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Stars and Bars | The Nation

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Stars and Bars

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How can you tell when a democracy is dead? When concentration camps spring up and everyone shivers in fear? Or is it when concentration camps spring up and no one shivers in fear because everyone knows they're not for "people like us" (in Woody Allen's marvelous phrase) but for the others, the troublemakers, the ones you can tell are guilty merely by the color of their skin, the shape of their nose or their social class?

About the Author

Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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Questions like these are unavoidable in the face of America's homegrown gulag archipelago, a vast network of jails, prisons and "supermax" tombs for the living dead that, without anyone quite noticing, has metastasized into the largest detention system in the advanced industrial world. The proportion of the US population languishing in such facilities now stands at 737 per 100,000, the highest rate on earth and some five to twelve times that of Britain, France and other Western European countries or Japan. With 5 percent of the world's population, the United States has close to a quarter of the world's prisoners, which, curiously enough, is the same as its annual contribution to global warming. With 2.2 million people behind bars and another 5 million on probation or parole, it has approximately 3.2 percent of the adult population under some form of criminal-justice supervision, which is to say one person in thirty-two. For African-Americans, the numbers are even more astonishing. By the mid-1990s, 7 percent of black males were behind bars, while the rate of imprisonment for black males between the ages of 25 and 29 now stands at one in eight. While conservatives have spent the past three or four decades bemoaning the growth of single-parent families, there is a very simple reason some 1.5 million American children are fatherless or (less often) motherless: Their parents are locked up. Because they are confined for the most part in distant rural prisons, moreover, only about one child in five gets to visit them as often as once a month.

What's that you say? Who cares whether a bunch of "rapists, murderers, robbers, and even terrorists and spies," as Republican Senator Mitch McConnell once characterized America's prison population, get to see their kids? In fact, surprisingly few denizens of the American gulag have been sent away for violent crimes. In 2002 just 19 percent of the felony sentences handed down at the state level were for violent offenses, and of those only about 5 percent were for murder. Nonviolent drug offenses involving trafficking or possession (the modern equivalent of rum-running or getting caught with a bottle of bathtub gin) accounted for 31 percent of the total, while purely economic crimes such as burglary and fraud made up an additional 32 percent. If the incarceration rate continues to rise and violent crime continues to drop, we can expect the nonviolent sector of the prison population to expand accordingly. A normal society might lighten up in such circumstances. After all, if violence is under control, isn't it time to come up with a more humane way of dealing with a dwindling number of miscreants? But America is not a normal country and only grows more punitive.

It has also been extremely reluctant to face up to the cancer in its midst. Several of the leading Democratic candidates, for example, have recently come out against the infamous 100-to-1 ratio that subjects someone carrying ten grams of crack to the same penalty as someone caught with a kilo of powdered cocaine. Senator Joe Biden has actually introduced legislation to eliminate the disparity--without, however, acknowledging his role as a leading drug warrior back in the 1980s, when he sponsored the bill that set it in stone in the first place. At a recent forum at Howard University, Hillary Clinton promised to "deal" with the disparity as well, although it would have been nice if she had done so back in the '90s, when, during the first Clinton Administration, the prison population was soaring by some 50 percent. Although he is not running this time around, Jesse Jackson recently castigated Dems for their hesitancy in addressing "failed, wasteful, and unfair drug policies" that have sent "so many young African-Americans" to jail. Yet Jackson forgot to mention his own drug-war past when, as a leading hardliner, he specifically called for "stiffer prison sentences" for black drug users and "wartime consequences" for smugglers. "Since the flow of drugs into the US is an act of terrorism, antiterrorist policies must be applied," he declared in a 1989 interview, a textbook example of how the antidrug rhetoric of the late twentieth century helped pave the way for the "global war on terror" of the early twenty-first.

In other words, cowardice and hypocrisy abound. Fortunately, a small number of academics and at least one journalist have begun training an eye on America's growing prison crisis. Since there is more than enough injustice to go around, each has zeroed in on different aspects of the phenomenon--on the political and economic consequences of stigmatizing so many young people for life, on the racial consequences of disproportionately punishing young black males and on the sheer moral horror of needlessly locking away real, live human beings in supermax prisons that are little more than high-tech dungeons. Their findings, to make a long story short, are that the damage cannot be reduced to a simple matter of so many person-years of lost time. To the contrary, the effects promise to multiply for years to come. In American Furies Sasha Abramsky, a Sacramento-based journalist and longtime Nation contributor, convincingly argues that the best way to understand US prison policies is to think of them as a GI Bill in reverse. Just as the original GI Bill laid the basis for a major social advance by making college available to millions of veterans, mass incarceration is laying the basis for an enormous social regression by stigmatizing and brutalizing millions of young people and "de-skilling" them by removing them from the workforce. America will be feeling the effects for generations.

