Brian Stewart: America's 'prison nation,' must we follow suit?

No nation on Earth locks up more people than the U.S., Brian Stewart writes, adding it is one of the great scandals of our times.

For over a quarter century the U.S. political system has dodged and weaved its way around one of the great scandals of our times — the mass incarceration of millions of its citizens.

But in all the theatrics and thunder of recent political debate barely a peep has been heard about the astonishing 2,284,000 Americans currently behind bars or why an unprecedented six million are under "correctional supervision," meaning in prison or on parole or probation.

Indeed, some argue that the number snared in the U.S. criminal justice system even surpasses those condemned to Stalin's gulag prison empire at its height.

No nation on Earth locks up more people than the U.S., which incarcerates at a rate seven times that of other developed nations. The U.S. has less than five per cent of the world's population, but it has 23 per cent of those behind bars around the globe. 

Last year, the influential Economist magazine dubbed America "Prison Nation," and the U.S. incarceration mania is routinely criticised by human rights groups.

Yet neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to view this as a national problem worthy of debate.

With his campaign to decriminalize recreational drug use, Ron Paul, the libertarian candidate for the Republican leadership, has made a roundabout stab at the problem.

But even one of the very few political figures who's argued directly for prison reform in the past, the mercurial Newt Gingrich, has so far avoided the subject throughout the interminable Republican debates, no doubt for fear of being denounced as a weak-kneed liberal.

And don't look to Barack Obama for a brave moral stand on this.

The current administration is mostly silent on the subject, as is, surprisingly, the U.S. national media, which has never really focused on mass incarceration in the way it once highlighted racial segregation or rural poverty in the 1950s and '60s.

'The caging of America'

In fact, when it comes to the country's high incarceration rate, Americans seem extraordinarily indifferent to the outside world's opinion.

Two inmates in the California Institution for Men in Chino in June 2011. The state was forced to release over 33,000 prisoners when the Supreme Court ruled the overcrowded conditions were inhumane. (Reuters)

Wrapped in their own convictions, they either don't know others are shocked at the harshness of their justice system, or simply don't give a damn.

Last week, however, the influential New Yorker magazine ran a powerful blast entitled "The Caging of America" by one of its star writers and commentators, Adam Gopnik, which demanded America finally confront the inhumanity of its punishment mania. 

It was a rare but important sally into the fray as The New Yorker is so widely quoted in the U.S.

"How did we get here?" Gopnik asked his readers to ask themselves. "How is it that our civilization, which rejects hanging and flogging and disembowelling, came to believe that caging vast numbers of people for decades is an acceptably humane sanction?"

The statistics alone almost defy belief. Every day at least 50,000 men are locked in solitary confinement, while every year 70,000 are raped in chronically overcrowded facilities.

More than 60 per cent of all U.S. inmates are in for non-violent crimes, many for simple drug offences or minor crimes, the result of government-enacted  "mandatory sentences" that take all discretion away from judges. 

One in every 28 children in the U.S. has a parent locked up, and more than two-thirds of these absent parents are in for non-violent crimes.

"The scale and brutality of prisons are the moral scandal of American life," Gopnik concludes.

Following suit?

Many Canadians have started to pay attention to the horrors of the U.S. prison system ever since the Harper government set out to build more prisons and incarcerate more people in what almost seems a junior version of the American model.

Since 2005, Ottawa has jacked up spending on federal corrections by 85 per cent, from $1.6 billion under the former Liberal government to almost $3 billion last year.

Soon the passage of Bill C-10 will add new and tougher sentences for drug offences, increase mandatory minimums and curtail the use of conditional sentences such as house arrest.

New prisons, stricter sentencing rules and, likely, more stringent parole conditions guarantee Canada will be incarcerating more people than ever before in a seemingly bizarre attempt to ape the disastrous mistakes of our southern neighbour.

What will most puzzle future historians of course is that both the U.S. and Canada chose to lock up more and more people even as crime rates plunged to levels not seen since the 1970s.

Not easy to dismantle

Some like to proclaim that America's harsh incarceration regime is responsible for the decline in crime. But that is clearly not the case.

U.S. crime rates have declined roughly 30-40 per cent in both those U.S. states with "soft" sentencing regimes as well as those with the harshest, as indeed they have throughout the Western world.

Decreasing crime rates are part of a widespread trend that few understand fully. They may be a function of demographics (relatively fewer young males) or better policing and technical surveillance.

The simple fact that people carry less cash around these days has greatly reduced muggings.

Some new studies also suggest that crime can simply fall out of fashion in some periods regardless of legal punishments.

"Conservatives don't like this view," Gopnik writes, with no little irony, "because it shows that being tough doesn't help; liberals don't like it because apparently being nice doesn't help either."

Whichever the case, the giant "Prison Nation" that the U.S. has constructed will defy easy dismantling.

Yes, some budget-battered states have started to look at cheaper alternatives, such as community service and home detention. And California was forced to release over 33,000 prisoners last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled its overcrowded conditions were inhumane. But the obstacles to reform are massive. 

The growth of privately run prisons means their builders are lobbying fiercely to defend the momentum towards ever-bigger penitentiaries.

Of greater concern may be a deep pathology in the U.S. public, noted by Charles Dickens in 1842 during his visit, that accepts exceptionally harsh punishment and outlandishly long sentences as all quite normal, not to mention spiritually virtuous.

This perversion of a justice system that should be a model for the world is really a dreadful stain on the U.S., however, and real leaders should step up and say that.