The American Gulag

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. gained 62,000 more jail and prison inmates last year, the biggest increase in six years. There are more than 2.2 million people behind bars in America, or one out of every 133 of us. We have 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of its prison population. And we by far lead the world in incarcerations. That includes China, which has four times our total population.

Perhaps the most staggering figure on U.S. prison populations is one regularly cited by Jack Cole, head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition: At the height of apartheid in South Africa, 851 of every 100,000 black men in that country were behind bars. As of 2005 in the U.S., 4,419 of every 100,000 black men were.

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  • ||

    Clarification: Are the fractional statistics quoted supposed to have different denominators?

  • sarcasmo||

    During Apartheid, lefties were building tent cities on my university's campus. During drugwar racism, the plight of victims is bi-partisan ignored, but especially if the victims are disproportionately black.
    JMR

  • thoreau||

    Well, at least dbcooper never contributed to prison overcrowding.

    Glad to hear you made it out alive, man!

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "the U.S. gained 62,000 more jail and prison inmates last year, the biggest increase in six years."

    Sounds like it's time to stock up on some stock in Corrections Corporation of America.

  • ||

    I think we can safely ignore China's figures, which are naturally complete fabrications. However, comparing us to Western Europe is completely fair. We simply do not need to lock up a good chunk of the people that we are locking up. The drug war accounts for a lot of it, of course.

  • ||

    There's an extra zero in the last sentence.

  • ||

    First off, I agree that these figures are pretty shameful - we should strike "the land of the free" from our national anthem, I think.

    From a different point of view, however, I suppose all modern societies have to figure out what to do about their poor. Our strategy really does seem to be a combination of warehousing them in prisons and bribing them with welfare.

    I suppose as a strategy it's working (our lower classes seem pacified), but what happens if our economy goes into depression again and we can no longer afford to employ these tactics? There's going to be some serious turmoil if the welfare funds dry up and/or we have to suddenly release thousands upon thousands of criminals (or, if you prefer, "criminals").

  • ||

    It's good to know that I am being kept safe from all those violent users of marijuana, and that the addicts in jail are getting the treatment they need to be healthy and productive citizens once they are released from their 90-year sentences. We have a wonderful system.

  • ||

    Any reason to call a statistical find a "Gulag"? One of the most repressive, torturous, and effective killing machines, which killed 1 million people? Is it to troll via sensationalism as Amnesty did on Gitmo or was the write up by a малолетки?

  • Fluffy||

    Hey ethics -

    The brutality of the gulag was only part of what made it a gulag.

    The other part was the fact that the sheer scale of it made it a country within a country - hence the expression "gulag archipelago".

    We aren't approaching the scale of the true gulag yet, but we're giving it the old college try. We have a vast and growing country within a country, with its own culture, economy [including imports and exports], and power centers. And if you count inmate-on-inmate violence which is largely winked at and allowed to continue to make prisons more of a "deterrent", we're getting there on the brutality front too.

  • NP||

    I'm surprised that no one so far has pointed out the obvious: the ridiculously high incarceration rate in the U.S. is due in large part to the equally ridiculous drug laws.

  • NP||

    ethics,

    I don't think any reasonable poster here would equate our justice system with the Soviet gulag. Balko was probably just dramatizing the absurdity of the current state of affairs.

  • ||

    Does anyone have stats on the percentage of prisoners who are incarcerated for non-violent and/or drug offenses? Everyone here seems to assume that a big chunk of prisoners were just marajuana smokers, but I've not seem evidence to prove this contention.

    It could be that we simply have longer average sentences than other nations, or we have better policing. There are lots of possible explanations, not all of which are inherently bad.

    For instance, we essentially lock up about 1% of the adult population. It would certainly not surprise me to discover that 1% of the population are violent criminals who deserve to be locked up. I'm not saying that this is so, just that it is a possibility.

    The comparison with South Africa is particularly apt. During apartheid, blacks could murder and rape each other all they wanted, with no fear of prison. The authorities just ignored the townships. Does anyone believe that policing the townships would not have been an improvement?

