Why The US Prison System Is The Worst In The World

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You’ll often hear the claim that the United States is the freest place on earth, a bastion of personal and societal freedom. For such a supposedly free nation, we sure have a lot of people behind bars. While many rights and freedoms have been stripped away over the past few decades, from freedom of the press, to freedom of assembly, in this video we’re going to focus specifically on the US prison system, a system that, by just about every metric, is the worst in the developed world. 

Let’s start with some basic facts. The US has the most incarcerated people of any nation on earth, both by sheer numbers and per capita. As of June 2020, there were 2 million 121 thousand prisoners currently serving time in the US, and a total of over ten million in the prison system, which includes those waiting for trial and on parole. This number is higher than countries with vastly larger populations like China and India, it’s higher than countries the US considers more authoritarian, like Russia or, again, China. It’s even higher than that greatest of all boogeymen, the Soviet Union, at the height of Stalin’s power. As for our per capita rating, the US incarcerates roughly 655 people per 100,000. No other OECD nation comes close – the UK sits at 140, Canada 107, France 105, Germany 77, China barely cracks 150. All the countries the US likes to cast as authoritarian hellholes – every single one of them incarcerates fewer people, and often in far more humane facilities. The US represents four percent of the total world population, but 22 percent of the world’s prison population. When you talk about prison and prisoners, all the racists tend to come out of the woodwork and say things like, “well, those other places are all one race,” and “immigrants are just inherently criminal.” Of course, these statements have no basis in reality. Among roughly equally diverse nations and countries with similarly sized immigrant populations, our incarceration rate is still vastly higher in every case. We also need to remind these people that white people go to jail too, they’re just let off the hook far more frequently than any other race, but we’ll get to that later. Now that you have an idea of just how much of an obsession we have with locking people up, let’s talk about some specifics. 

If you’re familiar with my channel, you’ll know that I identify one common thread that ties together all of the worst tendencies of the American empire – profit. Everything is driven by the insatiable urge to accumulate greater and greater sums of money. The stock market demands perpetual growth, corporations must make more this year than they did last year. The prison system is no different. We tend to think of prisons as self-contained entities, cruel, but untainted by the tendrils of capitalism. This is not the case. Companies have always been eager to work with prisons to increase their profits. The companies that provide food to prisoners are only too happy to sell nutritionally deficient slop to the prison complex. It’s cheap to produce and nets them a healthy profit. The phone companies that provide basic call functionality to prisoners charge exorbitant pay-per-minute rates because they know how desperate these poor people are to speak to their loved ones. Transportation companies make a killing shuttling prisoners to and from court appearances and between prisons. But more egregious than these examples is the practice of modern-day slavery. You’ve probably heard that the state of California routinely puts inmates to work fighting fires. Do you know what they’re paid for putting their lives on the line? Two dollars per day, or two dollars per hour when they’re actively fighting fires. The minimum wage in the US is $7.25 per hour, which is already absurdly low, and has been determined not to be a livable wage. Prisoners are paid two dollars per hour at best for their labor, less than one third of the federal minimum wage. But wait, it gets worse. Incarcerated people have their own minimum wage. Care to guess what it is? It’s not two dollars. It’s twelve cents per hour. Some states, including my home state of Texas, do not require incarcerated workers to be paid at all. Would you sell an hour of your life for twelve cents? Of course you wouldn’t. But the people trapped in the prison industrial complex have no choice in the matter. They are required to do the work that is demanded of them. This is slavery. In the past year, inmates have been put to work manufacturing hand sanitizer and PPE, washing hospital laundry, and digging mass graves for covid victims, all without adequate protective equipment. In normal years they provide forced labor for thousands of US corporations, including big names like McDonalds, Wendy’s, Tyson, Verizon, Sprint, Fidelity, Walmart, KMart, JCPenney, and IBM. 

