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The dreadful U.S. prison scene


Twenty-five years ago the United States became addicted to prisons. With no national debate and no planning, the number of prisons quadrupled. The nation’s current prison population of 2 million prisoners includes 750,000 African-Americans.

The number of women incarcerated has increased seven-fold. In 1980 there were 12,000 women prisoners; in the year 2000 there were 90,000. Texas led the states with 12,714 female prisoners in the year 2000.

A new book Invisible Punishment (Free Press) contains 16 essays by experts on the series of bad judgments that have led to the incarceration in the United States of 700 out of every 100,000 persons. The rate in Europe is 100 out of 100,000. While the United States went from 645 in 1997 to 702 in 2000, Canada’s rate fell from 115 in 1997 to 103 in 2000.

There is new information in the book on the devastating impact on families and children caused by the imprisonment of men. This is particularly visible in Washington where some 10 percent of all African-American men are in prison and where many more are under some form of correctional supervision. This is comparable to the situations in the inner cities of America, especially in the South. The high rate of incarceration of urban males means that some 1.5 million children have a parent in jail. Not a few of these children are placed in foster care, especially if their mother is in prison.

The growth of privately organized prisons is graphically related in Invisible Punishment. In 1980 the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation urged the privatization of prisons. The Crime Corrections Association opened with a stock worth $50 million in 1986; in 1997 it traded at $3.5 billion. The thought of profit-making on the operation of prisons is, for many, simply appalling. The private prison industry brought its institutions to rural areas where the citizens of these depressed areas welcomed them. As a result, the majority of prisoners from the New York City area, for example, are jailed in remote upstate New York making it difficult for their families to see them.

The prison scene in the United States does not seem to offer many rays of hope that things are getting better. Everything is dreadful, especially for black males between the ages of 18 and 30. In New York state, for example, there are more black males in this age group in prison than in all of the public universities in the state.

The only glimmer of hope that Americans seem to be rethinking their harsh view of criminals is that a few states are about to repeal statutes, which deprive former felons of the right to vote. Some 4 million individuals -- many black -- are prevented from voting because they are former felons.

Invisible Punishment offers some glimpses into the prison world, which for the most part is carefully hidden from the world. The high walls and razor wire symbolize the warden’s determination to keep out the press -- especially television. In May 2001, 10 guards at a prison facility in the District of Columbia were indicted on federal bribery charges. But there was no follow-up in the press.

There is little public discussion of the astounding increase in the number of prisoners or the scandalous rate of recidivism. No one except a tiny group of academics, criminal defense lawyers and some religious personnel seem to care. The vast majority seem to be able to convince themselves that the crime rate demands tough measures. Few want to admit that the easy availability of guns is at the heart of the problem.

No one, of course, is opposed to all prisons. Violent and incorrigible individuals have to be isolated. And even the critics of the present system say often -- with some vehemence -- that the white-collar criminals involved in the Enron debacle and similar disasters should do substantial “hard time.”

The former Soviet Union still has an incarceration rate close to the United States, but since 1991, 19 countries of the former bloc have joined the Council of Europe and have agreed to the requirement of humanizing their prisons, which are to be used only as a last resort.

The organization Penal Reform International, based in Europe, has helped the Russians to civilize their prison system. The reform group has just opened a new office in Washington. Its mission is to persuade the United States to follow at least the minimum standards of penal reform adopted by virtually every democracy in the world.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.georgetown.edu

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002