What is wrong with us?

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. uncledave

    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?

  2. pollchecker

    “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).

  3. Sandra Price

    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.

  4. pollchecker

    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.

  5. Phil Hoskins

    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

  6. pollchecker

    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. ekaton

    “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

  8. pollchecker

    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?

  9. pollchecker

    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)!

  10. ekaton

    “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

  11. pollchecker

    “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.

  12. RichardKanePA

    Despite the prison industrial complex, a lot has been going on that hasn’t led to punishment.

    9Finally on Capital Hill Blue discussion on long term trends not only the next political moment0

    Crimes such as sexual harassment and child abuse, according to various statistics is vastly under reported. Expanding definitions of what is included in sexual harassment, and child abuse can under some circumstances include almost everyone. If every parent or relative who ever, in the past, savagely beat a child will now be going to jail, and the once child jailed for obstructing justice, prison overcrowding has only begun.

    Using compulsory DNA testing to discover and punish child abuse in the form of underage marriage, is changing the rules where crimes are punished when a victim reports it or when some one is caught in the act.

    In the Texas polygamy commune one of the charges was that order boys played sexual games with younger boys, something their religion never exulted. We are heading toward a fast increase in what will be punished.

    I am old enough to remember 50 years ago when morality was behavior not orientation based. Anal and oral sexual behavior was considered evil, which had nothing to due with ago or marriage. Two men kissing wasn’t considered wrong in itself, but possibly an indication that anal or sexual fluids might have been exchanged when no one was looking.

    When Iran claims there are no gays in Iran, it is claiming that no one’s mouth got near anyone’s crouch. One can be a proud Muslim and grimly attend to one’s wife every month or two while spending one’s free time chatting with male friends.

    If one opposes abortion, laws punishing 19 year olds for having sex with 17 year olds in not the way to limit abortion.

    Sometimes the hysteria gets insane such as the famous incident in Scotland, where an elementary school teacher accused a camp owner of being a pervert for insisting that the camp pictures always shows the boys with their shirts off. After the camp went bankrupt, he killed the teacher and some of the students in the classroom.

    Here in this country a father imaged that he raped his sister as a child. Since consenting sex between two children is not considered rape, it was his imagination. After he became afraid that his daughters were a little to interesting to him, he ended up shooting girls in an Amish school. Are individuals going insane or is our whole world going insane? In Iraq a father killed his daughter, because she only talked to, not tired to have an affair with, an American soldier. And in Sudan many people unsuccessfully tried to create Magen type laws and capital punishment for a teacher allowing children to name a teddy bear the name of a prophet. At least in Sudan the authorities didn’t bend their laws to acquiesce to the hysteria.

    A vastly under-reported historic horror is when a step parent or care giver is jealous of a child for stealing the affection of their mate. In some poor areas children dream of growing up to being a successful drug dealer or a pimp, and without international crack downs on child molesting might succeed at being a sex god or godless, then becoming a failure in life as they approach their 18th birthday. Usually people praise children for learning something new, or excelling in school or something.

    It would be a grim world if children had to navigate the sex games mine field at an early age, having to be mindful whether being friends with one adult would create jealousies in another. This doesn’t mean that there needs to be more and more exotic punishments if an adult touches a child or in some cases just looks at a child. We don’t notice it but the hysteria is overwhelmingly causing the pain except in rare cases such as where a child is raped in South Africa as a folk remedy to stop aids. Which doesn’t mean making everything legal will make the problems go away.

    Christians and Muslims blame each other for our problems, and so do atheists and the religious, and gays and straights but we are each in our own way finding ways to make this a more punishing world.

    Anyway, we need to think through how to solve our social problems and inconsistencies instead of finding new ways of expanding the prison industrial complex. Using compulsory genetic testing to discover and punish sex crimes is a dangerous step in the wrong direction.

    [PS if you click on the following link you might have to click past the advertising]
    Richard Kane

  13. Bluesman2007

    I don’t think we want to solve social problems because it seems to be more profitable not to. We never get to the root cause of problems. We’d rather punish their consequences. It’s our choice how we approach problems and it seems that it’s always the same way.

    “We are, to put a not to fine point to it, an uptight society and have been for a very long time.”

    We’ve been an uptight society for as long as I’ve been conscious of society. I’ve always felt that part of that is attributable to the fact that only (roughly) 5% of the worling populace (this may be true in other countries as well) are working at jobs they enjoy. The pressure is built in. The need to relax with a (martini, joint, line of coke, etc.) “after work” seems to be the norm. I think this can cause a ripple effect in our society that is now being felt profoundly.

    If you emptied the prisons of those guilty of victimless crimes, that would substantially reduce those numbers (drug use, prostitution, etc.) but in our “christian” society, that doesn’t seem acceptable. This “chistian” society has also led to massive over population. I saw an article in the paper a few days ago where a woman in the southeast was proudly displaying her SEVENTEEN CHILD! What kind of insanity is that? This too causes a ripple effect in our society – soaring food prices, monumental rent increases that not all can afford, crowded streets/freeways and it goes on and on and on.

    It seems that a lot of our actions are purely self-centered with no thought of society as a whole. Did that woman really need 17 kids that she can probably ill afford?

    Why even try to do away with crime when it’s so profitable not to? Why do away with stress when you can flood the market (at no small cost) with prozac and valium? Why even try to reduce traffic when you can ticket people into oblivion.

  14. Sandra Price

    Phil. We are heading back to the dark ages. People having the authority to punish others has been around since early man. We began to get along when laws were made within the tribe that the members agreed upon.

    We now have a government that has approved of torture to others who live by another God. This has been the result of religion versus evolution. We overlooked right versus wrong and trained our people to use strong over weak. You are correct that the legal drugs have made the last generation weak. America is now considered weak and even our armed services are unable to get out of an extremely harmful war.

    Our adults are no better off as day and night our commercials and emails are filled with the “extension of that certain male part” and girls as early as 15 are having breast implants. No wonder our kids can’t locate a moral value when they are drugged, uneducated and aimed at better sex.

  15. 33rdSt

    The fire and brimstone message from allegedly christian pulpits across the country has embedded in our social and political culture an Old Testament view of judgment. When translated into political and legal terms, that message of damnation and retribution leads to a schizophrenic criminal law framework that drives the horrific social policies that lead to this massive incarceration rate. If Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth today, he would be appalled at what is being done in his name. Too many folks stopped reading after Malachi! We are an “eye for an eye” nation, not a “walk the extra mile” nation.

  16. Flapsaddle

    Indeed, there is a great deal of hypocrisy on the part of some of these allegedly “Christian” ministers as well as members of their congregations. As you say, it’s hell-fire-and-damnation for those who they see as sinners, but let the tables be turned and they blubber about the need for compassion and forgiveness – for themselves. Same thing with the jingoist, the war-screeching chicken hawk who has no problem with death, dismemberment and destruction as long as it is someone else in harm’s way; naturally, he and his are excluded from the fray.

    Jesus returned would see much of our society the same way he saw the Temple as he scourged the money-lenders – ‘God’s house is a house of prayer, but you have made it into a den of thieves.’

    We have a much larger number of incarcerable offenses in our penal code than do most other modern nations, many of them for victimless or near-victimless crimes. What you can go to jail for here is often no more than a stiff fine and/or restitution in Europe. In particular, we jail an extremely large number for drug-related offenses; the “hang ’em high!” mentality – reflected in harsher sentences and less judicial discretion – means that a lot of our 1% in jail are there for such offenses.

    I would be in favor of drastic reform of the penal code – especially the sentences imposed – for such crimes. I’d also like to see the so-called “white collar criminal” the con-artist businessman or the shady entrepreneur start serving their time in jails rather than the restricted country-club reform schools that seem to be the order of the day for those with money and influence.

    I want to see the jails reserved for those who commit violent acts – murderers, rapists, armed robbers, DUI homicides – criminal drug dealers – and stop incarcerating those who, absent a long pattern of repeated offenses, pose no exceptional danger to society.

    The eye-for-an-eye is not Judeo-Christian in origin; it dates from the Babylonian code of Hammurabi. And it is a limit on retribution, not an indicator of excess. The problem we often have to day is that the “eye” offense is often addressed with the taking of an eye, an ear and perhaps a limb as well.

    Most sincerely,

    T. J. Flapsaddle

  17. Sandra Price

    Be careful 33rd or you too will be criticized for your words. You cannot question a Christian without bad results.

  18. pollchecker

    Sandra — I am getting really tired of your generalizations about Christians. Not ALL Christians supported Bush and his crazy Bushie fans. Not ALL Christians are responsible for the mess that this country has become under Bush.

    Bush’s so-called brand of Christianity is not what Christianity is suppose to represent.

    Yes, there are a bunch of crazy people who call themselves Christians who support GW and don’t believe in Evolution.

    But that does not characterize all Christians. You have not been criticized for your words about Christians here but instead your massive generalization lumping all Christians together.

    I believe Grif’s point was that your words lumping all Christians together are no better than John McCain calling all Muslums EVIL or the President of Iran calling all Jews evil, or some crazy preacher who calls all gays evil, or some KKK member who believes all blacks are evil or some crazy immigration Republican like Rick Santorum who believes all illegal aliens are evil.

    We very much enjoy your posts just not your constant Judging and lumping people together. Please get over it!

    Perhaps you could clarify your words by saying Bushie Christians to specify who you are berating with your tirades.

    PS — BTW, Hal, I am sorry for getting off topic but this needed to be said. Thanks. Now back to the show, folks.

  19. Flapsaddle

    One man’s theology is another man’s belly-laugh – Robert Heinlein

    The fanatic, especially the really hypocritical ones – regardless of their persuasion – tend to react to questioning in the same manner that the slug reacts to being sprinkled with salt.

