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Why So Many Americans Are in Prison

By       Message Michael Leon     Permalink
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Glenn C. Loury at the Boston Reveiw asked a much-needed question. Why does America take away so many of its citzens' liberties?

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According to a 2005 report of the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, the United States—with five percent of the world’s population—houses 25 percent of the world’s inmates. Our incarceration rate (714 per 100,000 residents) is almost 40 percent greater than those of our nearest competitors (the Bahamas, Belarus, and Russia).

Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens. In December 2006, some 2.25 million persons were being held in the nearly 5,000 prisons and jails that are scattered across America’s urban and rural landscapes. ...

One third of inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or robbery. But the other two thirds consist mainly of property and drug offenders.

Why? Writes Loury:

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A more convincing argument is that imprisonment rates have continued to rise while crime rates have fallen because we have become progressively more punitive: not because crime has continued to explode (it hasn’t), not because we made a smart policy choice, but because we have made a collective decision to increase the rate of punishment.

Loury posits the war on drugs and America's continuing essential racism as other contributing factors to the obscenely high incarceration rate, and correctly identifies and indicts the American voters who routinely reward the punitive-inclined policymakers.

But I think Loury ignores the two main culprits: Fear and fear-mongering careerism.

The fear that a family will typically feel for another family member in an violence-obsessed media-society and the political careerists (like in Dane County, Wisconsin, District Atty Brian Blanchard and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson) who will cater to the most base instincts and insecurities clears the field for other punitive-inclined policymakers who in their liberty-depriving, family-destroying frenzy make America about as freedom-loving a place domestically as it is a peace-loving presence in its foreign policy abroad.

Loury does make mention of a population "(s)toked by fear and political opportunism ... ," but in a depoliticized society like the United States where fear and lavish attention to the trivial and meaningless (celebrity, reality shows, sports and so on) continue, I think Loury needs to link the violent prison-industrial complex as a logical outgrowth of our depoliticized culture maintained by the corporate-media.

Encouraging a population not to think will inevitably result in more state violence such the liberty-destroying criminal justice system domestically.

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Michael Leon is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. His writing has appeared nationally in The Progressive, In These Times, and CounterPunch. He can be reached at

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