Abu Ghraib .... Shocking? What Happened There Is Commonplace at U.S. Prisons

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Mr. Franklin is an activist and cultural historian. He is the author or editor of eighteen books and hundreds of articles on the American prison, the Vietnam War, and many other subjects. He is currently the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University in Newark. His home page is http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~hbf and his e-mail is hbf@andromeda.rutgers.edu.

The prison has become a central institution in American society, integral to our politics, economy, and culture. Between 1976 and 2000, the United States built a new prison each week, on average, and the number of imprisoned Americans increased tenfold. With a current prison and jail population of over two million, America has become the uncontested world leader in incarceration. Prison has made the threat of torture part of everyday life for millions of individuals in the United States, especially the 6.9 million currently incarcerated or otherwise under the control of the penal system. More insidiously, our prison system has helped make torture a normal, legitimate, even routine part of American culture.

Imprisonment itself, even when relatively benign, is arguably a form of torture. This is implicit in our society using prison as the most dire legal form of both"punishment" and"deterrence," except for execution. Moreover, in the typical American prison, designed and run to maximize degradation, brutalization, and punishment, overt torture is the norm. Beatings, electric shock, prolonged exposure to heat and even immersion in scalding water, sodomy with riot batons, nightsticks, flashlights, and broom handles, shackled prisoners forced to lie in their own excrement for hours or even days, months of solitary confinement, rape and murder by guards or prisoners instructed by guards--all are everyday occurrences in the American prison system. [1]

The use of sex and sexual humiliation as torture in Abu Ghraib and the other American prisons in Iraq is endemic to the American prison. Psychological and physical sexual torture is exacerbated by the underlying policy of denying prisoners any volitional sex, making the only two forms of sexual activity that are physically possible--homosexuality and masturbation--both offenses subject to punishment. Strip searches, including invasive and often intentionally painful examination of the mouth, anus, testicles or vagina, frequently accompanied by verbal or physical sexual abuse, are part of the daily routine in most prisons. A 1999 Amnesty International report documented the commonplace rape of prisoners by guards in women's prisons.[2]Each year, numerous prisoners are maimed, crippled, and even killed by guards. Photographs could be taken on any day in the American prison system that would match the photographs from Abu Ghraib that shocked the public. Indeed, actual pictures from prisons in America have shown worse atrocities than those pictures from the American prisons in Iraq. For example, no photos of American abuse of Iraqi prisoners have yet equaled the pictures of dozens of prisoners savagely and mercilessly tortured by guards and state troopers in the aftermath of the 1971 Attica rebellion. [3] Even more appalling images are available in the documentary film Maximum Security University about California's state Corcoran Prison. For years at Corcoran, guards set up fights among prisoners, bet on the outcome, and then often shot the men for fighting, seriously wounding at least 43 and killing eight just in the period 1989-1994. The film features official footage of five separate incidents in which guards, with no legal justification, shoot down and kill unarmed prisoners. [4]

But if the tortures practiced in American prisons are so commonplace, then why, one might reasonably ask, did those pictures from Abu Ghraib evoke such an outcry? The answer to this critical question lies in the history of the American prison and how the prison functions in contemporary culture.

Prior to the American Revolution, imprisonment was seldom used as punishment for crime in England and was rarer still in its American colonies. The main punishments under England's notorious"Bloody Code" were executions and various forms of physical torture--whipping, the stocks, the pillory, branding, mutilation, castration, etc.--all designed as spectacles to be witnessed by the public. The prison system, in contrast, institutionalizes isolation and secrecy. The prison's walls are designed not only to keep the prisoners in but to keep the public out, thus preventing observation or knowledge of what is going on inside. Unknowable to all but prisoners and guards, the prison thus becomes a physical site where the most unspeakable torture can continue without any restraint. And as an unknowable place, the prison can thus also become a prime site for cultural fantasy.

The modern prison was devised by American reformers who believed that people should not be tortured and that criminals could be"reformed" by incarceration, labor, and"penitence." But with the rise of industrial capitalism, unpaid prison labor became a source of superprofits, a trend accelerated by the Civil War, and the"penitentiary" became the site of industrial slavery conducted under the whip and other savagery.

