The Exceptional World of U.S. Prisons

Guest Contributor, Dr. Marshall Carter-Tripp provides some interesting perspective and important information considering our current prison system as it compares to such countries as Russia and Iran.  You may be surprised.

 America4796934n “Exceptionalism” is being celebrated by American politicians, who express amazement that the rest of the world doesn’t understand how exceptional we are.  Sadly, the rest of the world may well understand this, but from a different perspective than the one adopted by our politicians, and most of the news media.

Let’s consider one aspect of this exceptionalism – our prison system.  Perhaps readers already know that the US, with 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of its prisoners.


 Prisons chart 1

(Chart from Department of Justice figures, presented in The American Prospect)


At the end of 2011, there were 2.2 million Americans incarcerated, 854,000 on parole, and almost 4 million on probation, meaning just under 7 million Americans—or one out of every 34 adults—were being supervised by the criminal-justice system.  Our readers may also know that a large, and increasing proportion of those prisoners are housed in for-profit prisons, and the corporations that run them (with help from politicians) ensure that no changes in incidence of crime can reduce their profit margins; we’re written about this in a previous essay here.   “A new report from In the Public Interest, a resource center on privatization and public contracting, documented for the first time that some 65 percent of contracts between for-profit prisons and state or local governments include bed guarantees or “lockup quotas. These contractual clauses require that a state keep prisons full, usually at ninety percent, but in some cases up to a one hundred percent occupancy requirement. If judges and law enforcement are not pushing enough people into for-profit prisons to meet the quota, taxpayers are on the hook for any unused beds.”  For more on this, see PR Watch here.



This of course is one reason it is so difficult to reform the drug legislation.  Roughly half of those incarcerated are there for non-violent crimes, the overwhelming majority for drug offenses.  A small amount of marijuana might draw a sentence of 20 years or more, despite the increasing public support for liberalization or even decriminalization of marijuana use.


And not even the rich and powerful are exempt.  Michael Douglas spoke at the Emmy awards on the 22nd of September this year, explaining that he cannot see his oldest son, Cameron, who is imprisoned for “small time dealing and drug use.”  Three years ago Cameron had a heroine problem, which the federal government in its wisdom considered would best be treated by prison, without any drug rehabilitation programs included.  Cameron’s habit became worse in prison (surprise!) and the result was an additional sentence of 4.5 years to be spent in solitary.  Even Michael Douglas is not able to visit his son under the rules of solitary confinement (23 hours a day, no visitors, etc).   (This story was carried in a UK publication; the mainline US press seemed uninterested, although Cameron’s own article about his ordeal was carried on some internet sites.)



Cameron is in federal prison, but his plight is illustrative of the horrors of private prisons at the state level, where the circumstances are often even worse.  One of the American hikers imprisoned for a time in Iran wrote an essay on his surprise and horror in discovering the US prisons were so much worse than what he experienced in Iran (how’s that for being #1?)


A second aspect of American exceptionalism in our prisons is that many prisoners are held in solitary confinement.  Solitary confinement may be applied to prisoners who seem completely compliant.  Consider what happened to El Paso businessman Bob Jones, sentenced to ten years in prison for fraud and public corruption.  His first few days were spent at a private prison in Otero County, N.M., where he was placed in the SHU (Special Housing Unit), allegedly to protect him.  Here, in a 6’x8’ concrete cell, with no window, lit by a single fluorescent light fixture night and day. Here he contracted E.Coli from poorly prepared hamburger, and suffered dysentery for two weeks; was taken to what was called a medical facility, where he was told he needed to eat and returned to the SHU.  Two weeks after that he was taken out in a wheelchair to shower; he could no longer walk and had lost 80 pounds.  The story goes on like that for weeks, as Jones was finally chained to a hospital bed after the emergency room doctor diagnosed kidney failure resulting from untreated E. Coli infection – and then returned to the SHU!  Finally he was “lucky” enough to be taken, still in his wheelchair, to begin his sentence in federal prison.  Eventually Jones underwent major surgery for all the damage done to his kidneys, pancreas, and spinal nerves by his untreated infection.  He was chained to his hospital bed during recovery – and with two guards 24 hours a day – and this for a man who could not walk!  Despite all this, the private prison in Otero County where Jones’ ordeal began has not been shut down.


O October 1, 2013, a federal judge ordered the release of Herman Wallace, who was convicted, with two others, of murdering a prison guard in the Louisiana state penitentiary in Angola in 1974 – and spent 41 years in solitary, which appears to be a US record.  Wallace’s conviction was overturned due to an unfair trial  – almost too late for the prisoner, who was dying of liver cancer as he was brought out of prison.  Needless to say, the state sued to block his release, but Wallace was able to “enjoy” three days of freedom before his death.


A third element of American exceptionalism appears in the housing of immigrants who have been arrested, and then ordered deported.  These deportations have gone on for many years, but have reached unprecedented highs under the Obama administration, which deported some 400,000 persons in FY2012 and is on track to beat this in 2013.  In the first four years, the Obama administration deported three-quarters as many immigrants as the Bush administration did in eight years.  And all of these people are incarcerated whether they accept deportation or fight it.  A hugely lucrative source of income for private prisons has resulted, rising to nearly three billion dollars a year for the two largest firms Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group.*   According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement figures, the current cost per detainee is some $164 per day.  Texas leads the way in this business with a daily average of 6,115 immigrant prisoners.  This incarceration rate is unlikely to change, as it is mandated in federal law; ICE must keep a minimum of 33,400 immigrant prisoners at all times.   Efforts to revise this requirement have been blocked by Republicans, and the Senate’s immigration “reform” bill of June 2013 actually contains a provision requiring that ICE triple its detentions in the Southwest.


Several elements of this exceptionalism contravene contravene international laws.  The circumstances of solitary confinement often contravene the Standards of the International Agreement Against Torture that the U.S. signed over two decades ago.  For example, as we have seen in several  high profile political cases, solitary confinement may lead to what psychiatrists refer to as “hostage hallucinations,” with subsequent mental illness.


 And the construction and operation of private prisons contravenes another international standard, that of the UN’s 1977 Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners.  These include treatment intended to enable the prisoner to be returned to society, not a feature of private prisons.   Various UN statements have expressed serious concern about private prisons.  The US, however, is not the only country that has allowed this business – Chile has private prisons, and Mexico followed suit under president Calderón, and the current administration in Mexico has continued this policy, so American exceptionalism in this regard may be waning.


Prisions 2 chart

Chart from Department of Justice figures, presented in The American Prospect, showing drastic decline in violent versus non-violent crimes

Changes in the scope and scale of prison exceptionslism, as the result of reform in the US system, seem unlikely.  Former Senator Jim Webb of Virginia repeatedly spoke to the high rate of incarceration in the US, and attempted several times, to establish a national criminal justice commission to recommend changes, only to be blocked in the end by Republicans in the Senate, despite Webb’s record of service in the Reagan Administration. As of this date, there is no national commission on this issue and no prospects for one.   It appears that we will remain exceptional in our prison system for some time to come, even as our crime rates drop–Marshall Carter-Tripp


*Both of these companies have turned to corporate lobbying groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to ensure that states maintain harsh criminal laws and sentencing rules (such as “three-strikes and you’re out,” and “truth in sentencing,” guaranteeing a supply of prisoners who will never be released) in as many states as possible.  And they are leaders in the effort to ensure that states must supply enough prisoners to keep the private prisons nearly or completely full.






























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