I just finished Are Prisons Obsolete?, by Angela Davis, and it reminded me how screwed up we are about prisons. I read an article (in The Progressive?) a few years ago which said that the US locked up between 5 and 15 times as many people per capita as countries in Western Europe (admittedly, for most countries, the ratio was closer to 5x than 15x); the book says that the US has 5% of the world’s population but 20% of the world’s prisoners, which pretty much agrees with that figure. Locking up somebody is a really awful thing to do to them, and we’re supposed to go by the principle of innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, yet by the standards of civilized countries, only 20% of the people in our prisons actually deserve to be there.

And California is, of course, a leader in this. Apparently two thirds of our prisons were built in the 80’s and 90’s; we passed an incredibly draconian three strikes law a few years ago; and Gray Davis was not only bending over to do whatever the prison industry wanted, he did whatever he could to lock up people and throw away the key, universally overturning parole board recommendations to let prisoners out. At least Arnold is sometimes letting people out of prison when the parole board recommends it.

And it’s not just the numbers of people we lock up: we do everything we can to dehumanize prisoners once they’re in jail. (And then act shocked, shocked when something like Abu Ghraib comes up.) Huge overuse of isolation, guards treating prisoners like dirt, guards allowing prisoners to abuse other prisoners, setting up the worst sort of Lord of the Flies scenario.

And there’s no reason for any of this. It doesn’t make any sense at all morally: you should never treat people badly just because you have the power, or just for revenge. It doesn’t make any sense pragmatically: the only possible moral justification for prisons is to reduce crime, but if you want to reduce recidivism, doesn’t it make a lot more sense to model good behavior, to improve socialization, to improve education levels?

And then there’s prison labor. I really believe that most people in this country don’t want to be gratuitously mean; but there are so many ways that people can make a lot of money off of prisons, whether in constructing them, running them, or getting slave labor out of them, which skews the debate horribly. Not to mention second-order sources of profit: we want to control the governments of third-world nations and sell lots of weapons, so we invent a war on drugs, which we have to justify by locking up drug users and drug dealers in huge numbers.

Sigh. I’m sure, though, that the Christian fundamentalists in power will improve the situation soon – they so clearly take turning the other cheek as words to live by.

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