National Post (National Edition)

The disgrace of Amer­ica’s prison-in­dus­trial com­plex

- Na­tional Post kay@na­tion­al­ Twit­ter @ jonkay

Amer­i­can prisons are where the hypocrisie­s of the coun­try’s con­ser­va­tives come home to roost: The same U.S. politi­cians who in­sist on “small government” have helped put 2.2-mil­lion Amer­i­can adults be­hind bars — each at a cost of about $30,000 per year. At any one time, about 5% of the Amer­i­can male pop­u­la­tion is ei­ther in prison, in jail, on pro­ba­tion or on pa­role — es­sen­tially a nanny-state in shack­les. As Na­tional Post colum­nist (and former U.S. pris­oner) Con­rad Black has writ­ten, mil­lions of th­ese peo­ple are non-vi­o­lent men who have been swept up in the war on drugs, in­sanely strict manda­tory sen­tenc­ing rules, gim­micky three-strikes poli­cies, and other prod­ucts of “tough-on­crime” voter hys­te­ria.

What makes mat­ters abun­dantly worse is that the United States no longer has the money to pay for hu­mane treat­ment or over­sight in a prison sys­tem that has grown five-fold since Ron­ald Rea­gan came into of­fice. Repub­li­cans de­mand prison sen­tences wor­thy of Draco in one breath, and then re­cite Grover Norquist’s Tax­payer Pro­tec­tion Pledge in the next.

In a bid to save money, many states have out­sourced prison op­er­a­tion to pri­vate firms, for which pris­oner care is a both­er­some bud­get line item. Even when scan­dals erupt in th­ese fa­cil­i­ties, politi­cians and lob­by­ists seek to keep them open, lest the state lose a few hun­dred se­cu­ri­ty­guard jobs. The Amer­i­can prison-in­dus­trial com­plex thereby has be­come a cor- rupt hu­man-ware­hous­ing op­er­a­tion that com­bines the worst qual­i­ties of government (its power to co­erce) and pri­vate en­ter­prise (greed). Here, for in­stance, is how Louisiana’s Times-Picayune news­pa­per de­scribes how things work in that state: “Most prison en­trepreneur­s are ru­ral sher­iffs, [and] a good por­tion of Louisiana law en­force­ment is fi­nanced with dol­lars legally skimmed off the top of prison op­er­a­tions. If the in­mate count dips, sher­iffs bleed money. Their con­stituents lose jobs. The prison lobby en­sures this does not hap­pen by thwart­ing nearly ev­ery re­form that could re­sult in fewer peo­ple be­hind bars ... Each in­mate is worth $24.39 a day in state money, and sher­iffs trade them like horses, un­load­ing a few ex­tras on a col­league who has open­ings. A prison sys­tem that leased its con­victs as plan­ta­tion la­bor in the 1800s has come full cir­cle and is again a nexus for profit.”

A sys­tem that leased its con­victs as plan­ta­tion la­bor in the 1800s is again a nexus for profit

War­dens can get away with just about any sort of out­rage — in­clud­ing pack­ing tens of thou­sands of pris­on­ers away in soli­tary con­fine­ment for years at a time. “Of­ten pris­on­ers are in their cells, some­times smaller than 8 by 12 feet, 23 hours a day,” writes Ge­orge F. Will. “Brain stud­ies re­veal durable im­pair­ments and ab­nor­mal­i­ties in in­di­vid­u­als de­nied so­cial in­ter­ac­tion. Plainly put, pris­on­ers of­ten lose their minds.”

Here in Canada, noth­ing arouses news­pa­per read­ers’ fury like those sto­ries of pam­pered pris­on­ers de­mand­ing the right to this or that — cigarettes, tat­toos, high- qual­ity food. Yet the Amer­i­can prison in­dus­try helps il­lus­trate the other side of that coin. In Cana­dian stereo­type, Amer­i­can con­ser­va­tives are sup­posed to be Chris­tian bi­ble thumpers. Yet we’re the one’s paying heed to “the least of my crea­tures.”

Af­ter see­ing Will’s col­umn last month, I read Cor­rec­tional Ser­vice Canada’s lat­est report on the prac­tice of soli­tary con­fine­ment in our own prison sys­tem, which in­cluded an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of whether Cana­dian prison of­fi­cials are fol­low­ing all the nec­es­sary pro­to­cols sur­round­ing the iso­la­tion of pris­on­ers. It is full of Cana­dian-style hand-wring­ing about “miss­ing sig­na­tures and dates” on doc­u­ments, and pris­on­ers’ “ac­cess to hobby craft.” But it also, grat­i­fy­ingly, de­scribes “a high level of com­pli­ance” with the re­quire­ment that ev­ery­one thrown into soli­tary get their sta­tus re­viewed af­ter five, 30 and 60 days; and that psy­cho­log­i­cal coun­sel­ing be read­ily avail­able.

The report also notes that over 90% of men (and about 98% of women) typ­i­cally leave soli­tary within three months. On any given day, there are only about 500600 pris­on­ers in in­vol­un­tary soli­tary con­fine­ment in Canada (of whom about 10 are women) — about one two-hun­dredth the cor­re­spond­ing U.S. fig­ure. As the Ash­ley Smith case shows, our sys­tem isn’t per­fect, and our guards aren’t all an­gels by any stretch. But th­ese num­bers help put in­di­vid­ual Cana­dian hor­ror sto­ries into con­text.

It is sad that Amer­ica, which views it­self as an in­ter­na­tional bea­con of free­dom, has fallen this far in its com­mit­ment to civil lib­er­ties. Up here in Canada, mean­while, those who laugh at our earnest self-im­age as a “kinder, gen­tler” na­tion might be more ap­pre­cia­tive of our val­ues if (like Con­rad Black) they had a taste of life un­der Amer­ica’s prison-in­dus­trial jack­boot.


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