American attitudes toward prisons

My policy, as most of you know by now, is not to link to my pieces in The Economist week after week, unless there is a special reason, because that would be, well, tedious and annoying.

So why link to my piece in the new issue on California’s prison overcrowding?

To make two separate and unrelated points:

1) the importance of length, once again.

It always amazes me, after all these years, how short most of our pieces in The Economist are. The pieces inside the regular “sections” are called “notes” in our nomenclature. Because we have fixed (paper-issue) layouts that determine article length, most notes are either 500, 600 or 700 words. For this note, I asked for 700 words, was told to make it 600, and the final piece ended up at 520.

That’s in effect a blog entry. Most people don’t realize how much harder it is to write a short article than a large article. The folks at the New Yorker can blather on and on (“On an overcast Monday afternoon, I strode across Fifth Avenue to interview John Smith, ….”). We have to get to the point. There should be some nuance, some color, and we should cover the main bases, but all in … 500 words!

It’s friggin’ difficult. Then the readers show up in the mostly infantile comments section below the articles, invariably accusing us of utter ignorance, if not downright malice, because they know (or imagine) one little detail that was not in the 500 words.

Beyond that, of course, the brevity often hurts me, the writer. Invariably, I do research for every piece until I am satisfied that I know the subject well enough. I could easily then fill a few thousand words. So much therefore gets left on the cutting floor.

Which brings me to my second reason for linking to this week’s piece…

2) The shame, the horror of America’s prisons and Americans’ attitudes toward them

Among the things I left on the cutting floor were some of the numbers that Barry Krisberg at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency bounced around with me (mostly 2005 numbers):

  • Most people know that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, but did you know just how much higher? America locks up 732 people out of every 100,000. The G7 countries, which should be the appropriate comparison for America, lock up 96 people for 100,000. The country in the world that comes closest to America is Russia, yes Russia, where the number is 607.
  • Was there ever a country for which we have numbers that surpass America’s current incarceration rate? Yes, says Barry, and it was …. the Soviet Union during the years of Stalin’s Gulag!!!
  • America has about 5% of the world’s population but 23% of its prisoners.
  • America also has by far the highest ratio of prisoner to each kind of crime. What that tells you is that there is not more crime in America that would justify more imprisonment.

And on and on. In short, Americans love locking people up. They do not see any irony at all in claiming, often loudly when in the company of Europeans, to be “the freest country in the world” while robbing more individuals than any other country does of their freedom, their dignity, their rights. (This distorted understanding of freedom is what I have been exploring in my thread on America.)

I should add at this point that I have rehearsed the inevitable “debate” that usually ensues enough times that I can confidently predict every objection.

Allow me to give you a sample of the most typical “conservative” opinion on the matter. It is a reasoned, Republican-mainstream opinion taken from one of California’s conservative blogs.

In it, we discover the underlying assumptions that nowadays make America the exception among comparable countries:

The demand by federal judges to provide civilized health care to prisoners is

…forcing us to provide better medical care to prisoners than most law abiding citizens receive…

This is ironic because this particular argument tends to come from people who object to providing health care to those law-abiding citizens as well. And it is telling because its sets the tenor for all subsequent arguments, summarized neatly in this passage:

The only danger [prisoners] face is from each other, really bad people, that is people who have no respect for themselves, their neighbors, or for the rules, can be difficult to live with, without question, but that cannot be avoided.  Prison is for bad people, to keep bad people away from good people so that the bad people cant hurt the good ones.

And here you have it in a nutshell. The conservative and prevailing American attitude toward incarceration is based on:

  • vengeance in the Old-Testament style, not on rehabilitation, which is the assumption that prisoners must at some point be brought back into society. In effect, prisoners become outcasts, with no hope of atoning and changing and playing a productive role in society. Result: the world’s higest recidivism rate, 70% in California.
  • Refusal to see nuance: Nobody, and I mean nobody, is arguing that there are no bad people, no crazy people, no dangerous people that must genuinely be kept out of our neighborhoods. But what about the people who are in there for stealing socks, for smoking dope, for all the many misdemeanors that have increasingly been prosecuted as felonies to please the “tough-on-crime” electorate? There are many non-violent people who have simply made a mistake and end up brutalized in prison.
  • Meanness, lack of compassion. Nuff said.

The reality is that prisons contain:

  • bad people
  • average people who have done bad things but can and want to change their ways
  • and even some good people who have got caught up in a fundamentally unjust system

But in our overcrowded and barbarous prisons, they are all thrown together, so that good people become bad and bad people become worse, and society loses by turning away from justice and civility.

Back to the sample opinion. If you approach the entire topic from the point of view that those in the system are all bad, that they deserve to be brutalized and do not deserve protection in prison, then, and only then, can you conclude, as this commentator does, that

There is nothing wrong with our prisons.

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16 thoughts on “American attitudes toward prisons

  1. I agree with much of your points. I believe much of the problem lies with the US’s hypocritical attitude to drugs. I am guessing if all drugs were legal and regulated as are alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs, prison population would go down at least 50%.

    On the flip side, consider that many of the western countries are way too easy on those individuals you could consider as “bad people”. In Israel, courts are unusually lenient on some of the worst crimes. I have recently read that the average manslaughter (which covers everything all killings that are not premeditated) is five years and rape is a little more than two years.

    • Good points. You’re introducing nuance into the discussion, which is what it needs in America.

      (I’d be curious what the incarceration rate, recidivism rate, and crime rate is in Israel, compared to America’s.)

  2. “…….So much therefore gets left on the cutting floor………”

    What a pity that the sentiments you expressed in your blogging entry couldn’t be contained in your Economist piece.

    But, couldn’t such sentiments find a home in a wider forum, if , like “Gulliver” and “Bagehot”, you had your own blog on the Economist’s web page?

    Could you not apply for the privilege to have such a blog?

    • Hmm. I might just raise that idea with the editor some time. But I admit I’ve grown to like this “private” forum, where my Id can speak unobstructed by my Economist Superego. Here I only embarrass myself. 😉

  3. *Ahem*

    This is the shortest, least informed, least blog post I’ve read in the last 7 months. Maybe just skip it next time and remain on vacation, or email me and I’ll write you one as opposed to having the summer intern do it… I mean a one year to life sentence should and would motivate the majority of inmates to better themselves in prison and have a plan for release.

    OK, maybe I withdraw my previous criticism, or at least the part directed at the number of words. The Hannibal Blog, however, is still on the hook for not making it clear or giving me the necessary context: shame on you!

    … I just couldn’t resist.

  4. I’d be interested to know which countries tend to simply kill their criminals rather than incarcerate them. That would certainly cut down on the per capita incarceration rate would it not? That’s one nuance that should not be overlooked in any country.

  5. New to reading your blog, which is great. I am American (from Texas)living in London for the last 3 years. And I have to say I do feel safer here (or in Europe in general) than living in the States.

    In Virginia, home of the tragedy at Virginia Tech in 2007, the is a bill working its way through to allow concealed handguns in bars. Unbelievable.

    One thing you may have thought about during your research is how much money is in the prison system. It is a cash cow. Just food for thought.

    • Welcome to the Hannibal Blog, Kevin.

      As it happens, you seem to have read my mind. I’m just putting to bed a piece for this week’s issue of The Economist (cut short, unfortunately) about the “iron triangle” of the prison-guard union, the prison builders and the GOP.

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