctional rehabilitation” isn’t working very well to reduce crime and repeat offenders. But it IS working very well for the for-profit companies that get paid per-prisoner fees with our tax money.
And to add the proper shame to this awful “American institution”….the country of Norway (of all advanced democracies) refuses to extradite any prisoner to the USA because of what it says is inhumane treatment. “US prisons do not meet their minimum humanitarian standards”, it declared.
The question that is constantly in play is this: As a society, is USA more interested in revenge and punishment, or in rehabilitation of offenders? The answer seemingly depends upon where one stands in the battle between religion and emotions vs. science and logic. The religious right seems to hang their entire justice belief system on the biblical “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” philosophy.
But Albert Einstein, perhaps the premier intellectual genius of the 20th century, the master of logic who invented the Special Theory of Relativity and later the General Theory of Relativity correctly stated that “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will only render the entire world blind and toothless.”
From an economic standpoint alone, it makes much more sense to have effective rehabilitation and education programs to teach all but the most brutally violent first-time offenders prisoners the skills needed to be able to earn an decent, honest living once they are released. And it also makes sense to stop sentencing first-time non-violent drug offenders to incredibly long sentences (a view now held by the US Department of Justice). Putting young first-time non-violent offenders in prison for extended periods only turns them into hardened criminals and the proof of that is in the current rate of recidivism.
It is a truth of modern day America that conservatives do not believe in another of Einstein’s mottoes: “Doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.”
How many more prisons do YOU want to pay for???