Prior to the Civil War, the main form of imprisonment--African-American slavery--was, like the penitentiary, not to be regarded as torture. Slavery, indeed, was never legitimized by any claim that the slaves were being punished for crimes or anything else. A main cultural line of defense of slavery even maintained that the slaves were happy. This changed in 1865 when Article 13, the Amendment that abolished the old form of slavery, actually wrote slavery into the Constitution--for people legally defined as criminals:"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States . . . ."

At this point, tortures routinely inflicted on slaves, especially whipping, became a standard feature of the main site of penal incarceration: the prison plantation. The antebellum plantation was merging with the"penitentiary" to create the modern American prison system. Ironically, the sexual deprivation of the prison was an additional torture not characteristic of the old plantation, where slave breeding was a major source of profit, while the old pathological fear of Black sexuality became a prime source of the sexual tortures endemic to the modern American prison, where people of color are not a"minority" but the majority.

The true nature and functions of the American prison started to become known through the tremendous surge of prison literature in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The river of prison literature poured into public culture in books, songs, journals, and movies, dramatically influencing the political movement of that period. In response came a massive suppression. Most states enacted laws making it illegal for convict authors to receive money from their writing. Creative writing courses in prison were defunded. Almost every literary journal devoted to publishing poetry and stories by prisoners was wiped out. Federal regulations were drafted explicitly to ensure that prisoners with"anti-establishment" views would"not have access to the media."[5]

The silencing of prisoners was a precondition for the astonishing next stage of the American prison. Launched simultaneously was the unprecedented and frenzied building of more and more prisons, soon filled and overfilled with the help of harsh mandatory sentences,"three-strikes-and-you're-out" laws, and the so-called"War on Drugs" (a metaphor for an onslaught against the poor about as accurate as"War on Terror" is as a metaphor for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq).

How is it possible that the American public, so revolted by glimpses of Abu Ghraib, seems to accept, even enthusiastically sponsor, the hundreds of Abu Ghraibs that constitute the American prison-industrial complex? Intimately and intricately related to the boom in prison construction has been a boom in imagined images of prison, with the prison's walls of secrecy validating a complex set of supportive cultural fantasies that ultimately function as agents of collective denial. [6] Even superficially realistic representations, such as the TV serial Oz, end up masking or normalizing America's vast complex of institutionalized torture. Perhaps the dominant image, promulgated by the very forces that have instituted the prison-building frenzy, envisions prison as a kind of summer camp for vicious criminals, where convicts comfortably loll around watching TV and lifting weights. Just as false images of the slave plantations strewn across the South encouraged denial of their reality, false images of the Abu Ghraibs strewn across America not only legitimize denial of their reality but also allow their replication at Guantánamo, Baghdad, Afghan desert sites, or wherever our government, and culture, may build new citadels of torture in the future.


1. For a detailed summary of some of the horrors of American prisons, an analysis of specific connections with Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, and examples of especially vicious American correctional officials who were assigned to Iraq, see Anne-Marie Cusac, “Abu Ghraib, USA,” Prison Legal News, Vol. 15, #7 (July 2004), 1-4. This monthly journal is an excellent source of information about the routine abuses of the American prison and the myriad legal cases contesting these abuses. The national “Prison Discipline Study,” included in Criminal Injustice, ed. Elihu Rosenblatt (Boston: South End Press, 1966), reported that 42.5% of prisoners in maximum security facilities were beaten at least once a month.

2. Cusac, 3.

3. See, for example, the 64 pages of photographs included in Attica: The Official Report of the New York State Commission on Attica (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972).

4. “Maximum Security University” (1997) is available from California Prison Focus, 2940 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 or e-mail info@prisons.org.

5. Dannie M. Martin and Peter Y. Sussman, Committing Journalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), 127, 212.

6. For a marvelous exploration of the various genres and forms of cultural images of prison, see Heather Schuster,"Framing the (W)hole: Representing the Prison in the Era of U.S. Mass Imprisonment, 1972-Present," Unpublished dissertation, New York University, 2001.

