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January 4, 2012 / sadhbhanu

Welcome to Incarceration America


Sadhbh Walshe

The US locks up a greater proportion of its population than any other country in the world. This fact bears closer examination

We like locking people up in America. If incarceration were an Olympic sport, the United States would come away with every gold medal available and break a few world records in the process. On average, Americans are locked up at a rate (pdf) four times higher than any other nationality, and we have the world’s largest female prison population by a considerable margin.

Before the “get tough” policies adopted in the 1970s, less than 200,000 on average were behind bars. Now that number is closer to 2 million. That may make you feel more safe, or less, if you consider that all of our chances of ending up in prison someday have increased exponentially. With that in mind, we kind of owe it to ourselves to at least know what goes on behind prison walls.

With this new series, we hope to shed some light on what life is like inside our prisons by hearing directly from inmates, their families, correction officers and anyone else whose life is impacted by the practice of incarceration. So far, my correspondence with inmates has revealed a fascinating world of endurance, resourcefulness, terrible choices, terrible cruelty and a lot of pain and suffering.

The most disturbing aspect of the corrections model, as it currently stands, however, is how much it has failed to either rehabilitate offenders or deter them from re-offending. No matter how harsh the prison stay, at least four in ten inmates will end up back inside (pdf), soon after their release – usually on a more serious charge and for a longer, and more expensive, stay.

One of my correspondents, who is 20 years into a life sentence he earned for a crime he committed while serving time for a lesser offense, gave me his take on why prisons are often better at turning small-time crooks into full-on felons rather than model citizens.

“We do not live in a civilised society here. It could be, but rather than separate repeat violent offenders and have programs/services designed to show young, confused, antisocial people how to become productive members of society once released, or just allow them to learn enough in a safe enough environment to be able to draw on later when they run out of piss and vinegar, they throw us all together with a pile of bones to fight over like hungry dogs.”


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