National Post (National Edition)
The disgrace of America’s prison-industrial complex
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.