This article was first published by Historians Against the War.

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Mike NoneOfYourBusiness - 12/11/2005

Rutgers' Tenured Stalinist
By Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | January 18, 2005

mark leo - 12/18/2004

I have a personal knowledge of the misery prisons inflict. A close friend of mine has a son incarcerated in a max security facility..he has spent 4 years there for snatching a purse. His life is endangered now; he may never recover. He is 21 yrs of age. In my opinion he has been tortured. I know he has been strip searched in a degrading manner. The general public is quite unaware of the perils the hundreds of thousands of prisoners face, although of course we are constantly barraged by the propaganda that "if it weren't for the police we'd be in hell"...and of course we're told endlessly that "justice is blind" "sentences are proportionate and fair" ad nauseam. When, and only when, a defender of the limitless power of the state himself or herself gets arrested do you ever hear a recantation of the nonsense arrant statists are endlessly spewing. And as for the drug war, as another friend of mine said ( one of whose brothers was an addict ) " Heroin addicts want only to be left alone. If the substance was legal , they would stay inside their houses all day. The fire department could deliver the drugs to the addicts in their homes.It would give the fire department's employees something to do..."
The Prohibitionist/ incarcerationist mentality of the leaders of the US is one of the prime reasons for anti americanism. That mindset coupled with the ideological rigidity and backwardness of the American Protestant tradition will never "sell", if you pardon the crudity of the expression, in the centers of power in the 21st century.I think the "sole superpower" riff is losing its edge; I think the world is evolving towards a multipolar world, and one motivator is the perception that the American cultural ideal is put simply, unpleasant and quite odd.Anecdotes are often put down; often, even in informal events such as blogs, you hear how "you can't make a case from one example"...but when hear comments such as "...you say you emigrated here from Sweden...are you CRAZY?" or, the obverse..."I'm returning to (Norway, Sweden, Germany, Australia, New Zealand come to mind...the conversations were actual)... I hate it here..this country is horrible.." or " I love America..its so wonderful...(this from an illegal Mexican, or a Somalian) it finally hits you...this country is not so great after all for many, many people. Many educated people, it should be pointed out. Anti-Americanism is here to stay; the American cultural influence reached its zenith in the nadir of the enddays of WW2; all it had to do was be better than Hitlerism or Stalinism. Faced with the real challenge of leadership in a complex situation such as where its founding principles are questioned, such as today in the Anti American debate, and you see difficulties in translation.

Arnold Shcherban - 12/15/2004

Mr. Lederer,

It never occured in any considerably multicultural and multiehtnic country that wasn't more or less fair in socio-economic and political sense, and that what I was communicating about!
Even Stalin, considered to be one the most ruthless dictators in history could not eliminate
violent crime in the Soviet Union, not mentioning However, the Soviet violent crime rates, especially with the use of firearms were made much, much lower than the respective American ones by totally banning the sale of them (except for hunting purposes, and strictly checked at that) to civilians, and criminally prohibiting to carry those, except to the police and military on active duty.
Nazi Germany, in chance you want to use it as the example, was not 'considerably multicultural and multiehtnic country'.

Arnold Shcherban - 12/13/2004

You "disagree completely", however you didn't provide
a single argument against the validity of social, economic, and historical causes I made accent at, just providing your own one.
Isn't it one of the major rules of the polemics among
'cultured' people to disagree by providing arguments, whatever their legitimacy might be, against the main point made by one's opponent?

