Pubdate: Tue, 23 Jan 2001
Source: Reuters
Copyright: 2001 Reuters
Author: Alan Eisner, National Correspondent


WASHINGTON, Jan 23 (Reuters) - The United States is beginning to
discover that its huge prison population of more than 2 million -- one
quarter of all the world's prisoners -- is spawning a wide array of
difficult social problems.

In the past 20 years, the number of Americans incarcerated has risen
by almost 400 percent, costing the country an estimated $41 billion
annually. The growth has been a result of "get tough on crime
policies" and has disproportionately affected the country's black male

According to Department of Justice statistics for 1999, blacks
accounted for 46 percent of all inmates serving a year or more; whites
were 33 percent of the total and Hispanics 18 percent.

A 1995 study by the Sentencing Project, a Washington advocacy group,
found that almost one in three black males in their twenties was under
some form of criminal supervision on any given day. A black boy born
in 1991 stood a 29 percent chance of being imprisoned at some point in
his life, compared to a 16 percent chance for a Hispanic and a 4
percent chance for a white boy.

"Black kids have gotten the idea that going to prison is a normal part
of growing up," said Jenni Gainsborough of the Sentencing Project.

"You have so many children growing up without fathers and
disintegrating families at the heart of our cities," she said.

In the 10 years from 1985, federal and state authorities opened a new
prison at a rate of one a week to cope with the influx of inmates.
California now spends more on corrections than on higher education. It
opened 21 new prisons in the past 20 years and only one new state college.

Psychiatrist Terry Kupers, author of "Prison Madness -- the Mental
Health Crisis Behind Bars," estimates that 10 percent to 20 percent of
inmates suffer from grave mental illness; AIDS, hepatitis and
drugs-resistant tuberculosis are rife, and often go untreated.

In New York City, 80 percent of the drugs-resistant TB that began
appearing in the late 1980s was traced to people who had contracted
the disease in jail.

United States Second To Rwanda

The United States now locks up 690 people per 100,000 of its
population, surpassing Russia to take second place in the world behind
Rwanda. The rate for neighboring Canada in 1995 was 115 per 100,000;
for Germany and Italy, it was 85.

Many Americans are unconcerned and even satisfied with a situation
that they believe has contributed to a dramatic decline in crime rates
that began in the early 1990s. In the seven years between 1991-98,
violent crime dropped by 25 percent.

"If we were still imprisoning people at the rate we were in the early
1980s, there would be 1.3 million people on the street today
committing crimes who are now locked up," said Charles Murray, an
expert on social policy with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

But criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University in
Pittsburgh said a detailed analysis concluded that the growth in the
prison population was responsible for only around 25 percent of the
drop in the crime rate. The rest was due to a change in the crack
cocaine markets, greater efforts by police to get guns off the streets
and the strength of the economy.

In any case, even in the stricter sentencing environment of the United
States, most prisoners eventually get out. An estimated 600,000
prisoners will be freed on parole every year for the next several
years and authorities are beginning to worry about where they will go
and what they will do.

Typically unprepared for life outside, often functionally illiterate,
physically sick and mentally disturbed, many will head straight back
to a life of crime.

"We've given up on rehabilitation in the prison system and forgotten
the simple fact that the more people we send to prison, the more will
eventually come out," said James Allen Fox, a professor of criminal
justice at Northeastern University in Boston.

"Americans have been lulled into a false sense of complacency by eight
years of falling crime rates but the other shoe may be about to drop.
Already, the decline has plateaued out in cities like New York, Boston
and Los Angeles and is showing signs of edging up again," Fox said.

Conditions Described As Outrage

The United States not only locks up people for non-violent offenses
that in other countries would not merit prison terms, it locks them up
for much longer, often in conditions that organizations like Amnesty
International and Human Rights Watch have described as a serious human
rights outrage.

"Contemporary corrections officials have at their disposal such
high-tech weaponry as electronic stunning devices, some of which are
capable of delivering 50,000 volts," said Steve Martin, former general
counsel to the Texas Department of Corrections.

"Corrections officials also have sting shot rubber bullets, stun guns,
canvas bags filled with lead shot, tear gas canisters, pepper spray
and a variety of restraint devices such as the restraint chair," he

Still, some prisons are effectively controlled by gangs that terrorize
fellow inmates, subjecting them to rape and physical abuse. For the
most violent and disturbed, there are a growing number of
"supermaximum security" facilities, the latest trend in prison

More than 20,000 people are held in these "supermax" prisons, where
they spend all their time locked alone in small, sometimes windowless
cells under constant fluorescent lighting and 24-hour video

Even some conservatives like Murray, who believe the explosion in
prisons has benefited the country on balance, sees a serious downside.

"A free society should not have to lock up a large number of its
people. It puts itself at risk because authoritarian solutions get a
good name," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake