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?
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.