If you carefully read my comments you would notice that
I was talking about main causes, not only causes.
The cultural heritage issue you tried to accentuate as the
major cause of the high violent crime rates is traditionally present in every multicultural, multiethnic country, like Canada, or former Soviet Union (though not being a democracy) for example, without leading to the comparable to the US violent crimes' rate.
Cultural factor, undoubtedly plays a certain role in causing higher violent crimes' rates among certain less
cultured categories of populus, but only the secondary,
largely derivative role. It is not coincidental that you
(though maybe it was just slip of an ideologoical tongue)
actually contradicted yourself, while actually asserting my point by writing the following: "With no connection to family fortune..."
Which immediately raises the question: "What and who does not allow "them" to build that fortune? Do you meant to say that they don't want to build it?
One cannot impose civilized "customs" on economically and socially "uncivilized" folks.
That's by the way the main reason the tirannic regimes bloom primarily in impoverished nations with otherwise great historical customs and cultural traditions.
Even such terrible historical phenomena as German Nazism and Russian Stalinism occured in the countries with an undoubtedly great and long cultural traditions/customs had as their fundamental causes the economic situations there, not cultural ones.
Matter first, ideas/"customs" - second, that what we see
all over human history.

Val Jobson - 12/10/2004

You should look at other democratic countries which have lower violent crime rates as well as a lower percentage of the population in prison. You could learn a lot from them.

Jared Simmons - 12/9/2004

While there are undoubtedly tens of thousands of cases throughout the country in which inmates have been wrongfully convicted of crimes, it is ridiculous to assume that they make up the majority or even close to a majority. That assumptiont takes liberalism to all new degrees of stupidity and completely defies common sense.

Jared Simmons - 12/9/2004

"Crime" is in relation to the laws of the land. Therefore, it is not possible for a dictatorship to be responsible for any "crime" since it would always have the law on its side.

Jared Simmons - 12/9/2004

"While your anger towards hard-core criminals and passion
for justice and severe punishement are appreciated,
you apparently tend to make heavy accent on the individual causes of the criminality, largely ignoring
socio-ecomomic causes of it."

You are right, sir. Instead of punishing criminals we should rewards them with a check for a hefty sum, apologize for their plight, and send them on their merry way. The socio-economic argument is more of a justification than anything and provides few solutions to America's crime problems. First of all, it fails to account for the millions of aberations where well-to-do or middle class people commit crimes of all natures on a regular basis. The fact is, there are always going to be poor people. So simply justifying the crimes of the underprivledged does little to solving the crime problems that face our country.

I am just a humble student, but it occurs to me that we really need to in order to resolve these problems is find a better means of deterrence (since capitol punishment is ineffective.) If we accept socio-economic status as a justification for criminality then the only option is to eliminate poverty, which while admirable, is unrealistic and most likely impossible. Where the socio-economic data can be useful however, is in providing us with the information we need in order to effectively target the groups most likely to be commit crimes. That is not to advocate racial profiling or anything of that nature, but simply to imply that we would have a more accurate view of where our carrots are most needed.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/9/2004

I'd say that a truly ruthless dictatorship monoplized crime rather than eliminated it.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/9/2004

Tough questions, Mark. Eyewitness testimony is the most compelling and the most unreliable. Yet, as far as I know it is accurate a majority of the time. {I just did a bit of googling and could not find any estimate of the degree of reliability. It did seem to be more problematic when the assailant was a stranger.

Of course a majority of the time is not the same as beyond reasonable doubt.

Possbiby, of course, you meant to be a bit sarcastic. I have no reason to assume that the majority of people in prison are guilty of the crimes they commit. But whether that is 70%. 80%, 0r 90% strikes me as a significant question for a host of reasons, including the discussion at hand.

John H. Lederer - 12/9/2004

"Any society really dedicated "to fight" violent crimes,
in particular, and crimes, in general, has to be more or less fair in socio-economic and political sense."

Nonsense. A dictatotrship supported by secret police and ruthless extermination of those it defines as wrongdoers can virtually eliminate crime.

mark safranski - 12/9/2004

Hey fellas,

Is there anybody in prison who is actually guilty in your view or are they all victims of circumstance ?

What about single-witness convictions that happen because the victim survives ? Are those credible examples of testimony or not ? What kind of sentence should first degree murderers receive , in your view ?

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 12/8/2004

“And oh by the way, as for Abu Ghraib. If it was done as a form on deliberately designed humiliation to further the course of the war, then I have no problem with it. As I also have no problem with torture or civilian casualties or collateral damege or bombing the enemy into oblivian. When war is entered into, the only moral way to fight is to do whatever is neccessary to win including humiliating prisoners. But if your against prisons I can only imagine your theory on torture.”

