No, not the one you think, outrageous as it is. I'm referring to the US prison system that's with no exaggeration about as shockingly abusive as the gulag abroad. It qualifies for that label by its size alone - more than 2.1 million as of June, 2004 and growing larger by about 900 new inmates every week. Blacks (mostly poor and disadvantaged) especially are affected. While they make up just 12.3% of the population, they account for half the prison population, and their numbers there have grown fivefold in the last 25 years. Hispanics (also poor) account for another 15%.
About half of those incarcerated are there for non-violent offenses, and half of those (500,000) are drug related. But while blacks make up 15% of ilicit drug users, they account for 37% of drug arrests, 42% of drug offenders in federal prison and 62% in state prisons. And Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that in one third of the states 75% of all prisoners for drug-related offenses are black. In my home state of Illinois they reported the number to be an astonishing 89%, a total exceed by only one other state. Further, in a so-called free society, below the radar are hundreds of political prisoners, mostly people of color, there only because they represent a threat to the state from their pursuit of justice for their people if they were free.
Today the US shamelessly has more people behind bars than any other nation including China with over 4 times our population. And things have become especially repressive against those in society least able to defend themselves including immigrants of color and our newest head of the queue demon - Muslims. The Bush administration has made a bad situation far worse taking full advantage of their fear-induced "permanent state of war" and sham "global war on terrorism" to target all those seen as a potential threat to their plan for global dominance and full control at home.
Taken as a whole, this is a national disgrace and outrage, but the effect on those targeted is pretty much below the radar, unreported and undiscussed in the mainstream. Who cares about a couple of million mostly poor, mostly people of color (including immigrants, many of whom are undocumented and have no legal rights at all) languishing behind bars out of sight and out of mind. When any of this is discussed, it's to let the (voter eligible) public know our political leaders are "tough on crime" and working to keep us safe. Safe from whom or what? In the words of a great world class journalist, that kind of talk is "what comes out of the rear end of a bull." What's really going on has little to do with public safety but lots to do with controlling a justifiably restive population of poor and desperate people, the inability of those people to afford a proper defense in our so-called criminal justice system stacked against them, and a growing opportunity for big business to profit on human misery. It's a kind of modern day slavery - a growing state and privately run criminal injustice and prison industry using human beings as their product. In this land of opportunity and the "free market", all things (and people) are commodities to be exploited for profit.
A GROWTH MARKET OF POOR AND DESPERATE PEOPLE, MOSTLY BLACK AND HISPANIC - A READY RESOURCE FOR THE PRISON GROWTH INDUSTRY
The way this country has always treated its least advantaged throughout its history is shameful. British historian Arnold J. Toynbee perceptively understood this in his quote made 46 years ago when he said: "America is today the leader of a world-wide anti-revolutionary movement in the defence of vested interests. She now stands for what Rome stood for: Rome consistently supported the rich against the poor.........and since the poor, so far, have always and everywhere been far more numerous than the rich, Rome's policy made for inequality, for injustice, and for the least happiness of the greatest number." Imagine what Toynbee might say today if he were still living.
Toynbee didn't say it but he might have added that none in America have fared worse than people of color - American Indians, Hispanics, Asians and especially Blacks first brought here as chattel and who remained that way for over 300 years. Even when they were freed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and guaranteed the right of life, liberty and property, due process and equal protection under the law by the Fourteenth Amendment they still seldom got it. Throughout the 100 years of Jim Crow justice and even after the civil rights gains in the 1960s, most blacks and other people of color have always been on the bottom rung of society (along with our native people) and denied most of its benefits including equal justice under the law.
There are those today in the US, even from the progressive community, who like to say this country has come a long way from its racist past, and while there are still far too many inequities we're making progress. Are these people living in the same country and on the same planet as I am? In the US the statistics on blacks alone in the criminal justice system make a mockery of any notion of a nation no longer racist. When it comes to the issue of justice, we've never been more racist since the days of legal slavery. The numbers are truly shocking and in a country claiming to be a democracy and a model for the rest of the world. I hope that world makes another choice. There are far better ones than ours, and our imperial adventures abroad and policies at home toward our least advantaged prove it.
