US prison population shows America is failing a key test for any civilised country – Henry McLeish

Nelson Mandela once wrote that ‘no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails’ and America’s prisons reveal a country that falls short of the standards expected in other western democracies, writes Henry McLeish
Guard towers loom over a maximum-security federal prison called Supermax near Florence, Colorado (Picture: Chris McLean/The Pueblo Chieftain via AP)Guard towers loom over a maximum-security federal prison called Supermax near Florence, Colorado (Picture: Chris McLean/The Pueblo Chieftain via AP)
Guard towers loom over a maximum-security federal prison called Supermax near Florence, Colorado (Picture: Chris McLean/The Pueblo Chieftain via AP)

Understanding how America works is not easy. After visiting the US more than 100 times in over 30 years, this has hit home. A country of gigantic human and natural resources, extraordinary diversity, outstanding innovation and creativity, fantastic history, spectacular geography, remarkable energy and excitement, and warm hospitable people seems – when viewed through another prism, politically, socially, culturally, racially, and in broader human terms – undeveloped and falling short of the standards expected from other modern western democracies.

The number of people in prison illustrates this dilemma. The impact of the coronavirus on US inmates has put the spotlight back on one of America’s worst-kept secrets – the US locks up more people and a greater percentage of its population than any other country. This epidemic of incarceration has raged for nearly 40 years and provides a chilling insight into the darkest side of “modern” America.

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Behind the ‘Star-Spangled Banner, liberty and the land of the free’, there lurks a barely credible story of a country and a criminal justice system that is obsessed with punishment, revenge and humiliation rather than rehabilitation, respect and humanity.

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Deeply rooted in the psyche of many Americans, especially Republican voters, are the ideas that dealing with ‘moral depravity’ and ‘mentally defective people’ justifies an incarceration rate of such staggering dimensions.

The US has five per cent of the world’s population, but 25 per cent of its prisoners. The number of people in prison has grown from 200,000 in 1973 to 2.3 million today, despite reductions in serious crime.

Disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities

The population under some form of correctional control or community supervision, excluding people in prison, has risen to more than four million, an increase of nearly 300 per cent since the 1980s.

A total of nearly seven million people are on probation, parole, in jail or in prison. There are 1.5 million prisoners in China, or 118 per 100,000 people, Brazil has a rate of 193 per 100,000 while Germany’s is 79. But America has a staggering rate of 737 per 100,000.

America also imprisons disproportionately higher numbers of ethnic minorities. White non-Hispanic people represent 64 per cent of the US population, with an incarceration rate of 450 per 100,000. For Hispanic people, the figure is 831 per 100,000. And incredibly, African Americans have an incarceration rate of 2,306 per 100,000, five times greater than whites.

Geography also plays its part, with States, varying from the worst, Louisiana with 881 per 100,000 to Maine with 150 per 100,000.

Although people of colour represent 37 per cent of the general US population, they represent 67 per cent of the overall prison population. A complex set of peculiarly American factors shape this punitive prison regime: too many petty laws, carrying unreasonable penalties and court procedure costs, especially for the poor and uneducated; few alternatives to deal with mental illness; too many harsh sentences keeping people locked up for too long; a prison-industrial complex exercising excessive lobbying on Congress to keep financing and building more prisons; puritanical and religious ideas of punishment based on scripture and literal ideas of “an eye for an eye”, where people should be punished according to the way they offended.

Dehumanised, invisible ‘non-people’

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Other factors include a justice system that “fuels the constant production of mass suffering”; brutal and often racist policing; the idea of American exceptionalism which has blinded the country from how ridiculous it looks in the eyes of western democracies; a country awash with guns, which doesn’t help; and politicians, like other countries, who play to the demands of the mob for tougher punishments that lack any justification, other than revenge, and where deterrence plays no part.

The use of the death penalty has no deterrent effect. It is purely and simply about revenge. The EU does not allow member states to use judicial killing, but 31 US states and the federal government do.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the scale of this dehumanisation is hidden from sight. Prisoners are invisible, ‘non-people’ who are not treated as citizens, but an inconvenience, deserving no serious consideration, other than to be excluded, marginalised and ignored.

Erased from the public consciousness, millions of Americans are locked up and warehoused. A God-fearing and freedom-loving America seems beyond embarrassment.

The Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio provides another layer of hurt as the pandemic takes its toll. Nearly 2,000 prisoners, many of them older with pre-existing conditions, have tested positive for the coronavirus. Over a fifth of Ohio’s confirmed cases are inside the state’s prisons. Out of sight but, paying the price of neglect.

Debtors jailed

Politics is never far from prisoner problems. People convicted of a felony lose their vote during their incarceration. In Florida, they effectively lose their vote for life, unless restored by the Governor. In 2018, Florida electors voted 65 per cent in favour of an amendment to allow people convicted of a felony to regain their voting rights after completion of sentence. But the Republican Governor Ron De Santos stepped in and attached serious obstacles, such as fines, fees and other financial obligations to the Bill and is preventing voting rights being restored to over a million voters. This could be significant as Trump won the state in 2016 by only 100,000 votes. Suppressing votes is part of the Republican playbook.

The courts, deliberately abusing debt procedures, are also playing their part in locking people up in huge numbers. After having imposed fines for minor offences, failure to pay results in incarceration; people who cannot afford bail and other court costs can remain in prison as a result.

The US penal system is too well-served by the criminal code, the law enforcement process, the court system and compliant politicians. The prison population remains at alarming levels, undermining human rights and withdrawing any sense of common decency from millions of Americans.

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In his book Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela wrote: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not only be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones.” Based on this comment or any other standard of civilisation, the US is failing.

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