I take issue with the theme of the above comment. I do not agree with the categorical statement that in times of war, the moral thing to do is whatever is necessary to win. Sometimes, this is true, other times, it is not. However, even when the statement does hold true, I still do not agree to your conclusions.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean: During WWII, the Allies did whatever was necessary to win. The stakes were too high to hold anything back and so we did what we had to do. In Vietnam however, where the stakes were very low, the moral thing would not have been to do whatever it takes, because that would mean likely mean the destruction of all or most of North Vietnam.

Even when the moral thing is to do whatever is necessary, you post seems to imply that almost anything counts as necessary. The question is, is torture and humiliation necessary to win? Based on the evidence so far, I don’t see how anyone can claim that the Abu Graib scandal was necessary, or the various other torture scandals in Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Quite the opposite, it hindered our strategic objectives in Iraq, not helped it.

Finally, the United States signed treaties outlining what is acceptable and what is not in times of war. You may disagree with them, and that is fine, but I happen to think that countries that obey them will always have the moral high ground over countries that do not.

Pat Garret - 12/8/2004

Really. So what would you do with violent offenders? Give them free passes to Disney Land? The point of prison is incarceration as a form of moral retribution against those that have initiated force.

Now I'll be the first to agree that the "war on drugs" and all the other victimless crime laws have been a large part of the reason for prison overcrowding. Drug crimes represent 65% of the Federal docket. In essence, we have created a naion of law breakers. I'll also say that most murderers in our prisons shouldn't be there. They should be executed. But still, there is a valid reason for prisons.

In a rational culture with rational laws and a free market political system, prison abuse would not be a problem. In today's mess it is. But sappy anti-prison nonsense like this contributes nothing. Are all libertarians such state hating wimps? There is a valid reason for a state. The goal is to make it a rational one. Not to create some anarchist utopian fantasy world where prisons don't exist and hardened criminals seemingly police themselves.

And oh by the way, as for Abu Ghraib. If it was done as a form on deliberately designed humiliation to further the course of the war, then I have no problem with it. As I also have no problem with torture or civilian casualties or collateral damege or bombing the enemy into oblivian. When war is entered into, the only moral way to fight is to do whatever is neccessary to win including humiliating prisoners. But if your against prisons I can only imagine your theory on torture.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/8/2004

Brennan. No problem. I realize that it is tangential. There are conditions in our prisons that no one, innocent or guilty, should be put through.

I simply found myself wondering if the presence of innocent people in sufficeint numbers might change the dynamic of life in prison, in a manner that makes the entire system worse.

Brennan Stout - 12/8/2004

Oscar: Forgive me if I implied that all people in prision are guilty of their crimes. I did not assume this was a likely subject to be derived from the topic.

I agree with you. Many people incarcerated are in fact innocent. Others are sit in prision on circumstancial evidence or the testimony of a single witness. In terms of justice, any system is absent perfection. However, this is to be taken to excuse the wrongfully convicted.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/8/2004

It's interesting that most everyone in this exchange assumes that nearly all people in prison are guilty of the crimes they were convicted of. The new scrutiny being given murder and rape cases because of DNA testing has shown a disconcertingly large number of mistakes. And these were in cases where one would expect extra scrutiny. There is no reason not to assume a similar or even greater level of error in other cases. One wonders what impact that has on the prison population?

My assertion is based on anecdotal evidence and not statistical data. Does anyone know of any good studies, preferably by people with no ideological axe to grind, that tries to estimate the number of false imprisonments?

mark safranski - 12/8/2004


Why, if the theory you posit explains causation, then are most Black people law-abiding, upstanding citizens ? Why are there white collar WASP criminal defendants ?

mark safranski - 12/8/2004

Thanks for the support Adam. If not for the personal liberty aspect you would think that the USG has some slightly more urgent priorities to spend money on than rounding up aging hippie goofs who still smoke weed while reliving their salad days.

