American Gulag

There is some scary stuff going on with law enforcement in America. Last week, we reported on civil asset forfeiture, and now the leading practitioner of this nefarious program has been nominated for Attorney General. We have been following the trend of police militarization and, today, we bring dispatches from America’s carceral state. Meanwhile, habeas corpus looks like it’s gone forever.

Now, in our outsourced, corporate gulag, you can be locked up and never see your family again – at least not live. The new thing is prison visits on low-def video, for which your loved ones will pay a premium. That means more revenue and lower costs for the prison industrial complex. If you have ever had the experience of a prison telephone visit, you know what a cruel scam it is. Video calls will certainly be worse and, no – they are not allowed to visit in person.

America has about 5% of the world’s population but almost 25% of its prisoners, with the world’s largest number of inmates and highest per capita rate of incarceration

Law and order types say that prison is intended to be punishment. We refer them to the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual” punishment, and the Supreme Court’s ruling against California. Ironically, while California is generally a liberal state, it is also broke. The Supreme Court found that extreme overcrowding in Californian prisons amounted to something like torture. Prisoners are left to die from agonizing diseases. If you’re one of these law and order types, go ahead and read the judgment.

The answer to overcrowding is not simply to build more prisons. We incarcerate more people, per capita, than any other civilized country – by a wide margin. See chart below, and this wonderful infographic from Pew. There are 2.5 million Americans behind bars. If the “carceral state” were actually a state, it would be our 36th largest, just behind Nevada. In his book, Jonathon Simon makes the case that mass incarceration is fundamentally at odds with the Eighth Amendment.

Prison Chart

The answer, in terms of policy choices, is blindingly obvious. As judge Morris Hoffman writes, “there is a large body of criminological research that shows that just a handful of criminal law doctrines — including three-strikes laws and mandatory minima for simple drug possession — drive sentences substantially higher than the average citizen believes is just.” The ACLU should be campaigning hard against these doctrines.

Just a handful of criminal law doctrines — including three-strikes laws and mandatory minimums for simple drug possession — drive sentences substantially higher than the average citizen believes is just.

Behind the doctrines is a sinister convergence of interests between “law and order” politicians and commercial interests. Politicians can reduce crime by budgeting more money for law enforcement or, more cheaply, by passing tough sentencing laws. Like pension commitments, these laws create unfunded liabilities that come due after the politician is gone and the prisons are full. Yes, in America people really do serve life in prison for marijuana.

[Supreme Court Justice] Kennedy… called it “sick” that the state’s prison-guards union had sponsored a notorious ballot measure that … now keeps far too many Californians locked up.

The commercial interests include private prison operators, subcontractors, and – for public prisons – the prison guards’ union. These are groups who profit from a large prison population. They lobby very effectively for long sentences, and against rehabilitation. Corrections Corp. has annual revenue of $1.6 billion, and is currently rated a strong buy. See stock chart, below.

CXW Chart

This is not to say that private prisons are bad, operationally, but it does mean that we have a system of perverse incentives. Instead of rehabilitating people, we have incentives to warehouse them cheaply for as long as possible. As with much else in government, this boils down to cost accounting. We do not hold our leaders to account for the economic and social costs of their decisions.

It was nice to see the Supreme Court rule on this, but it took an extreme case. We, the voters, should be taking action. Otherwise, we can add the Eighth Amendment to the growing list of “rights we used to have.”

See also: End Mass Incarceration Now

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