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.


  1. “How is this helpful?”

    It’s not.

    If we are to win in November, then we must get past angry useless tirades about the past election, and focus on this election and not repeating the same mistakes of the past elections.

    Remember, those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

    The same principle applies to our prison system. If we do not get involved, politicians elected and supported by special interest groups are going to continue to legislate moral values, hence create more victimless crimes, hence put more people in prison.

  2. “I would bet that all of you who dislike my words are not Christians; probably dry drunks who joined AA.”

    How is this helpful?

    –Kent Shaw

  3. superb link and very relevant. thanks for sharing it.

    Although these policies were championed as protecting the public from serious and violent offenders, they have instead yielded high rates of confinement of nonviolent offenders. Nearly three quarters of new admissions to state prison were convicted of nonviolent crimes.2 Only 49 percent of sentenced state inmates are held for violent offenses.

    I dare not go farther or it will get me started (ggg)!

  4. yes and when it comes to our penal system, some days it doesn’t seem like we’ve come very far, doesn’t it?

    But then we have an African American and a woman running for President.

    Are you sure we aren’t in Wonderland?

  5. “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.”

    I assume that you speak for yourself, Mr. Hoskins, when you say that you don’t like Spanish speaking people.

    As for myself, I wish all the illegal immigrants were caucasian because my feeling about their illegality and lack of right to be here would not change regardless of race and people like you would stop trying to imply that I and others are racist.

    — Kent Shaw

  6. Hey Phil, don’t get me started about the war on Drugs until AFTER the 2008 election. PLEASE!

    I’m not giving the crazies any more propaganda to drive the radical conservative fringe elements to the polls.

    I repeat my original statement:”We have too many victimless crimes and too many people in prison as a result.”

    If we released all the people incarcerated for “victimless crimes”, we would probably have a lot of empty prisons. We also might have a lot of unemployed people in rural areas.

  7. Some data I posted on our sister site, ReaderRant bears on this issue:

    Highlights of this analysis include:
    · African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six (5.6) times the
    rate of whites;
    · Hispanics are incarcerated at nearly double (1.8) the rate of
    · States exhibit substantial variation in the ratio of black-to-white
    incarceration, ranging from a high of 13.6-to-1 in Iowa to a low
    of 1.9-to-1 in Hawaii;
    · States with the highest black-to-white ratio are disproportionately
    located in the Northeast and Midwest, including the leading
    states of Iowa, Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut, and
    Wisconsin. This geographic concentration is true as well for the
    Hispanic-to-white ratio, with the most disproportionate states
    being Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire,
    and New Jersey; and,
    · States exhibiting high Black or Hispanic ratios of incarceration
    compared to whites fall into two categories: 1) those such as
    Wisconsin and Vermont which have high rates of black
    incarceration and average rates of white incarceration; and, 2) states
    such as New Jersey and Connecticut which have average rates of
    black incarceration and below-average rates of white incarceration.
    In both cases, the ratio of incarceration by race is higher than

    Sentencing Project

    State by State incarceration rates

    State incarceration rates by race

    According to the U.S. Department of Justice, as of December 31, 2006, American prisons held 2,258,983 inmates.[6] In recent decades the U.S. has experienced a surge in its prison population, quadrupling since 1980, partially as a result of mandated sentences that came about during the “war on drugs.” Violent crime and property crime have declined since the early 1990s.[7]

    As of 2004, the three states with the lowest ratio of imprisoned to civilian population are Maine (148 per 100,000), Minnesota (171 per 100,000), and Rhode Island (175 per 100,000). The three states with the highest ratio are Louisiana (816 per 100,000), Texas (694 per 100,000), and Mississippi (669 per 100,000). [8]

    Currently, considering local jails as well, almost one million of those incarcerated are in prison for non-violent crime. [9]

    In 2002, 93.2% of prisoners were male. About 10.4% of all black males in the United States between the ages of 25 and 29 were sentenced and in prison, compared to 2.4% of Hispanic males and 1.3% of white males. [10]

    In 2005, about 1 out of every 136 U.S. residents was incarcerated either in prison or jail.[11] The total amount being 2,320,359, with 1,446,269 in state and federal prisons and 747,529 in local jails.[12]


    Phil Hoskins

  8. Sandra — I will not dispute with you that there is a puritan group of religious zealots in this world of all kinds of different persuasions that for some reason think they have the right to impose their values onto other people.

    We see the very clearly in the Middle East. It also has become very clear since the Bushies took over the govt.

    You are correct that these very people are the ones responsible for more laws, more prisons, more spending, more legilating values, etc. etc. etc.

    And even better yet, we both are in agreement with the majority of this country who don’t want our country to return to the church running the govt and making the laws.

    However, the majority of people are not in power. The Bushies are for whatever reasons.

  9. One more statement Pollchecker before I log out. Have you spent any Sunday mornings listening to the televangelicals? Even the History channel is obsessed with the rapture and Armageddon that so many people look forward to. These are the people who want more prisons and more death penalties to be handed out. These are the people who want our government to end up a Theocracy. I have never seen America as divided as we are and everywhere I go I hear the same shit! Get the churches out of the government. It was the GOP Debates that woke up the voters. There is now a fight to remove evolution in our schools and teach Intelligent Design.

    My comments have been mild but a I am out step as usual.

    The problem of America comes directly from the church’s influence in politics. It cuts into the good samaritan image and renders under Caesar…you know the rest. To see it used to destroy and change the Constitution is not a Christian desire. I would bet that all of you who dislike my words are not Christians; probably dry drunks who joined AA.

  10. “I believe all these statements have been determined to be true. Perhaps some have bearing on the subject at hand?”

    Most definitely.

    But if you dare say that America isn’t the Greatest country in the world then you are labeled unpatriotic and put in jail.

    Oh wait, that’s what happened in Orwell’s 1984 (haha).

  11. Some factors that may have a bearing:

    The US is the most religious of the Western nations.

    The US is the most fire-arm fascinated of the Western nations.

    The US is the most concerned about “prurient interests”.

    The US has the greatest disparity between rich and poor.

    The US is the least democratic.

    The US population is the most insulated from other citizens.

    The US is the most (and the most successfully) propagandized.

    The US is the most punitive of non-violent crimes.

    The US seems to be the most fascinated with violence, real or imagined.

    The US population is perhaps the least educated (in some subjects).

    I believe all these statements have been determined to be true. Perhaps some have bearing on the subject at hand?

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