Angry yet? It gets worse. With each passing year, America finds new ways to extract profits from human life. Let’s talk about private prisons. As the war on drugs ramped up in the 1980s, federal prisons began to become overcrowded. The solution? Turn to the private sector to build new prisons for all this excess human inventory. The government contracts a private company to build the prisons, those companies lock up the overflow prisoners, and in exchange they receive a fixed rate for each inmate. They are paid for each person they imprison. See the problem here? The prison slave labor market is a financial incentive not to pursue prison reform – it would damage the profits of thousands of US companies – but by adding for-profit prisons into the mix, cutting out the middleman and simply making money off of human storage units, we’ve ensured that no meaningful reform will ever pass, at least not without a mass movement to demand it. Think about it. Who profits from the existence of private prisons? Private companies are given multi-hundred million dollar contracts, then their executives turn around and donate huge sums of that same money to politicians who will support private prisons. It’s a never-ending cycle. Corrupt politicians are making money, private prisons are making money, and thousands of US companies are making money from literal slave labor. It makes perfect sense within the US capitalist framework. CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, is the largest private prison manager in the country. In 2019, they raked in 1.98 billion dollars in revenue, all on the backs of exploited human beings, stuffed into their prisons with a price tag on each one. What’s even more ridiculous is that the vast majority of the private prison contracts contain a lockup quota, that is, a guaranteed percentage of occupancy for the duration of the agreement. Most of these quotas are set at 90% occupancy, with some even landing insane 100% occupancy guarantees. So, in a time when crime rates are the lowest they’ve been in decades, these private prisons are guaranteed to have their cells filled. If those cells aren’t filled, they’re still paid as if they were, and guess who pays the bill? US taxpayers. There was one hideous incident in 2008 which became known as the Kids for Cash scandal. Two judges in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania were found to have been accepting bribes from for-profit correctional facilities to dole out ridiculously harsh sentences for minors. Thousands of children were slapped with extended stays in these private facilities, for crimes as minor as making fun of their assistant principal on MySpace. There are few things more depraved than putting innocent children in jail to line your own pocket. So, to recap, the US started the war on drugs, drugs which US groups like the CIA were shuttling into the country, began locking people up at unprecedented rates for non-violent drug offenses, realized we had literally run out of all of our prison space, and decided to contract out private companies in order to lock up more people, and then paid those companies to incarcerate even more people. This system is absurd by any reasonable estimation, and we still haven’t discussed whether or not it’s effective.

To make a long story short, no, it’s not effective. In the United States, we focus more on punishment than rehabilitation, and US prisons are certainly punishment. In fact, they’re so inhumane that the United Nations has condemned them as abusive and torturous, and human rights organizations have long asserted that one of the prison industrial complex’s favorite tools, solitary confinement, is literal torture. Once someone has been released from prison, it’s much harder to find a job, and two out of three end up right back in a cell because their situation is so desperate. We’ve even seen people commit tiny crimes specifically because they’d at least get a roof over their head in prison. When many Americans hear this, they’ll shake their head and say, “you just can’t fix some people,” completely ignoring the fact that our prison system is not intended to fix anything. Again, this fits in perfectly with the average American mindset. Most people subjected to prison terms are poor. In America, we’ve been conditioned to believe that poor people are lazy, and therefore morally deficient and deserving of punishment. This of course ignores the fact that wealthy people are just as likely or even more likely to use drugs, but those people are rarely sentenced, often because they have important parents, or they can pay bail, or simply because their communities aren’t heavily policed like poorer areas. We’ve effectively criminalized poverty. Can’t pay a parking ticket? Jail. Can’t pay bail? Prison term. No one will hire you when you get out? Serves you right for being a criminal. This mindset is truly horrific. It lacks even the barest shred of basic human decency. We cannot ignore the fact that systemic racism plays a large role in the American prison system. Two men, one white and one black, charged for the same crime, with the same criminal background, are often given different length prison sentences. Can you guess who gets the longer sentence? On average, black people are given 20% longer sentences for the same crime committed by a white person. Then you have white collar crime – banks have engaged in money laundering for drug cartels and other shady operations for years, bankrolling the very industry we throw people away for, and they caused the single largest economic crash since the great depression. Did any bankers get locked up for any significant time? Of course not. There are two separate justice systems in this country. One for the rich, and one for everyone else. 

Okay, but what’s the alternative? It’s not fair to complain and then not propose a better way. Luckily for me, I don’t have to come up with an entirely new system. Plenty of vastly more humane, more modern, and more effective prison systems already exist. 

