Gulag Nation

America's prison boom says more about hate than crime

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Here are the facts: In 1980 there were half a million people in prisons and jails in the United States. In the years since, violent crime has decreased, but incarceration has boomed; today over one million people (two-thirds of whom are black or Hispanic) are doing time. Given these figures, it's no stretch to say that prison building is America's hottest growth industry. And when you look at the draconian measures many inmates are now forced to endure as part of their 'rehabilitation,' the question we should be asking isn't how we can make our streets safer, but what collective demons are we trying to lock away and bludgeon into submission?

Take the management control units (also called 'supermax' prisons) that are fast becoming the new model for incarceration. According to the American Friends Service Committee-sponsored Campaign to Abolish Control Unit Prisons while the conditions of these units varies from prison to prison, the goal of these units is to cause the spiritual, psychological, and physical breakdown of prisoners. Oppressive conditions include:

  • Years of isolation from both prison and outside communities while being housed in solitary or small group isolation (celled 22.5 hours a day).
  • Denial of access to educational, religious, or work programs.
  • Physical torture such as forced cell extractions, four-point restraint and hog-tying, caging, beating after restraint, back room beatings, and set-up fights.
  • Mental torture such as sensory deprivation, forced idleness, verbal harassment, mail tampering, disclosing confidential information, confessions forced under torture, and threats against family and visitors.
  • Denial of access to medical and psychiatric care.

The ramifications of this new kind of prison culture will be profound. As Jerome Miller, former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services and the only American public official of this century to close down the reform schools of an entire state and disperse their residents to community programs, told The Humanist (Jan./Feb. 1994, updated and reprinted in the Sept./Oct. 1995 Utne Reader) 'it will go on until it changes the very nature of our society. And when we reach a point where we have 5 million to 7 million people in our prisons and jails, we will be a very different society. As the eminent criminologist Nils Christie comments, the United States will have become a 'gulag society.' '

Original to Utne Reader Online

Alexandra Everist
10/18/2012 1:29:08 PM

How dare you compare the US prison system to the gulags. This is a personal affront to every victim of the gulags. The prisoners were worked with little food until most of them died. Obviously you know nothing about the gulags. My father was a victimof the cruelty and has provded an accurate account of the circumstances in his book No Place to Call Home. You need to read the actual history of the gulags before you comment on something you know nothing about.