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Monday, July 1, 2002

Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation

The American Prison System Is an International Disgrace

Reviewed by John Seiler

Across America’s vast territory stretches another country, an archipelago, few citizens know about: the Gulag Americana. Many of the inmates belong there: murderers, rapists, thieves. But many don’t, having been sent to prison for crimes that didn’t hurt anybody, especially nonviolent drug offenses.

Going Up the River details the Hell of American prisons. It refutes the myth, told often by political candidates or talk-show hosts, that American prisons are “country clubs.” In fact, they’re the opposite: places where inmates commonly are beaten by guards and raped by other prisoners–the latter horror a potential form of murder in these days of AIDS.

“In 1939, at the end of the reign of gangsters like Al Capone, we sent 137 Americans to prison for every 100,000 citizens-a high water-mark that stood for four decades,” Hallinan writes. “But in 1980 we broke that record, and we’ve been breaking it ever since. By 1999, the U.S. incarceration rate stood at a phenomenal 476 per 100,000-more than triple the rate of the Capone era. So common is the prison experience in America today that the federal government predicts that one in every eleven men will be imprisoned during his lifetime. For black men, the figure is even higher-more than one of every four.”

One of the few full-time writers examining prisons, Hallinan crisscrossed the country looking for why this tripling of the per capita incarceration rate occurred in just 20 years: It was mainly the drug “war.” This new form of prohibition–far more vicious than alcohol Prohibition ever was–raked in millions of people. For federal prisons alone, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report released after the book was published, of the 107,912 inmates in federal prisons in 1998, 58 percent were sentenced for nonviolent drug crimes.

But it also was the change in political fortunes, as the 1970s Nixon-Carter economic malaise depressed many small towns, making it enticing for them to lobby for prisons. This in turn created a large nationwide lobbying force to keep the prisons going. And prisons need products to process–prisoners. The cost was $24.5 billion in 1996 for all prisons, $55 per day per prisoner on average.

Overcrowding jams the prisoners down into further circles of prison Hell, inflicting a Dantean agony. Politicians and callous citizens don’t care much that even violent felons, who should be in prison, deserve to be treated as human beings. For nonviolent offenders, the disconnect between the nature of the crime and the severity of the punishment is simply appalling.

Despite many court orders against overcrowding, Hallinan writes, “At last count, thirty-three states–plus the federal government–reported inmate populations that exceed the rated capacities of their prisons. Overcrowding had a foreseeable consequence: it created the perfect breeding ground for gangs. In a crowded prison a warden is forced to mix the strong inmates with the weak.”

Although many prisons still use “correctional” in their title, there has been a lamentable trend away from trying to rehabilitate prisoners. Libraries have been reduced and schooling eliminated. Many work programs, within and outside prisons, have been canceled. Yet Hallinan notes, “It is an axiom in prison that an idle inmate is a dangerous inmate. For this reason, safe prisons keep their inmates working.”

Crime dropped during most of the 1990s. Prison wardens, police, and many politicians not surprisingly attribute the trend to the “tough on crime” laws passed beginning in the 1980s. But in the mid-1980s, James Q. Wilson, the UCLA criminologist, predicted that politicians in the 1990s would have an easy time on the crime issue because of demographics. The baby boom became a baby bust in 1965, meaning proportionally fewer young men would be around to commit crimes 20 years later. Much as the police and prison industry want us to think so, crime has not fallen because we have increased the number of convictions.

Reforms are vital to make the Gulag Americana more humane. Ending the drug war is crucial. The authorities should also do much more to prevent violence in prison.

Going Up the River shows that the American prison system is an international disgrace that must be changed.

John Seiler is an editorial writer with the Orange County Register.