The caging of America: Why do we lock up so many people?

Adam Gopnik writes: Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today — perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system — in prison, on probation, or on parole — than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America — more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. Ours is, bottom to top, a “carceral state,” in the flat verdict of Conrad Black, the former conservative press lord and newly minted reformer, who right now finds himself imprisoned in Florida, thereby adding a new twist to an old joke: A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been indicted; and a passionate prison reformer is a conservative who’s in one.

The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least fifty thousand men — a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.) Prison rape is so endemic — more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape — like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows — will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized. Though we avoid looking directly at prisons, they seep obliquely into our fashions and manners. Wealthy white teen-agers in baggy jeans and laceless shoes and multiple tattoos show, unconsciously, the reality of incarceration that acts as a hidden foundation for the country. [Continue reading…]

Torture: America’s Brutal Prisons, produced by Britain’s Channel 4 in 2005, shows that abuses like those documented in Abu Ghraib are commonplace in the U.S. prison system. Prisoners are shackled and hooded ‘for their own protection’; pepper spray is used as an alternative to physical force, but in sufficient quantities to cause second-degree burns; beatings are frequent and sometimes fatal. The documentary suggests that the cause is not a few ‘bad apples’, but a pervasive culture of dehumanisation and brutality.

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1 thought on “The caging of America: Why do we lock up so many people?

  1. scottindallas

    We have more people in Jail than China, which has 5 times our population. That means, we incarcerate a 5 times the rate of the Chinese. Increasingly, the old maxim, “if you don’t like, move to…” though increasingly we are becoming the most notorious nation in the world. Lowest economic mobility among industrialized countries, highest incarceration rate, worst healthcare.

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