We have often talked here about the American gulag -- not the far-flung prisons and "intense interrogation" chambers of the global militarist empire, where tens of thousands of captives languish, often without the slightest pretense of even a modicum of rights or legal process -- but the countless human holding pens that glut the highways and byways of the sacred Homeland itself, where not thousands but literally millions of people are incarcerated in a brutal system of retribution, abuse and moral atrocity: a system increasingly geared to corporate profit; a seedbed and training ground for gangs and extremists; a breaker and stigmatizer of generation after generation of Americans.
Yes, once again, the latest annual rankings of the world's prison population are in, and, once again, 2008 found the good old US of A the winners by a country mile. No other nation in the world comes close to imprisoning more of its own people -- not in terms of raw numbers or by proportion of the population.
As the Economist reports, the United States now has some 2,300,000 of its citizens behind bars -- or a whopping 756 out of every 100,000 people. China is the closest in sheer numbers, with 1,600,000 people locked up; but that's in a population more than four times larger than the United States, and in a state that is unashamedly authoritarian, as opposed to the incessantly self-proclaimed "land of the free." The closest competitor in proportion of caged citizens is Russia, with 629 per 100,000, and a hefty 800,000+ behind bars.
After these three "great powers," the numbers drop off considerably. No one can even make half a million, not even teeming Brazil or even-more teeming India, which incarcerates a mere 33 out of every 100,000 of its people. Iran -- which as we know is the center of all demonic Islamofascist terrorist barbarian evil in the whole wide world -- doesn't even have 200,000 of its people locked up.
It goes without saying that effete hellholes like France or Spain or Germany or Sweden or Canada don't even make the Economist's list of the Top 14. Nor does any nation in Africa -- with the exception of South Africa, with its long, proud lineage of colonial jurisprudence. (Even so, the South Africans are pikers compared to the Great Powers -- although they are ahead of Iran.) Nor does Burma, North Korea, Sudan -- or any Arab country -- make the list.
It is truly astonishing that any nation that dares call itself "civilized" would have such a sweeping, punitive prison system. But this is just one of many shocking facts that no longer trouble the American conscience, which has been both deliberately and incidentally deadened by decades of empire, aggression, brutality and lies. It is also the mark of a deeply racist culture that has sought -- again both deliberately and unconsciously -- to punish, repress and break vast swathes of its own population: namely, its African-American citizens, the descendants of the people the nation once enslaved. (Can it be any accident that the first black president of the United States is not only half-white, but is also not descended from American slaves? He is not really, you see, one of them: those dark Others who have lived among us for so long as repositories for the white folks' guilt and fears.)
The viral growth of the American punishment system is, of course, a hardy perennial for the very, very few people who give even the slightest damn about it. As I said, I've written about it for several years, as the new annual stats issue forth. Last year, Arthur Silber trained his considerable firepower on the subject, when a study revealed that not only were one in every 100 American adults now behind bars, but one out of every nine black males between the ages of 20 and 34 are now incarcerated. Silber noted the fact that "a high proportion of prisoners are non-violent drug offenders," and went on to say:
You see, in the liberty-loving United States of America, your body does not belong to you. Surrender your delusion that you are an autonomous being, free to choose what to ingest for sustenance or entertainment. It is of no moment that you do not violate anyone else's rights. What matters is that you recognize your body belongs to the state. If you fail to follow the state's edicts as to how you must treat your body, off to prison you will go. All of this is trebly true if you are such a miserable being as to have failed to be born into the privileged class -- that is to say, if you are not affluent, white and male. (With regard to distinct but related issues, women obviously are also such miserable beings.)
We must note one further fact of immense significance. As I discussed in several essays from a few years ago, the prison system in the United States represents nothing less than the institutionalization of brutality and torture on a vast scale. (See "'They Don't Represent America'? Not Quite, Mr. President," "The Real Scandal," and the other essays listed here under the heading, "About Prison Abuse and Torture in the U.S., and in Iraq.") That system embodies the depravity and degradation of extreme cruelty to a degree that is close to ungraspable, and it corrupts everyone who works in it, as it corrupts our nation. When is the last time you heard the horrors of the U.S. prison system -- including not only the non-crimes for which hundreds of thousands are incarcerated, but the cruelties that are inflicted on them when they are unjustly imprisoned -- debated seriously and at length by our major politicians, including the leading candidates for president? That's right: you can't remember, because it doesn't happen.
