Gulag Nation

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
  • 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

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