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America: Life in Prison Nation

United States

Packed in: at an overcrowded California prison, inmates are housed in the gym.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

This summer, Richard James Verone, a 59-year-old man in Gastonia, North Carolina, walked into a bank, passed a teller a note indicating that he was committing robbery, and demanded cash. Strangely, it wasn’t very much cash. He asked the teller for $1. Then he told her that he’d wait, unarmed, on the sofa in the lobby for the police to arrive.

Verone, who was unemployed, had a growth on his chest and ruptured disks in his back, but he had been unable to obtain health insurance. He wasn’t holding up the bank for the money. Rather, he sought free medical attention in prison.

The robber was wrong to think that he would benefit from good healthcare once incarcerated. Depriving prisoners of adequate treatment has long been a tacit part of criminal punishment in the US, the subject of lawsuits and human rights reports. But he is right that, even in a time of austerity, prisons remain a centre of government growth and funding.

Should Verone be sentenced, he will join some 2.3 million other Americans behind bars, a total that dwarfs the number imprisoned in any other country. This includes China, which has four times the population of the United States. According to the International Center for Prison Studies, the US locks up residents at a rate of 743 out of every 100,000 – a far higher rate than that of the UK (152), Canada (117) or Japan (58).

The neoliberal ‘free market’ paradigm prescribes that the state shed its responsibilities in such realms as education, housing, public health and care for the elderly. However, in the name of upholding the ‘rule of law’, the neoliberal state retains – and even expands – its more coercive instruments: the armed forces and the penitentiary.

The US prison population has more than quadrupled since the 1970s, owing largely to a failed ‘war on drugs’ and to mandatory sentencing requirements that eliminate judges’ ability to set reasonable punishments. Studies indicate that white and African American men use and sell drugs at similar rates. Yet, in 2003, black men were over 10 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug offences.

It has always been true that money spent on prisons could have been put towards more humane and productive purposes. But now that state budgets are being slashed and spending on incarceration has reached nearly $70 billion, the trade-offs are being felt directly.

During his last year in office, even action-hero-turned-Republican-California-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger complained of a historical reversal: three decades prior, 10.1 per cent of expenditures from the state’s general fund went to higher education, and 3.4 per cent to prisons. By 2010, prisons consumed 11 per cent of the budget, but universities only 7.5 per cent.

Prisons have covered for government failure to provide mental health treatment, with over half of US prisoners suffering from serious psychological problems. As the Christian Science Monitor recently noted, the Los Angeles County Jail has been dubbed ‘the largest public mental hospital in America’.

If Verone’s bank robbery is an apt parable for life in Prison Nation, another story from Wisconsin is equally rich: earlier this year, when anti-union Governor Scott Walker eliminated collective bargaining for state employees, he allowed for expanded use of convict labour. As a result, in Racine County, unpaid prisoners have performed landscaping and maintenance work previously done by unionized state employees.

Conservative advocacy groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council are pushing for similar moves nationwide, arguing both for elimination of restrictions on prisoner labour and for public-sector layoffs.

Of course, it’s not guards and soldiers they would cut. Much of the world already experiences the US government primarily through its military. If the ideologues prevail, and other public institutions are eliminated, those of us within the country will also face a hardened state. All that will remain is the prison.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website: DemocracyUprising.com

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