Tuesday, March 1, 2011

At Least We're Number One at Something...

I've been learning about prisons and how they affect people for years now, since my first post-college job at a halfway house for former Illinois State Penitentiary inmates. As DH can attest, there were days in that job that left me completely drained - people come out of prison broken, there's no way around it.

My thesis looks at some of the bigger-picture problems with prisons, but you don't want to read my thesis (definitely not now - the data analysis is a shambles). Instead, you should take a glance at this infographic about the "Land of the Free".

The United States locks up more people per capita - and more people in sheer numbers - than China. Oh, and that fun fact didn't even make it in to the infographic.

Why aren't we protesting in the streets about this? Good question.


  1. I see the US Virgin Islands are third, right after Russia.

    Just out of curiosity, are there any - eh - sophisticated arguments defending such a high lock-up rate?

    The first thing that came to mind, which is by no means sophisticated or convincing, is that the US and Russia were the world's two superpowers for a long time. Could there be a correlation between being at or near the height of power and having a high lock-up rate?

    Would the same have been true at the heights of the Roman and other empires? Can we expect that rate to rise for China?

    And yes, whenever it would be available, I would be interested in reading your thesis.

  2. Good questions. I've heard more arguments for building prisons (they create jobs!) than for actually locking people up. The sky-high incarceration rates have been somewhat mindless reactions to mandatory minimum sentences for infractions like drug possession. Those were allegedly intended to get big-time kingpins off the street, but they've mostly been locking up petty drug dealers/users for very long sentences. Now that we're facing budget shortages and prison overcrowding, those are s-l-o-w-l-y being undone.

    The argument for most incarceration tends to be that the "worst of the worst" are being locked up. In reality, they're more likely to be poor minority teenagers.

    It's also worth noting that the stats for China don't include "administrative detention", which adds to the numbers. And unfortunately China has a very efficient and broadly-used death penalty, so you don't have folks sitting on death row for years like you do here. That obviously reduces the number of prisoners.

    Similarly, I'm not sure if Russian numbers would have counted all the folks who got exiled to the Gulag, etc during their heyday. Did that count as prison? Or just "re-education"?

    The Roman question makes me want to ask my resident Classicist. Since it was fairly common to just enslave folks, I think the costs of empire then were pretty different - likely a lot of people weren't free, but weren't technically imprisoned.

    Some sweet day I'll be finished with the thesis, and I'll be happy to share it.

  3. The glass factories have shut down in the South Jersey region where I grew up. My dad still lives there. Two prisons (one state, one federal) have opened within five miles of his home.
    I've heard the phrase "prison-industrial complex" used. It certainly seems to be a growth industry, dammit.
    Will your thesis touch on the "detainment" (imprisonment) of undocumented aliens? There's a WHOLE lotta gummint money floating around for that...

  4. Hi Donna - thanks so much for stopping by!
    Similar to the way China doesn't disclose everyone it's locking up, the US doesn't count immigrant detainees as part of its prison population, which is cute. I won't have a chance to talk much about that population in my thesis, but at my day job I get to work with a great group of lawyers who represent some of those folks, which means I get to hear their first-hand accounts of visiting their clients in enormous tent cities, etc.

    They are, alas, not very happy stories. Those lawyers are doing God's work.


Be nice, now.