By Paul Harris
(YellowTimes.org) It's the "Land of the Free," usually writ large, usually with capital letters. It's the pot of gold that so many around the world have sought, a place they can live their dreams and where freedom is guaranteed. It begs the question: why are so many people in the "Land of the Free" not free? Why are so many of them sampling their bed and breakfast comforts courtesy of the government?
There are a mind-boggling number of people spending their days and nights in American jails and it is difficult not to see parallels with the reviled Gulag system of the former Soviet Union. Admittedly, the Gulags were often home to political and social dissidents as well as hardened criminals; but there was a large subclass of individuals confined to state-mandated housing, much as within the United States. And it is certainly debatable whether the bulk of American prisoners deserve to be in jail.
In this election year, like clockwork, each candidate at virtually every level will promise to be "tough on crime" while accusing his/her opponent of being soft. The result is that over the years all these promises of toughness in all those election campaigns have made the United States the most heavily incarcerated nation on the planet. The rates of incarceration in the U.S. have doubled since the late 1980's and now sit at astronomical levels. The U.S. has five times more prisoners per capita than Canada and seven times more than the whole of Western Europe. With approximately 5% of the world's population, it has about 25% of the world's prisoners.
Statistics show that almost 90% of those American prisoners have been jailed for non-violent offenses, often for misdemeanors arising out of the so-called "War on Drugs." But it is a bizarre administration of justice that incarcerates large numbers of perpetrators of victimless crimes while leaving free murderers; that jails petty crooks while leaving corporate criminals free to strike again; the punishes blue-collar criminals harshly while treating white-collar criminals with kid-gloves.
As an examples: Martha Stewart faces up to 20 years in prison because she told a fib while Enron's Ken Lay faces a life of luxury because his buddy lives on Pennsylvania Avenue; O.J. Simpson went free while a retarded man in Texas who had no concept of his actions was executed; four executives of Hoffman-LaRoche were jailed in 2000 for up to four months for what the Justice Department called the largest criminal anti-trust conspiracy in history while a Texas man was jailed for sixteen years for stealing a Snickers bar.
And the United States remains one of the few nations to continue the barbaric practice of state sanctioned murder.
What makes all this even worse is the research that reveals a significant number of people behind bars in the U.S. may be innocent. In Illinois, to name but one example, during the last two decades of the twentieth century more convicted prisoners on death row were found innocent than were executed. And a group in the United States known as the Innocence Project has achieved marked success in overturning scores of convictions with the use of DNA testing. Naturally, all these apparent errors in trial law call into question the efficacy of the court system.
Still, in the United States, it is important to be tough on crime; any candidate who is not will be summarily dismissed as weak by opponents and will usually lose.
As a separate but related issue, it isn't enough that the United States locks up its citizens in record numbers, it puts them in deplorable conditions. The prisons are overcrowded, run down, and prisoners are often kept in conditions that violate any decent standards of humanity. In the case of hardened mass murderers, at least the bad excuse could be made that they deserve no better. But even the poor kid who got caught with a joint finds himself in these same conditions and if he wasn't on the road to perdition when he walked into prison, with his feet shackled, he surely will be when he walks out.
Being convicted of a crime in the United States often means you are stripped of your civil rights forever. Indeed, one of the accusations that arose out of the 2000 Florida voting debacle was the story of large numbers of convicted felons who are not eligible to vote. It seems the voting lists may not have been accurate, but the real point is that paying one's debt to society apparently never ends in some parts of the U.S. Even though these people had served their time, they are forever forbidden from enjoying that most basic right in a democratic country, voting.
Various scholars in the U.S., attorneys, prisoners, and freelance reporters have spoken or written of the horrendous condition of American jails and the vast numbers of people incarcerated for minor offenses for excessive periods of time. But it is not an issue that has excited the American people except insofar as they like to hear their political candidates preach about hiring more police, locking up more bad guys, and building more prisons. Since many American prisons are now run by private industry, you know someone is making a buck and is actively encouraging a need for even more prisoners.
The story of this nation of prisons and prisoners (i.e., the Land of the Free) gets almost no ink or airtime. And for a very simple reason: the overwhelming number of prisoners come from the bottom quarter or so of the population in economic terms. It isn't merely that the poor commit more crimes, but the justice system is stacked against them because the so-called "blue collar" crimes usually generate harsher sentences than "white collar" crimes. The part of the population that ends up at some time in jail, is less likely to vote in the future (even assuming they live in a state that doesn't strip away that right), is a less affluent demographic than the majority, and is disproportionately non-white. In fact, some 50% of prisoners in U.S. jails are black; between them and the poor, their plight isn't even on the national radar.
Imagine if the situation was reversed: what if the bulk of prisoners were affluent, well-educated, and white. It's a safe bet there would be a lot less of them in prison and for those who did end up there, the conditions would certainly be much better.
Unfortunately, though, it's election time again so the old shibboleths about locking up the bastards and throwing away the keys are about to fill the nation's consciousness once again. And dutifully, they will listen to that siren song again and squeeze a few more souls into those prisons, hire a few more cops, and once again line the pockets of Houses of Detention Inc.
[Paul Harris is self-employed as a consultant providing businesses with the tools and expertise to reintegrate their sick or injured employees into the workplace. He has traveled extensively in what is usually known as "the Third World" and has an abiding interest in history, social justice, morality and, well, just about everything. He lives in Canada.]
Paul Harris encourages your comments: pharris@YellowTimes.org
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