American Gulag: is the world's toughest regime about to relent?

Aug 14, 2013
Charles Laurence

'Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long' says US Attorney General. Not everyone agrees

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

IS AMERICA at last attempting to address the astonishing fact that it locks up a larger proportion of its population, for longer and for less serious crimes, than any other country?

The New York Times yesterday hailed 'Two Powerful Signals of a Major Shift on Crime'.

The first came from a federal judge in New York, Shira Scheindlin, who ruled that New York City's "stop and frisk" policy targeting tens of thousands of people every year was unconstitutional.

She declared that the way New York cops patrol the streets pulling over and searching young black and Hispanic men – and no one contests that more than nine out of ten searched are young black or Hispanic men – violated both their Fourth Amendment right for there to be reasonable suspicion before a search, and the 14th Amendment ban on what amounts to racial profiling.

The second came from President Obama's Attorney General, Eric Holder, better known for presiding over America's transition into an eavesdropping 'security state'. He used a convention of the American Bar Association to announce a new policy of encouraging judges and prosecutors to turn away from the "mandatory minimum" sentences which have done more than anything else to multiply America's prison population by 800 per cent in a generation.

The prime reason offered for the change of policy was to save money. Locking people up for 20 years of their lives or longer costs a fortune, and the federal government needs to save money as it struggles with its endless budget wars in Washington.

But Holder did also tip his hat in the direction of the humanitarians and race campaigners who have long cried foul over draconian prison terms. They started in the 1970s, when crime was spiraling out of control. But since then, crime rates have tumbled.

"Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long," Holder said, "and for no truly good law enforcement reason."

America incarcerates 743 people per 100,000 of the population, ahead of both Russia's rate of 585 and China's rate of 120. The rate in England and Wales is 150, while in France and Germany it's 96 and 88 respectively.

According to the US government's Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 2,266,800 adults in prisons of one sort or another at the end of 2011 – and this American Gulag is costing the US taxpayer billions of dollars.

Race is at the heart of the issue. The Prison Policy Institute calculates that out of every 100,000 black Americans, 2,207 are in prison, at least half for drugs: of every 100,000 Hispanics, 966; and of every 100,000 whites, 380. Sir Richard Branson is not the only reform campaigner who labels the "war on drugs" America's war on blacks.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the New York Times found great enthusiasm for what amounts to very modest measures.

"I think that there is a sea change now of thinking around the impact of over-incarceration and selective enforcement in our criminal justice system on racial minorities," Vanita Gupta of the American Civil Liberties Union told the Times. "These are hugely significant and symbolic events, because we would not have either of these even five years ago."

But New York's Mayor Bloomberg, usually the most rational of men, was among the first to object, recalling the bad old days of crack wars and 2,000-plus murders a year in his city alone. His police would go on frisking for guns and drugs, and he would appeal the court ruling.

"I wouldn't want to be responsible for a lot of people dying," he said.

At the heart of the prison issue is a very American conundrum: hundreds of thousands of prison beds have been "privatised". There has been no evidence of that saving the taxpayers any money. But there has been plenty showing that it makes the contractors a fortune.

And that means that there is now a corporate prison lobby, just as there is a gun lobby, with its financial interests at heart.

An ACLU study into privatised prisons found that private prison companies "essentially admit that their business model depends on locking up more and more people". It quoted from a 2010 annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission by the Corrections Corporation of America which stated: "The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by... leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices."

As incarceration rates skyrocket, the ACLU concluded, the private prison industry expands at exponential rates, "holding ever more people in its prisons and jails, and generating massive profits".

So far, the Obama administration has offered no details of how it plans to tackle the Corrections Corporation of America as it empties their money-spinning gulags.

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