You should read the whole piece, and the links to the abovementioned essays, which you will find in the original post.
Earlier this year we ran a long, detailed piece on how the private profits of an elite, politically connected few are helping drive the continued explosion in the American prison population. The piece centered on the long-running garden-variety corruption and backroom grease of one Lamar Alexander -- the feckless frat boy and Bush family factotum who now disgraces the state of Tennessee as its "senior U.S. senator." This article was apparently eaten in the latest hack job on this blog, but you can find it at one of our affiliated sites, Pacific Free Press: Prisons, Profits, and the Banality of Evil.
Lamar was instrumental in the founding of the private prison industry, with his lucrative presence as the creation of the Corrections Corporation of America. But here I want to focus on some of the general background info from that earlier essay, taken from an analysis of America's private prisons by Global Research:
Private prisons are the biggest business in the prison industry complex. About 18 corporations guard 10,000 prisoners in 27 states. The two largest are Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut, which together control 75%. Private prisons receive a guaranteed amount of money for each prisoner, independent of what it costs to maintain each one. According to Russell Boraas, a private prison administrator in Virginia, "the secret to low operating costs is having a minimal number of guards for the maximum number of prisoners." The CCA has an ultra-modern prison in Lawrenceville, Virginia, where five guards on dayshift and two at night watch over 750 prisoners. In these prisons, inmates may get their sentences reduced for "good behavior," but for any infraction, they get 30 days added - which means more profits for CCA. According to a study of New Mexico prisons, it was found that CCA inmates lost "good behavior time" at a rate eight times higher than those in state prisons....
Who is investing? At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom's, Revlon, Macy's, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. All of these businesses are excited about the economic boom generation by prison labor. Just between 1980 and 1994, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Inmates in state penitentiaries generally receive the minimum wage for their work, but not all; in Colorado, they get about $2 per hour, well under the minimum. And in privately-run prisons, they receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison is CCA in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for what they call "highly skilled positions."
....Thanks to prison labor, the United States is once again an attractive location for investment in work that was designed for Third World labor markets. A company that operated a maquiladora (assembly plant in Mexico near the border) closed down its operations there and relocated to San Quentin State Prison in California. In Texas, a factory fired its 150 workers and contracted the services of prisoner-workers from the private Lockhart Texas prison, where circuit boards are assembled for companies like IBM and Compaq...[Former] Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix recently urged Nike to cut its production in Indonesia and bring it to his state, telling the shoe manufacturer that "there won't be any transportation costs; we're offering you competitive prison labor (here)."
As I said, I have been writing, sporadically, on this national shame for many years. I'll close with an excerpt from a piece I wrote back in 2006:
[Although the prison population has risen dramatically during the Bush administration] 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...The main engine of this mass incarceration has been the 35-year "war on drugs": a spurious battle against an abstract noun that provides an endless fount of profits, payoffs and power for the politically connected while only worsening the problem it purports to address – just like the "war on terror." The "war on drugs" has in fact been the most effective assault on an underclass since Stalin's campaign against the kulaks... It was launched by Richard Nixon, after urban unrest had shaken major American cities during those famous "long, hot summers" of the Sixties. Yet even as the crackdowns began, America's inner cities were being flooded with heroin, much of it originating in Southeast Asia, where the CIA and its hired warlords ran well-funded black ops in and around Vietnam. At home, criminal gangs reaped staggering riches from the criminalization of the natural, if often unhealthy, human craving for intoxication. Ronald Reagan upped the ante in the 1980s, with a rash of "mandatory sentencing" laws that can put even first-time, small-time offenders away for years. His term also saw a new flood -- crack cocaine – devastating the inner cities, even as his covert operators used drug money to fund the terrorist Contra army in Nicaragua and run illegal weapons to Iran, while the downtown druglords grew more powerful. The American underclass was caught in a classic pincer movement, attacked by both the state and the gangs. There were no more "long, hot summers" of protest against injustice; there was simply the struggle to survive... Under Reagan, Bush I and Clinton, the feverish privatization of the prison system added a new impetus for wholesale, long-term detention. Politically-wired corporations need to keep those profit-making cells filled, and the politicians they grease are happy to oblige with "tougher" sentences and new crimes to prosecute.
...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.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on August 5, 2009.