  • Fluffy||

    Okapi -

    It's difficult at this point to draw a bright line between drug offenses and violent offenses. One aspect of every black market is the use of violence between market participants to resolve disputes, since naturally they have no access to the courts. When you cover a mammoth black market with a failed prohibition policy for forty years or so, you end up with a mass culture of violence.

    Would urban crime, including violent crime, be at the same level in the absence of drug prohibition? I don't think it would be.

  • NP||

    Okapi,

    "Drug offenses account for 49 percent of federal prison population growth between 1995 and 2003."

    That's from an article Paul Craig Roberts wrote sometime last year. I don't know where he got the data, but Roberts is pretty scrupulous in this kind of stuff so I'd take him at his word.

  • ||

    It could be that we simply have longer average sentences than other nations, or we have better policing.

    So good policing=lots of people in jail?

  • FW de Klerk||

    Why are American blacks so much more criminal than South African blacks?

  • Edward||

    But wait, aren't we the model for the world? How could those welfare nanny states over there in Surender Monkey Land be doing better in the freedom department than we are? We even have private prisons don't we?

  • ||

    Would urban crime, including violent crime, be at the same level in the absence of drug prohibition? I don't think it would be.

    Tough to say. Alcohol is not prohibited and I understand that it is a factor is an pretty large % of violent crime. Legalizing harder drugs may mean less "economic" violence but more "drug influenced" violence.

  • ||

    Of course South Africa has a horific crime problem. My guess that most people in South Africa would like to see their number closer to the US and a crime rate closer to the US.


    Clearly, we could at least initially lower our prison population by ending the drug war. The question is how many of the 49% increase in inmates Paul Craig Roberts says are from drug offenses would stay out of jail if you released them. My guess is fewer than you think. Part of the problem with prohibition is that only criminals sell drugs, which makes the trade violent. If drugs were legalized, legitimate people and companies would sell them. People who don't sell drugs now because it is criminal would sell drugs then. But, the criminals would still be criminals. They would just find other crimnal activities to support themselves after they got competed out of the drug market by legitimate firms.

    Our problem in this country is that we have a huge criminal under class. They are still going to be a criminal under class even if you legalize drugs. I would suggest that Balko go down and spend a month with a public defender in a major metropolitan area and listen and talk to all of the guy's clients. I think he will find that there are just some different cats out there and he might change his opinion that it is an American gulag. They threw people in the gulag for no reason. If Balko ever spent any real time around the criminal justice system, he would know that most people who go to jail go there for really good reasons. Not that the system doesn't have huge problems or that some people go to jail who shouldn't. But, a whole lot of people in jail need to be there.

  • ||

    The compairson to the gulag also falls apart when we consider the fact that our prisoners are not political prisoners. They're criminals, convicted with due process. Drug prohibition punished with incarceration may be a bad policy choice, but there's really no comparison to a system like China or Soviet Russia where criticizing the government will get you imprisoned with or without due process.

  • ||

    As of 2005 in the U.S., 4,419 of every 100,000 black men were.

    4.4% for all black men. I wonder what the percentage is for black males 18-35 years of age. Certainly significantly higher. Why can't any of the drug warrios hear this ticking bomb? I don't condone civil violence, but when it happens I'll certainly understand it. Jesse, Al, et al, you need to join with William F. Buckley on ending the cold war. The left might grow some testes with real leadership. Is there any liberal/left figure of note willing to stand up for what's right regardless of the political fallout?

  • Gilbert Martin||

    " How could those welfare nanny states over there in Surender Monkey Land be doing better in the freedom department than we are?"

    They aren't doing better in the freedom department than we are. The national degree of freedom is not determined exclusively by prison statistics. The majority of the population is not in prison. The degree of freedom is determined by across the board comparisons of things such as relative tax burdens, regulatory burdens and government controls over businesses, the level of government interference in freedom of speech and religion, the right to keep and bear arms, private property rights, etc, etc.