Brennan Stout - 12/8/2004

I disagree entirely. I think the criminal issues are more or less and outgrowth of the absence of culural heritage. As most of the prision population is black, one can trace a direct link to the absence of heritage in the upbringing of many blacks in America. With no connection to family fortune or custom it is easy to understand unstable individualism.

In immigrant communities of Polish, Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban descent (just a few examples) studies find people and families that live with direct connections back to their homelands. They still have family in their birth country. They still support eachother through trade and travel. They're interdependent communities that seek to flourish both their adopted countries and their birth countries.

Blacks in the United States are missing out on one of the most stable factors in American heritage history. It is a shame that "society" hasn't done more to establish this connection. What it creates is a sense of purpose. In the criminal mind purpose is often not found or impossible for the observer, or the individual themselves, to define.

Arnold Shcherban - 12/7/2004

Any society really dedicated "to fight" violent crimes,
in particular, and crimes, in general, has to be more or less fair in socio-economic and political sense.
The society where little percentage of the populus owns big percentage of the nation's property and holds correspondingly bigger percentage of political power is grossly unfair - by definition.
(Mind you, in no democratic country we see such
a great disproportion in distributing the nation's wealth.
And this exactly the society we are talking about here -
US society.)
So multi-ethnic and multi-racial society, as the US one is, accompanied by "free" sale of firearms and ammunition is to be violent - by design.
The supremacy of violence in its past and present, the
continuing and increasingly violent policies of dealing with other nations (by literally spitting at their "national interests" and security) in outright disregard and the truly criminal interpretation of the same laws the mythical "lawful society" is supposed to adhere to provide significant contributions to the exaserbation of the same cause.

"Half a century of social engineering" you refer to has never meant to uproot the main problems/causes pointed out, since when just ocassionally and tangentially attempting to do something about them, they would either address the secondary consequences of the main causes, or, if posing an actual threat to the benefits of the power-holders was made to fail by all means.

In addition, there are, of course, miriads of secondary problems, each of the ones is no-joke by itself, created
by the main causes, above-indicated, such as the extreme individualism and grossly magnified, distorted sense of self-significance with its quite obvious influence on the interaction with the surrounding people, daily campaigns of fear imposed on the American public for the purpose of stimulating all sorts of consumption, incessant and unprecedented in its scale glorification of violence in mass-media, etc.

The causes that I briefly listed, though certainly
been theoretically investigated by the minority of the respective researchers, never been socially "explored"
at any considerable length or depth; they are not presented here as the "excuse" for violence and crime rates, but for the purpose that becomes clear from their definition, as the 'causes' of those.

Any traditional excuses for the situation at hand with reference to democracy and human rights can be easily shown as evidently false even at their face value.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 12/7/2004

“A good start would be decriminalizing drug use to free up space and money to implement changes to handle violent offenders properly.”

I could not agree with you more on this point. Although you mention it only in passing, I thought I would add some empirical support to your statement:

1. It costs approximately $8.6 billion a year to keep drug law violators behind bars.
2. A study by the RAND Corporation found that every additional dollar invested in substance abuse treatment saves taxpayers $7.46 in societal costs.
3. The RAND Corporation study found that additional domestic law enforcement efforts cost 15 times as much as treatment to achieve the same reduction in societal costs.
4. "The heavy toll drug abuse exacts on the United States is reflected in related criminal and medical costs totaling over $67 billion. Almost 70 percent of this figure is attributable to the cost of crime."
5. In 1969, $65 million was spent by the Nixon administration on the drug war; in 1982 the Reagan administration spent $1.65 billion; in 2000 the Clinton administration spent more than $17.9 billion; and in 2002, the Bush administration spent more than $18.822 billion.
6. In a report funded by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, researchers concluded that drug-dealing plays a substantial role in the local economies of poorer urban neighborhoods. "At least 10% of all male Latinos and African-Americans aged 18-29 living in these two [surveyed] neighborhoods are supported to some extent by the drug economy." The report also concluded that "most drug entrepreneurs are hard working, but not super rich" and that "most drug entrepreneurs aren't particularly violent." One-fourth of all drug-dealers surveyed said they encountered no violence at all in their work, and two-thirds reported that violence occurred less than once per month.
7. In its annual report for 1998-1999, the French organization Observatoire Geopolitique des Drogues writes of the US: "Inmates are even less likely to find a job after than before serving a sentence, and if nothing changes most of them are doomed to unemployment for life ... and are likely to go back to prison."

