United Gates of America
Question: What has become "as American as mom, baseball, and apple pie?"
Last week, the Justice Department reported that a record 7 million people in the United States (one in every 32 adults) were imprisoned, on probation, or on parole by the end of 2005. 2.2 million of those are in prison, more than 4.1 million are on probation, and 784,208 are on parole. The number of people entering the prison system is outpacing the number being released (consequently the prison population increased by 2.7% in 2004).
These numbers are frighteningly high standing by themselves; putting them in perspective only magnifies how out-of-control our reliance and insistence on incarceration has become.
If Israel or Hong Kong were to place their entire populations in prison, on parole, or on probation, it would equal the number of people similarly situated in the United States. The number of people under the control of the American criminal justice system is greater than the entire populations of over 100 nations, and it equals the combined city populations of Paris, Rome, Barcelona, and Amsterdam.
If Namibia or Macedonia imprisoned every single person in their countries, they would still have fewer inmates than the United States. If Ireland put half of its 4.2 million people behind bars, it would still have fewer inmates than the United States. If Greece jailed 20% of its population of 11 million, it would still have fewer prisoners than America. California has more state prisoners than the combined prison populations of the three European countries with the greatest number of inmates (Germany and England, including Wales).
If New Zealand placed every one of its inhabitants on probation, it would equal the number of people on probation in the United States. The same result would follow if half of Austria were placed on probation.
There are more people on parole in the United States than there are people in Guyana.
Among "developed" nations, we incarcerate six times as many people as England, seven times as many as Canada and Germany, eight times as many as Italy and France, and ten times as many as Japan. Only Russia’s incarceration rate is in the same ballpark.
China has four times as many people as America, and India three times as many, and yet both have fewer people in prison.
The numbers only begin to explain the traumatic impact of prisons on our society, particularly on an ever-increasing number of poor communities (not to mention on the inmates themselves). The rate of incarceration of both men and women is rising, and the glaring racial disparities remain. Handsome profits are being made by individuals, businesses, and politicians alike off of the anguish of millions of Americans and their families (particularly children).
What is the primary cause of the ballooning of the prison population? The criminalization, prosecution, and lengthy sentences for possession and sale of certain drugs. Almost half of the increase in our federal prison population is a result of drug offenses.
When will we begin reversing this decades-long upward trend of incarceration? When people can longer get rich off of the mass imprisonment of their fellow citizens; when our federal, state, and local governments start caring about the plights of poor people; when race and class do not dictate economic, educational, and criminal justice policies; when having a nation of prisoners within our country begins to impact the middle and upper classes; or when more Americans start seeing the criminalization of "those" communities as the criminalization of "our" communities.
Until then, our prison population will continue emerging as a country unto itself.