    Most sincerely,

    T. J. Flapsaddle

  20. Rob Kezelis

    at least the war on drugs was as successful as the war on poverty. Disease. Racism. And now we have a war on terra.

  21. pollchecker

    We have too many victimless crimes and too many people in prison as a result.

    If the politicians aren’t bound to follow the laws, why should the citizens they represent?

  22. Dr.D

    It’s called the ‘prison industrial complex’,and a large segment of society depends on it for their livelihoods. Ed

  23. Flapsaddle

    I had no intention of being helpful, whatever that might mean in this case.

    My only intent was to point out that the philosophically dogmatic – if they are hypocrites – tend to react in an extremely agitated manner when challenged on matters of fact.

    Most sincerely,

    T. J. Flapsaddle

  24. Jim C

    This ones easy . The ” punishment ” mentality comes with conservatism , the more conservative a country , the more punitive and the less humane . Remember , while our founding fathers were liberal much of our original heritage was actually puritan , the two have always been at odds . In the early eighties conservatism again saw a rise in popularity and here we are , again reaping the poisonous fruit of that toxic suffocating ideology .

    The epicenter of our purtain roots is the ” bible belt ” , that’s where our puritan ancesters migrated to in an attempt to found a conservative religious state . Most people don’t realize that the pilgrams didn’t leave England because of religious persecution as is common lore . They left because the english were sick and tired of them attempting to shove their fundamentalist religious dogma down their throats . So they decided to pack up and move to the new world where they could found a conservative , puritanical religious community . It has been said that we would have been much better off if instead of the pilgrams landing on plymouth rock , plymouth rock had landed on the pilgrams !

    Anyway , conservative , fundamentalist ideology has always been big on punishment and stern retribution . When you mix it with free market lassez faire capitalism this is what you get . The capitalists figured out that they could use the repressive , anti intellectual tendencies of the fundamentalists to their advantage . So now greed , repression and ignorance are christian values used to keep the population confused , distracted , ignorant , in fear and in line while they pilage . We are trying more and more juveniles as adults . It is now common for children as young as twelve to wind up in the adult system . We revel in the death penility while every other modern ” enlightned ” society has rejected it and have little concern about how barbarously it is inflicted . We now condone , actually debate and accept torture . Our politicians rush to see who can pass the longest , most punitive sentences for the most trivial of often victimless crimes and we cheer them on .

    While other first world countries found that rehabilitation works much better than vengence and punishment ( Spain recently scraped its old punitive juvenile justice system for one that encourages rehabilitation and reorientation , it has been a huge success ) , recidivism is way down . I hold out little hope that we might actually follow the lead , success and humanity of the rest of the civilized world and reject our primative , punitive conservative , puritanical , reactinary justice system that could have been designed by De sade .

    While other countries are designing prisons that are focused on bringing their wayward brethren back into society as useful citizens , we seem intent on making sure ours produce damaged , hardened , perpetual offenders .

    We are doomed to continue down this self destructive path until we can cast off the vestiges of our countries puritanical roots , see conservatism for what it is , an ideology based on greed , repression and selfishness . Or put another way , turn from a country of I’s and me’s to a country of we’s and us and start trying to fix and rehabilitate those who commit crimes or are socially disfuctional rather than trying to punish them into submission .

    And finally , Seal , those paragraphs are for you .

  25. Sandra Price

    This week I received a number of emails from your site here to return and keep up the pressure. I have no problems with Christians until they get into our elections and our laws. Their power is stronger than you realize.

    I have sat through dozens of Republcan meetings and conferences only to see the subject turn on the hell of gay marriages and abortions. They even asked a man running for dog catcher if he was pro-life.

    I want no Christians making decision on our culture, religion or social laws. It was the only way Bush got elected and reelected. You cannot ignore it and if you do this forum will just die just as it did years ago.

    Some Americans fight to the death to keep Communism out of the government and I see a worse movement to destroy America. Rather than have you write my posts, I will depart. Had I not had some emails to return I never would have.

  26. pollchecker

    NOBODY wants to write your posts. I don’t even know where that comes from quite frankly.

    All that has been asked of you is to stop lumping all Christian people together as if they are of one mind.

    As I said numerous times now, I have nothing wrong with what you write. In fact, you and I quite often agree on many issues including the crazies that have put GW in power and kept him in power. Like you, I do not want people like those who elected GW running my life or my govt. My values are not the same as theirs.

    So, for the last time Sandra, I will repeat what I said earlier. It is not a personal attack on you but it is what it is!

    words lumping all Christians together are no better than John McCain calling all Muslums EVIL or the President of Iran calling all Jews evil, or some crazy preacher who calls all gays evil, or some KKK member who believes all blacks are evil or some crazy immigration Republican like Rick Santorum who believes all illegal aliens are evil.