One shining example is Norway. With an incarceration rate of just 60 per 100,000, Norway stands out as a prime candidate after which we could model our own prison system. Norway’s criminal justice system focuses not on punishment like we do in the US, but on rehabilitation and the principle of restorative justice. The Norwegain criminal justice system caps prison sentences at 21 years, and does not allow the death penalty. Whereas prisons in the US look more or less like slightly updated medieval dungeons, Norwegian prisons are quite different. This footage is from Halden Prison, which was completed in 2010 and is representative of Norway’s incarceration philosophy. Everything is intended to foster an environment of improvement for their inmates. The rooms are reasonably comfortable and furnished with quality of life features like DVD players and TVs, the inmates can roam more or less freely, wear normal clothes, and make use of common areas and kitchens. There’s a store where they can buy their own food. The architecture is specifically designed to allow those inside to see out into nature and observe the passage of time. US prisons, by contrast, are made as oppressive as possible. Little light from the outside world, cramped corridors, tiny, uncomfortable cells, and a relationship with the guards which can only be called antagonistic. That’s another area where Norwegian prisons excel. Their correctional officers all complete a two year degree before they’re able to work as what are called “contact officers,” which function as both guard and social worker. Halden prison prides itself on fostering excellent interpersonal relationships between inmates and contact officers. They can interact freely, talk, play cards, make plans for the future, and just generally have a normal human experience in the prison. This is all part of the philosophy of normality. The idea is to make prison as close to life in the outside world as possible, so that when inmates have served their time, they’re able to more easily adjust back to normal life. Again, this is in stark contrast to the US system. The goal of our prisons is to punish, to make people suffer so they’re afraid to commit another crime. Corrections officers in the US have very little required training, and relationships between guards and prisoners are truly awful. It’s not uncommon for guards to brutalize or sexually assault the inmates. This cruelty is completely counterproductive. If the goal of our prisons were truly to rehabilitate, why have the guards, the only representatives from the outside world, treat the inmates like animals?

Norway’s recidivism rates are among the lowest in the world, with just 20 percent of inmates getting arrested again within two years. This isn’t random. It came about by a concerted effort from Norwegian citizens to overhaul their criminal justice system. Back in the 80s and 90s, they were concerned at rising recidivism rates, so they did the logical thing and fixed the problem. Modern Norwegian prisons are some of the very best in the world in terms of reducing recidivism and promoting a positive trajectory for inmates. They provide counseling, education, and as normal an experience as possible. What they’ve accomplished in the last few decades is truly remarkable, and should be seen as one of the best currently existing criminal justice systems. 

Another prime example is Finland. Finland is one of the happiest and safest countries in the world. They have access to universal healthcare, subsidized child care, and free college education. They also have incredibly humane prisons. This man, serving a life sentence for murder, is not confined to a tiny cell for the rest of his life. He’s not waiting for a lethal injection or months of solitary confinement. He’s free to come and go as he pleases, and there aren’t cell blocks at all, instead the prison is laid out like a dormitory. He can attend classes at the local university, and his room at Laukaa (lowka) Prison is almost indistinguishable from a normal apartment. Like Norway, Finland believes in the principle of normality – that prisoners should be treated like human beings and provided all the opportunities to improve themselves and get on a more productive path during their prison stay. Inmates receive counseling, job training, and interact with prison employees in a normal, human fashion. Because of these innovations and a dedication to actual rehabilitation, Finland’s incarceration rate has dropped dramatically over the last 70 years, just one quarter of what it was in 1950, and is now one of the lowest in Europe. By comparison, the US prison population has skyrocketed in that same period, despite our own crime rate dropping. Just to give you a sense of how barbaric and outdated our prison system seems to other developed nations, Finland now operates a prison museum in one of their old, 19th century prisons, as a sort of reminder of how terrible their system used to be. It is almost indistinguishable from a modern US prison. 

It’s clear that the US has a long way to go before it can be considered a truly free nation. Our horrific prison industrial complex is a permanent stain on this country’s legacy. The systemic racism, use of slave labor, inhumane treatment and outright torture of prisoners, and the commodification of human lives, to be locked up in order to increase profits, is truly wrong in every way. If we’re truly angered by this and really want to make a change, we have positive examples to point to and say “This is what we want.” It won’t happen by itself. The only way things will change is the only way things have ever changed – by enough people coming together to say, enough is enough, we’re trying something new.

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