  • ||

    But but but but...

    The other 51% are probably in jail from crimes committed in the pursuit of funds to pay for the drugs; breaking and entering, theft, etc.

    Ending the drug war (ie; decriminalizing the sale and distribution) will lower the price of those drugs (Free Market - Demand Kurve - et al). Reducing the cost of drugs to drug users will reduce the need for those folks to break into my house and steal my "stuff".

    If it was legal, Charlie average may be able to afford a coupla' rocks of crack on the wages he earns flipping pancakes at IHOP.

    Or, I could be wrong.

    CB

  • ||

    Tough to say. Alcohol is not prohibited and I understand that it is a factor is an pretty large % of violent crime. Legalizing harder drugs may mean less "economic" violence but more "drug influenced" violence.

    Maybe not. A show of hands please. Who is going to start using opiates, amphetamines, barbituates, hallucinogens, or cocaine if it's legalized. Second question, Who has abstained solely because of criminalization? Legalization equating increased use hasn't been demonstrated. Our experience with alcohol prohibition indicates the opposite.

  • ||

    John,

    If the total amount of money in the black market is reduced, some segment of the population that would be making money there is going to end up making their money somewhere else.

    Violent crime went down with the end of Prohibition for exactly this reason.

    As far as the people who end up with public defenders, how many of them were already part of a "permanent criminal underclass" when they first started selling drugs, vs. how many became part of that cohort because they picked Job A over Job B? Some.

  • ||

    "If it was legal, Charlie average may be able to afford a coupla' rocks of crack on the wages he earns flipping pancakes at IHOP."

    Dude, Charlie doesn't want to work at IHOP. Charlie is a degernate fucking criminal who would rather steal than work. He just uses the "I have a drug problem" as an excuse to be a degernate.

    The best man at my wedding is a PD in San Antonio, one of my best friends from law school does the same in Houston. I am tell you their clients are not ussually law abiding people caught up in the drug war. Yeah, those people exist but they are few and far between. The typical defendent in state or federal court is a criminal. Guys who steal cars for a living. Guys who break into houses, rob people. Degenerate drunks who have 6 or more DUIs and get picked up with a .18 BAC. People who beat their wives and starve their children. And of course an endless supply of child sex perverts. Really, go down and sit in a typical criminal court sometime. You will be amazed.

    I am not for the drug war. I think drugs ought to be legalized. But, if you people think that there are all these people in prison who are only there because of the drug war, you are kidding yourself. Ending the drug war is not going to end our crime and prison problem. If only it would.

  • ||

    Joe,

    I agree with you and I think it would help, but even if drugs were legal the US would still have a huge prison population. I wish could explain why some people can't seem to hack it as a law abiding citizen but some can't.

  • ||

    I can buy that, John.

    We're talking about somewhere in the neighborhood of maybe a 5-15% reduction in the prison population.

    That ain't peanuts.

  • The Owner\'s Manual||

    Have you ever noticed how there are more men in prison than women? Women make up half the population, but the prisons have a whole lot more men than women.

    Either the justice system is corrupt or men commit more crimes than women. To say men are more likely to break the law than women is a reasonable statement in the face of it all, but the idea that blacks commit more violent crimes than whites, which is why they're imprisoned, hasn't made it into the thread so far.

    That's easy to explain on a liberal site, but disappointing on a libertarian, pragmatic, freethinking forum.

  • Edward||

    Gilbert Martin is the Libertarian equivalent of Billy Graham, isn't he?

  • ||


    Either the justice system is corrupt or men commit more crimes than women. To say men are more likely to break the law than women is a reasonable statement in the face of it all, but the idea that blacks commit more violent crimes than whites, which is why they're imprisoned, hasn't made it into the thread so far.


    An interesting point - perhaps one could make the case that the law discriminates against men because the ways men naturally tend to resolve conflict (violence) is outlawed but the various ways women address conflict are not - even though such techniques as manipulation, seduction, gossip, etc. can be damaging to others.