Note that the above is only a sample of the economic considerations alone, to say nothing of the immorality of locking people up for doing something that is a moral vice, akin to drinking and gambling. This is neither a partisan issues, nor an ideological one. Nothing I have ever read or seen on the subject has indicated that the war on drugs can be called anything but a pathetic and abysmal failure. Although not everyone supports decriminalization as a solution, I have yet to find a source that actually believes we are succeeding (perhaps someone who disagrees with me here can find me an example that excludes politicians selling the rhetoric that sounds appealing to voters).


Charles Edward Heisler - 12/7/2004

As much as you are "confident" I am curious to find out from you, considering after almost a half century of social engineering, which "socio-economic", "social causes", and "underpinnings" have not been "addressed" by this society???? I always like to ask this questions of those that trot out this excuse for violence and crime rates, I like to see if there is an alternative we, as a society, have not explored.

mark safranski - 12/7/2004

I'm all for prisons being orderly and safe for prisoners and guards alike, which they currently are not. I have no problem with those kinds of reforms. A good start would be decriminalizing drug use to free up space and money to implement changes to handle violent offenders properly. We'd also would probably reduce the number of ppl transitioning from non-violent drug addiction to career criminal or violent offenders.

As for systemic solutions, that still leaves us with a large and mostly incorrigible adult prison population of violent offenders. They can't really be let out even if changes in social " root causes " were drastically reducing the number of new, younger, offenders because they would simply victimize an enormous number of innocent people in terrible ways. Too high a price to pay to remediate the effect of past social causes of crime ( and in any event the majority of people affected by social indicators of crime - poverty for example - do not become criminals so individual responsibility also plays a large role).

Arnold Shcherban - 12/7/2004

While your anger towards hard-core criminals and passion
for justice and severe punishement are appreciated,
you apparently tend to make heavy accent on the individual causes of the criminality, largely ignoring
socio-ecomomic causes of it.
I'm confident that unless the social causes and underpinnings of the highest rate of violent crimes in the world in this country are adressed, there will be no effective way to lower that rate, which consequently "sponsors" the rest of the problems discussed here.
They say nation's prisons are just a reflection of the nation's society at large.
And this society is violent and merciless, making further comments redundant...

mark safranski - 12/7/2004

"Prior to the American Revolution, imprisonment was seldom used as punishment for crime in England and was rarer still in its American colonies"

The prevalence of vigilantee justice - particularly in the South - acted as a check on an individual's inclination to thuggery, theft, bullying and other crimes. In small communities where everyone knows everyone else - an egregious act could provoke the community to deal with the likeliest offenders out of hand. Jails often kept the prisoner alive to reach trial.

While prison reform is a worthwhile cause - the objective of reform needs to be safety and ordet; it should not be to let the commiters of mayhem avoid punishment and incarceration.

Rapists, murders, arsonists, pedophiles, muggers, gangbangers etc. belong in prison because they are for the most part incorribly anti-social and violent- not out on some 1970's liberal style probation program. We've been down that road before and it worked poorly.

I don't really care why most prisoners convicted of violent crimes are anti-social or how likely or unlikely their rehabilitation is - I want them off the streets until they are too old to be recidivists.


Jonathan Pine - 12/6/2004

Yes, this is an informative article. It affirms the common knowledge that America’s prisons are a subculture ever growing. And it’s also interesting that slavery was slyly written into the Constitution by a society that was supposed to be based on Christian values. Of course, nothing is as it seems when it comes to anything. The business of America is business.

Frederick Riley Woodward-Pratt - 12/6/2004

It has long been a horrible disappointment to me to see Americans so quickly comdemn actions abroad while passively condoning those at home. I applaud both your writing and your willingness to endure the criticism which will inevitably be forthcoming in later comments.