THE SHAMEFUL FACTS PAINT AN UGLY PICTURE OF ANOTHER (LOCKED UP) AMERICA, OUT OF SIGHT AND OUT OF MIND
Here are some key facts. Nationwide black males over 18 are incarcerated at 9 times the rate of comparable white males, and in 11 states those rates range from 12 to 26 times the rate for whites. In my home state of Illinois the rate is 15 times, and in the nation's capital the rate is an astonishing 49 times. The most current data on incarceration for blacks in the US was 1,815 per 100,000 vs. 609 per 100,000 for Latinos, 235 for whites and 99 for Asians. For adult black males the rate was 4,630 per 100,000, 1,668 for Latinos and 482 for whites. In 1999, 11% of black males in their 20s and early 30s were in prison including one third of black male high school dropouts. Even worse, the statistical model used by the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the turn of the century to determine racial and ethnic differences in their chances for incarceration at sometime in their lifetime predicts a 29% chance of serving prison time for a black male aged 16 in 1996. The comparable chance for a white male in the same age group was 4%. In 2002 the Justice Policy Institute reported there were more black men behind bars than in colleges or universities. It also reported that 30% of black males between 20 and 29 are either in prison or on probation or parole.
From the numbers above we know that one in every 20 black men over 18 is now in a state or federal prison compared to one in every 180 whites. And in some states like Oklahoma, Iowa, Rhode Island, Texas and Wisconsin, the black male incarceration rate incredibly is between 13 -14% of all black men in those states - a devastating blow to the black families and communities there. It's also true that the best predictor of a state's incarceration rate and its total prison population is the size of its black population.
By almost all measure the state of what can only be called the US criminal injustice system is shocking and outrageous. In the last 35 years the total number incarcerated has exploded from less than 300,000 in 1970 to more than 7 times that number now. Today the US is number one not only in its total prison population but in the highest number per 100,000 population imprisoned - 690. Only Russia is a close second with 675 while in South Africa it's 400, England - 125, France - 90, Sweden - 60 and Italy - 40. Would anyone suggest the US is 17 times more non-law-abiding than Italy, or is there a simpler explanation?
It's also true that race is the most prominent reason why states deny voting rights to convicted felons and ex-felons. The greater the percentage of blacks in a state, the more likely it is for that state to disenfranchise its residents who've served time in jail. A prison record in those states means a loss of a citizen's most fundamental democratic right. The laws vary by state, but The Sentencing Project estimates 4.7 million Americans, or 1 in 43 adults, have currently or permanently lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction. And 1.4 million black men, or 13% of all black men, are so disenfranchised, a rate 7 times the national average. Even more shocking, the same report estimates that given the current rates of incarceration, 30% of the next generation of black men will be disenfranchised at some time in their life. And in states that disenfranchise ex-offenders, as many as 40% of black men may permanently lose their right to vote.
Let's be very clear. Based on the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution it can, and I believe should, be argued that all state disenfranchisement laws are unconstitutional. Section 1 of that amendment reads: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous servitude." It remains for a future Congress and/or the courts to address this issue and decide whether we're to be a democracy for all our citizens or just for those we decide are eligible and for the reasons we choose. And this doesn't address the more basic question of whether our right to vote really matters. The public has virtually no voice in choosing the 2 major parties' candidates, and when we cast our votes the new electronic voting machines can easily be programmed or manipulated to ignore our choice and count it for another candidate and even do it multiple times. This is why half the eligible voting public opt out. They don't believe the system is free and fair so why bother. That thought never leaves my mind, and I wonder why I bother. But that consideration awaits another commentary and analysis, a pretty fundamental and important one.
THE BIG AND GROWING BUCKS SPENT ON LOCKING PEOPLE UP IN CAGES