  • Edward||

    Maybe we imprison more of our citizens than other developed countries do because we have a greater gap between rich and poor. The poor are more likely to be charged with crimes and less able to pay for legal defense. Maybe the market doesn't do a very good job of correcting such inequalities, and government intervention is called for. An intelligent, pragmatic apporach to the right mix of government and market solutions may be what's missing here. Rigid dogmatism and economics don't mix very well.

  • ||

    """Dude, Charlie doesn't want to work at IHOP. Charlie is a degernate fucking criminal who would rather steal than work. He just uses the "I have a drug problem" as an excuse to be a degernate."""

    Generalization is a fallacy.

    In reality you don't know what Charlie wants unless you deal with Charlie. Granted, you are correct for some, but not for all. It's a case by case basis.

    You seem to display the idea that people in prison belong their because of their intrinsic badness, and they will simply break another law if let out. That's kinda like saying because John said something stupid once he is always stupid. I do not agree.

    I do agree that drug use is often a scapegoat for bad behavior, but not for everyone. Sometimes the only bad behavior is the drug use. But for those that scapegoat the use, and are bad people, then yes, they will most likely go back to jail. Does Charlie fit in that group? We can't say by his drug use only.

    You do present a good argurement on why we don't need anti-drug laws. Bad people will end up in prison regardless.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    Having read Solzhenitsyn I would take issue with using the term Gulag to describe American prisons. AmeriKKa isn't Nazi Germany nor is it the Soviet Union (or even Cuba or China).

    IMO, rank hyperbole isn't going to win any converts although it plays well right here in our little corner of the universe.

  • ||

    That's it, everybody drink. Dan T. is making sense and Joe & John are having a civil argument.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "Maybe we imprison more of our citizens than other developed countries do because we have a greater gap between rich and poor. The poor are more likely to be charged with crimes and less able to pay for legal defense. Maybe the market doesn't do a very good job of correcting such inequalities, and government intervention is called for. An intelligent, pragmatic apporach to the right mix of government and market solutions may be what's missing here. Rigid dogmatism and economics don't mix very well."

    Spare me the old liberal theory of poverty being the "root cause" of crime.

    They've been spouting that for decades and aren't the least bit capable of proving it.

    If poverty caused crime, then all poor people would be criminals. Actually most of them aren't criminals just as most people from the other economic strata aren't criminals.

    We've also already had lots of "government intervention" in the form of trillions of dollars of transfer payments for welfare programs, LBJ's "War on Poverty" etc.

    There is no proof that any of that spending ever reduced the crime rate for any type of crime anywhere in the country at any time.

  • ||

    This is easy, in the future we could simply parole the nonviolent (maybe give them some kind of patch or something to wear) and execute the violent. Our prison population will be among the world's lowest in no time. What was that Heinlein quote about imprisoning people?

  • ||

    This is easy, in the future we could simply parole the nonviolent (maybe give them some kind of patch or something to wear) and execute the violent. Our prison population will be among the world's lowest in no time. What was that Heinlein quote about imprisoning people?

    Beter idea, execute 'em all.

  • zombyboy||

    J sub D asks:
    Maybe not. A show of hands please. Who is going to start using opiates, amphetamines, barbituates, hallucinogens, or cocaine if it's legalized. Second question, Who has abstained solely because of criminalization? Legalization equating increased use hasn't been demonstrated. Our experience with alcohol prohibition indicates the opposite.

    I would use if it were legal. I would regularly use coke, occasionally dabble in the hallucinogens, and would have the rare hit of opium. Why? Because I enjoy the experience. I wouldn't do meth, heroin, or pot because they are, respectively, scary, ugly, and boring.

    The sole reason that I do not use drugs is because I have too much to lose in the event of an arrest--the laws act as a strong deterrent to me. When I did use, I didn't consider myself an addict--a belief bolstered by the fact that when I chose to stop using I simply walked away from drugs and never had an overwhelming urge to "relapse"--but just a regular guy who likes drugs the same way he likes booze.

    Obviously, I'm just one guy and can't represent much of an answer to your question. But we rational abstainers do exist.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    I'd like to point out that even if drugs were legalized, most employers have company policies against drug use.

    It's not likely that they would change those policies even if drugs were legalized and companies are within their legal rights to make that a condition of employment.

    So unless a significant percentages of those who want to use drugs are independently wealthy and don't have to work for a living, I would think that would still put a crimp in the degree of drug use.

  • Paul||

    we should strike "the land of the free" from our national anthem, I think.

    Yes, we should, but possibly not for reasons on which you and I would agree.

    the U.S. gained 62,000 more jail and prison inmates last year, the biggest increase in six years.

    Methinks this might be because we have now criminalized dozens of behaviors that used to be considered normal, or at most, minor nuisances? Ignorance of the law is an excuse as far as I'm concerned.

    Why is this data even surprising when our drug war has expanded into the realm of public health and safety concerning all illegal and legal products?

  • Edward||

    Gilbert,

    You're either stupid (my guess) or you're deliberately misrepresenting my argument. It isn't that the poor are more criminal; it's rather that poor criminals are more likely to be caught, charged, and convicted than wealty criminals. In our society, you can have as much freedom (at least in one sense of the word) as you can afford to pay for.
    Your aboslute faithfulness to the party line makes me think that you're a libertarian only because the Moonies or some other cult didn't get to you first.

  • Paul||

    Reducing the cost of drugs to drug users will reduce the need for those folks to break into my house and steal my "stuff".

    Maybe... ok, probably.

    Ending the drug war, or at least greatly modifying it is something we need. Badly. But the effects of drugs won't change. A man that takes too many of the little red pills may still want to run naked in traffic, and may end up killing a police officer trying to subdue him. Whether the drug is legal or not will make no difference. Just an example.

    The reason drugs are illegal is largely because people didn't like the behaviors associated with their use. My guess is any rollback of the drug war will have to take substances on a case-by-case basis, and decriminalize the ones which are perceived as the least harmful or benign. Marijuana should be at the top of that list.

  • ||

    I've read interesting stuff (a long time ago) about prison psychologists and their findings. The basic point is that there seems to be a hardcore percentage of the population with sociopathic tendencies who are simply not wired to "play nice" in an organized society. In a country of 300 million people, is it conceivable that a million or so fit that profile?

    Now, I certainly favor ending prohibition tomorrow--today would be be even better. But predatory behavior obviously wouldn't go away.

  • Paul||

    It isn't that the poor are more criminal; it's rather that poor criminals are more likely to be caught, charged, and convicted than wealty criminals

    I disagree with this assessment. Crime is higher in poor neighborhoods, period. We can argue the reasons for that, or the causes of that, but to suggest that there's the exact same amount of crime occurring in a wealthy neighborhood as there is a poor one is to ignore the patently obvious.

    In fact, some studies have shown that wealthier first time offender can get hit harder for the same offense as a poor repeat offender. This has been attributed to the fact that a repeat offender begins to learn the system and can minimize their exposure to harsh sentencing by making plea deals and the like.

  • Paul||

    Reducing the cost of drugs to drug users will reduce the need for those folks to break into my house and steal my "stuff".

    P.S.

    Remember the crack problem in the eighties and early nineties? Crack hit the streets as a cheap, readily available form of cocaine. Reducing the price of drugs doesn't necessarily abate the problems associated with their use. Sometimes it makes those problems cheap, and more readily available.

  • ||

    Very disappointed Radley. Expected better.

    If I ran a country and shot everyone who committed a felony and fined everyone who committed a misdomeaner, how many people do I have behind bars? ZERO.
    Under apartheid every black person in South Africa was in a defacto prison.
    How many prisoners are there in Cuba? With the exception of Fidel, his brother Raul and the other capos of the communist party, everybody else.
    Lieing with statistics, something I excpect of lessor publications like the NY Times, LA Times and the Washington Pos, NOT Reason.
    You should be suspended, if not fired.