Bruce Western, a Princeton sociologist, offers the best overview. He notes in his new study, Punishment and Inequality in America, that mass imprisonment is actually a novel development. For much of the twentieth century, the US incarceration rate held steady at around 100 per 100,000, which would put it in the same ballpark as Western Europe today. But after a slight dip following the liberal reforms of the 1960s, the curve reversed direction in the mid-'70s and then rose more steeply in the '80s and '90s. Considering that Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Austria succeeded in reducing or holding their incarceration rates steady during this period, the US pattern was highly exceptional. But so are US crime rates. Between 1980 and 1991, US homicides hovered at between 7.9 and 10.2 per 100,000, as much as ten times the European average. (The rate has since fallen to around 5.7.) Combined with the crack wave that also exploded in the 1980s, the result was a deepening sense of panic that peaked in mid-1986 with the death of basketball star Len Bias from a cocaine overdose. Although there was no evidence that crack had anything to do with Bias's death--police found only powdered cocaine in his car--the incident somehow confirmed crack as the new devil substance, "the most addictive drug known to man," in the words of Newsweek, and a threat comparable to the "medieval plagues," in the considered opinion of U.S. News and World Report (which would have meant that the country was facing an imminent population loss of up to 33 percent). Within a matter of months, Joe Biden had helped shepherd through to victory the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, an unusually horrendous piece of legislation that etched in stone the 100-to-1 penalty ratio for crack.

Still, it is always interesting to consider which deaths fill people with horror and which ones don't. The year before Bias's death not only saw 19,000 homicides in the United States but nearly 46,000 highway fatalities too, and yet Congress somehow refrained from criminalizing motor vehicles. Crack's status as the drug du jour of a certain class of inner-city blacks should have been the giveaway. What had Congress in a tizzy was not cocaine consumption so much as black cocaine consumption, which is why the subsequent repression was bound to be far harder on African-Americans than on whites. Although there is no evidence that blacks use drugs more than whites and indeed some evidence that they use them less, Western notes that black users are now twice as likely to be arrested for drugs and, once arrested, more likely to go to prison or jail. None of this is necessarily racist, at least not in the crudely explicit way we associate with men in white sheets. The reason the police concentrate their efforts in black inner-city neighborhoods, Western notes, is that users congregate there in large numbers, and buying, selling and using tend to take place in public. (It's harder to make arrests behind the closed doors of some suburban McMansion.) If a judge is more inclined to send a poor black defendant to prison, similarly, it is not necessarily because he or she enjoys punishing someone with dark skin but because the judge, according to Western, may "see poor defendants as having fewer prospects and social supports, thus as having less potential for rehabilitation." If your weeping parents can afford to send you to private rehab, you're excused. If not, it's off to the state pen.

Racial and class biases are thus built into the very structure of the drug war. Western is particularly effective on the economic consequences of such grossly disproportionate policies. The standard account of American economic development since the 1970s, told and retold in countless undergraduate classrooms, is that economic deregulation and growth have done much to narrow the once-yawning wage gap between white and black workers. To quote the New York Times: "Unemployment rates among blacks and Hispanic people...are at or near record lows. Joblessness among high school dropouts has fallen to about half the rate in 1992. And wages for the lowest paid are rising faster than inflation for the first time in decades." A rising tide lifts all boats, whereas all that labor-market rigidity has done for "Old Europe" is to saddle it with persistently high levels of unemployment, an alienated underclass and riots in the banlieues. But as Punishment and Inequality in America points out, if US economic policies look good, it is only because the country's enormous prison population is not factored into the equation. If workers behind bars are counted, then it quickly becomes apparent "that young black men have experienced virtually no real economic gains on young whites" and that the real black unemployment rate is up to 20 percent greater than official statistics indicate. Rather than freeing up the markets, Western writes, the United States has "adopted policies that massively and coercively regulated the poor." Where the Danes provide their unemployed with up to 80 percent of their previous salary and the Germans provide them with 60 percent, America has deregulated the rich while throwing a growing portion of its working class in jail.

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