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You have to wonder what is wrong with Americans that requires so many of us to be imprisoned. It is reported that one in 100 of us is in prison on any given day, the highest ratio of any nation in the world. Are we that bad a people that we have to be locked away? Or is there something in our culture that sees punishment as the answer to everything we don’t like?
From our very beginning days, settlers on this continent have dealt with real and imagined problems with an unusual penchant for punishment, from the witch hunts of the 17th century to those of today; we have resorted to punishment as a means of creating order in our society.
To a significant degree, our prison population is as large because of our failed “war on drugs.” But other countries have similar drug laws, and much smaller portion of their population is incarcerated.
Another significant impact is caused by our love affair with enhanced penalty provisions, such as California’s “three strikes” laws which doom a felon to a life in jail for even a minor 3rd infraction. We also tend to mete out jail sentences for many offenses that probably are better dealt with through other means – rehabilitation, counseling or half-way housing.
Certainly it is possible that our recent experiment with private prisons leads to larger prison populations. They are in the business of making a profit off increased punishment and have a disincentive for inmates to not repeat.
According to a 2005 report of the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, the United States—with five percent of the world’s population—houses 25 percent of the world’s inmates. Our incarceration rate (714 per 100,000 residents) is almost 40 percent greater than those of our nearest competitors (the Bahamas, Belarus, and Russia). Other industrial democracies, even those with significant crime problems of their own, are much less punitive: our incarceration rate is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of France, and 12.3 times that of Japan. We have a corrections sector that employs more Americans than the combined work forces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart, the three largest corporate employers in the country, and we are spending some $200 billion annually on law enforcement and corrections at all levels of government, a fourfold increase (in constant dollars) over the past quarter century.
An argument can be made that the high rate of incarceration has reduced crime, and to some extent it has. But there has also been a sharp increase in the likelihood that the same crime committed today will result in prison time than 20 years ago. We are increasingly a society that likes to punish.
In short, we increasingly see punishment as the purpose of the criminal “justice” system and are much less tolerant of efforts to rehabilitate prisoners or send them to diversion and alternate means of treatment. I have a theory as to what this reflects.
In many aspects of our national culture we have a “gotcha” mentality – clearly in politics, but also in personal relationships. Many religious leaders preach “fire and brimstone” rather than forgiveness and tolerance. Businesses conceive of their purpose to “destroy” the competition and produce a profit without regard to consequences.
There is also the racial component – it is no longer acceptable to own slaves or utter racist comments so instead we cloak them in laws that target the very same people. We complain loudly about the “illegality” of entering the country without documents because we know if we just admitted we don’t like Spanish speaking people it wouldn’t go over so well.
We suspend children from school because they bring a squirt gun with them. We somehow rationalize listening to Rush Limbaugh spew hate while excusing his illegal drug use. We are, to put a not to fine point to it, an uptight society and have been for a very long time.
We, as a nation, need to find our way to kindness, sharing, tolerance and relaxation. We can afford to reduce our appetite for things and wealth and increase our willingness to enjoy the beauty of life in all its variety.
Some among us must be incarcerated to protect us. But not nearly as many as we presently hold in prison. That we think the way we do is cause for introspection, prayer and meditation. It is not healthy.