  • Edward||

    Paul

    Clearly there is a link between poverty and certain kinds of crime. But poor people don't generally commit crimes such stock fraud, bankruptcy fraud, bribery, insider trading, embezzlement, computer crime, medical crime, public corruption, identity theft, environmental crime, pension fund crime, RICO crimes, consumer fraud, occupational crime, securities fraud, financial fraud, and forgery. Such white collar crime costs society about $300 billion a year. How many white collar criminals do time? Not many, but they pay big bucks for competent legal defense.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "You're either stupid (my guess) or you're deliberately misrepresenting my argument. It isn't that the poor are more criminal; it's rather that poor criminals are more likely to be caught, charged, and convicted than wealty criminals"

    I'm just responding to what you posted - which contained an advocy for more government intervention (i.e welfare) to allieviate poverty.

    First, your claim about there being all these wealthy criminals out there who haven't been caught is mere speculation. No one can prove how many uncaught criminals there are from any economic strata.

    Second, if more poor people are incarcerated simply because it's somehow easier to catch them rather than them because being poor making them more criminally inclined to begin with, then increased government "intervention" to provide welfare will not reduce the crime rate among poor people and there is no reason to be advocating such policies as a remedy for crime as you did.

  • ||

    Remember the crack problem in the eighties and early nineties? Crack hit the streets as a cheap, readily available form of cocaine. Reducing the price of drugs doesn't necessarily abate the problems associated with their use. Sometimes it makes those problems cheap, and more readily available.

    Oh come on, put 2 and 2 together here. What happened after the low cost alternative was introduced to the market? Crack was literally "cracked" down upon. Harshly. Thus limiting the supply, and raising the price once again. The crime waves around the "crack epidemic" came after not before the brutal government limitations in supply.

  • Robert||

    "I'd like to point out that even if drugs were legalized, most employers have company policies against drug use. It's not likely that they would change those policies even if drugs were legalized"

    Yes, it is likely they would, maybe not immediately but within a few years. Even now, they make exceptions for employees who use narcotics, downers, or uppers legally. If the degree of on-the-job impairment is the same whether the employee's use of the drug is legal or illegal, the only reason for their policy is legality.

  • ||

    "the only reason for their policy is legality"

    Actually, it litigation avoidance.

    CB

  • Paul||

    Clearly there is a link between poverty and certain kinds of crime. But poor people don't generally commit crimes such stock fraud, bankruptcy fraud[...]

    I don't dispute this. You're wrong on one point though, identity theft is largely committed by poor unemployed people, often drug users.

    Such white collar crime costs society about $300 billion a year. How many white collar criminals do time?

    I have no idea and have no numbers on this whatsoever. But those kinds of crimes tend to be investigated by special arms of law enforcement altogether because any kind of crime which boils down to forms of accounting fraud are extremely complex, require years-long investigations and result in long trials. See: Enron. Which resulted in long prison sentences for these wealthy perps, by the way.

    I think you're conflating two different things here. I understand your point, but if Jeff Skilling had been caught during his Enron sabbaticle doing thrill-seeker liquor store holdups with a "born to lose" tattoo on his arm, he would have very likely been convicted with a relatively short trial, and done good time for it. Get it?

  • Paul||

    Oh come on, put 2 and 2 together here. What happened after the low cost alternative was introduced to the market? Crack was literally "cracked" down upon. Harshly. Thus limiting the supply, and raising the price once again.

    Not true. A "rock" of crack can be bought for as little as $5. Prices will vary based on purity, of course. Both Cocaine and Crack cocaine have seen significant street price drops despite the growing intent to "crack" down on it.

    Yes, this is due to a number of factors, some attributing it to the U.S. diverting dollars to fight the war on terror. However, since 2000, the DEA has intensified the focus on Columbia, yet prices were already falling in the 1990's.

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