by Frank Schnittger
Thu Apr 17th, 2008 at 12:07:20 PM EST
In doing some background reading on Restorative Justice, I cam across a chapter in a book by Jim Considine "Restorative Justice: Healing the Effects of Crime." Written in 1999, the chapter is entitled "The Caging of America" and is more horrendous than anything I had imagined possible.
America is home to the largest prison industry in the world, with 2 Million prisoners and another 4 Million on probation or parole. Despite declining crime rates, the prison population has increased 10 fold in the past 30 years. Moreover the rapidly privatising prison industry has a vested interest in ensuring this "market opportunity" continues to expand as rapidly as possible - and thus engages in almost no rehabilitative work which might allow prisoners to escape the cycle of ever greater incarceration in the "correctional" system.
But it gets worse. Torture is endemic, 70% of all inmates are illiterate, 10% suffer from serious mental illness, and 70% have a history of serious substance abuse. Many are juveniles convicted and incarcerated as adults, increasing numbers are women with dependent children, and almost 10% of the entire black community are either in prison, on probation, or on parole. 25% of black males will be in the criminal justice system at some time, and 50% of blacks in Washington DC will be imprisoned at some time before they reach the age of 24.
Can this really be happening in the land of the free? I give you the facts in a book that is almost 10 years old. Perhaps the statistics are out of date or you have better sources. However, according to the British Home Office statistics, the US has the highest prison population in the world and also the highest imprisonment rate (686 per 100,000 of population - 10 times the rate of many European countries.) Can it be that the biggest injustice in the world is being perpetrated not in "Communist" China, or in a plethora of dictatorships in an impoverished third world, but in the USA - in the heart of democracy and prosperity itself?
I will give you some more statistics before opening the debate to those with much greater knowledge and experience of the American Justice system than I.
In the 1990's roughly 35 Billion was spent on the "correctional system" each year. The prison-industrial complex includes top construction firms, investment banks issuing "prison bonds" and thousands of sub contractors and vendors. In many poor rural areas, the local prison is the chief source of employment in low grade, low paid jobs. The private sector is the fastest growing and a Prudential Securities report states that "the industry has excellent prospects" despite some downside risks to growth such as falling crime. (Crime fell by 18% between 1992 and 1996 and most of the newly imprisoned were for non-violent offences).
At the same time as this massive increase in prison spending, the number of psychiatric patients in state mental hospitals in California has been cut from 40,000 in 1960 to 4,500 in 1997. State spending on prisons now exceeds spending on higher education, and so poor is the rehabilitative effect of the prison system, that two thirds of imprisonments are for parole violations (and less than 4% are for violent crimes). In some states, under the three strikes rule, you can receive a mandatory life (without parole) sentence for a relatively minor drug offence.
In California, less that 3% of imprisoned substance abusers get any kind of drug addiction treatment and only 7% are enrolled in any kind of pre-release programme to help them cope with life on the outside. Although the prevalence of illegal drug use is similar, black men are 5 times as likely to be arrested as white men, and 25% of all black men are likely to be imprisoned at some point in their lives. Of the 128,000 women in US Jails, two thirds are mothers with dependent children, and 1.5 million children have a parent behind bars. All states except Hawaii allow juveniles to be tried and sentenced as adults for some crimes and 63 Juveniles are on death row (1998). Only five other countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria and Yemen allow the execution of juveniles. A 1988 study found that all juveniles on death row studied had suffered serious head injuries as children, all had serious psychiatric problems, all but two had been seriously beaten or abused as children. Only 2 had IQ scores above 90.
Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun had this to say about conditions (Hudson v. McMillan): "Various kinds of state sponsored torture and abuse - of a kind ingeniously designed to cause pain without telltale `significant injury' - lashing prisoners with leather straps, whipping them with rubber hoses, beating them with naked fists, shocking them with electric currents, asphyxiating them short of death, intentionally exposing them to undue heat or cold, or forcibly injecting them with psychosis inducing drugs - techniques commonly thought to be practices outside this nation's borders, are hardly unknown within this nation's prisons". In addition prisoners are shackled to bars for days at a time, food may be tampered with, medical care is almost non-existent, rectal probes are used to intimidate and rape, and an estimated 25,000 male prisoners are raped each day.
The battle for civil rights may have been won in the legislature, but is daily being lost in the courtrooms. Poverty is increasingly being criminalised; Torture is replacing healthcare; and there are more blacks in prisons than there are in third level education.
"A network of underwriters, builders and correction officers has a powerful financial interest in perpetuating and expanding the boom in the prison industry. One group of beneficiaries, the prison guards of California, contributed $1 Million to help Republican Pete Wilson become Governor. In return, the governor initiated the most expansive prison construction programme any state has ever undertaken. He has also approved the guard's request for more benefits. The guards have been well rewarded for their investment. In California, a prison guard now earns 30% more than a university lecturer." - Jim Considine
Deregulation of the markets has only been possible because of a massive re-regulation of civil society, where the poor, unemployed, addicted, mentally ill, dysfunctional, minority, or merely those who are unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time can find themselves imprisoned in inhuman conditions for very long periods of time. If this were Iraq, the civilised world would be considering invading the USA to free its populace from unbearable tyranny. What happened in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo is not some aberration. It is the system which the US uses for many of its own people.