Prison Madness

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Photo by Getty Images/Lupashchenkoiryna.

Some time ago, I was taking part in a book festival in Finland. When there was a free day coming up, the publisher who had invited me asked if there were any local sights I would care to see. Medieval churches, perhaps? I said I’d like to visit some prisons. Finland locks people up at well under 10 percent the rate we do in the United States, a gap far more dramatic than any differences between the people of the two countries can explain. I was curious to learn more. Happily, my publisher’s neighbor was a criminologist, and they arranged a tour for me the next day.

Kerava Prison, the first of two that I saw was in the countryside half an hour’s drive north of Helsinki. Its governor—by design, the title has a civilian sound—was a warm, vivacious, gray-haired woman named Kirsti Nieminen, a former prosecutor. On this wintry morning, she had about 150 prisoners in her charge, all men. Her office wall was lined with portraits of former governors, the first a heavily bearded one from the 1890s. Next to these was a framed drawing by a convict—Snoopy typing a letter, which she translated for me: “Dear Governor, please give me a leave!”

The equivalent of an American medium-security prison, Kerava had barbed-wire fences, bars on some windows, and plenty of locked doors. Some inmates worked in greenhouses outside the walls, but only if they were trusties or under guard. Most resemblance to American prisons ended there. In the greenhouses the inmates raised flowers, which were sold to the public, as were the organic vegetables they grew. As we walked around the prison grounds, Nieminen pointed out a stream where prisoners could fish, a soccer field, a basketball court, a grain mill, and something she was particularly proud of, a barn full of rabbits and lambs. “The responsibility to take care of a creature—it’s very therapeutic,” she said. “They are always kind to you. It’s easier to talk to them.”

For an hour or so, I had coffee with half a dozen prisoners. The heavily tattooed Marko, 36, wore a visor and said he was here for a “violent crime” he did not specify. Jarkko, a burly 26-year-old, was doing three years and ten months for a drug offense; Reima, 36, blond and tough-looking, was in for robbery. Kalla, at 48 the eldest, had committed fraud; Fernando (his father was from Spain) was 26, convicted of armed robbery and selling heroin; Harre, 27, was doing five years for selling ecstasy. Also sitting with us, and translating, were Nieminen, a young woman from the national prisons service who came here with me, and two of Kerava’s teachers, also both women. No armed guards were in sight, and both officials and convicts wore their own clothes, not uniforms.

This was still a prison, however, and at 7:30 p.m. each evening the inmates are locked into their two-man cells. These are not large but somewhat more spacious than those I’ve seen in American prisons, each with a toilet and sink in a cubicle whose door closes. Prisoners are allowed TVs, stereos, and radios. Down the corridor from the cells are a shower room and sauna—something no Finn could imagine being without.

Prisoners are assigned jobs, but most spend much of their day in classes, on subjects including auto repair, computers, welding, and first aid. A library holds several thousand books—more than you would find in many American high schools—and inmates can use the national interlibrary loan system to order others. I sat in on a cooking class and then shared a tasty lunch its students had prepared: Karelian stew, which included beef, pork, potatoes, and cranberries.

All this is obviously another world from the overcrowded prisons of the United States, where gardens are scarce and classes, if they happen at all, are often an afterthought. When the former Missouri state senator Jeff Smith was sentenced to a federal prison in Kentucky, he hoped that as a Ph.D. who had taught at Washington University in St. Louis, he would be put to work teaching. Instead, as he writes in his book Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis, he was assigned to a warehouse loading dock, where he observed and took part in the pilfering of food by both inmates and guards. A month from the end of his stay he was finally transferred to the education unit—and assigned to sweeping out classrooms. A computer skills class consisted of the chance to sit at a computer for thirty minutes, with no instruction whatsoever; at a nutrition class, a guard “handed out a brochure with information about the caloric content of food at McDonald’s, Bojangles, and Wendy’s and released us after 15 minutes.”

Particularly at the college level, an effective prison education program, like the well-known one run by Bard College, can cut the recidivism rate—in the United States, 67.8 percent after three years—down to single digits. The Bard program offers classes taught by professors from its campus and others and is attended by nearly 300 inmates in six New York state prisons. A debate team drawn from these students won national attention recently when it beat a team from Harvard. Reducing recidivism through such efforts not only is humane but also saves money: It costs New York state more each year to house and guard a single prisoner than the total tuition, room, and board for an undergraduate on that Harvard debate team. You would think that budget-conscious legislators would act accordingly, but reason has never played much of a part in the American prison system.

Some of what Smith writes recalls many other American prison memoirs: He describes de facto racial segregation, rapes, etiquette (never sit on someone else’s bunk), and the underground economy. Prices for pornography, cell phones, and other contraband rose sharply, for example, when snow on the ground made footprints visible or when a notoriously vigilant guard was on duty. And contrary to the film The Shawshank Redemption, in which the character played by Morgan Freeman wryly observes, “Everyone here is innocent,” Smith says that few prisoners make that claim. Instead, they blame their fate on the “snitch” who turned them in. (Curiously, he does somewhat the same thing himself when he writes about the friend who got him in trouble for breaking a campaign-spending law.)

The most moving part of Smith’s story is his picture of what prison does to families. He points to research showing that before they were imprisoned, “half of all incarcerated fathers lived with their children, a quarter served as primary caregivers, and over half provided primary financial support.” When a man goes to jail his family shatters:

While I was waiting to use a phone, it was hard to avoid hearing their anguished phone conversations with ex-girlfriends who controlled access to their children, with rebellious teenagers who—lacking a male authority figure at home—were in some cases following in their fathers’ footsteps, and with dying parents far away.

One of Smith’s workmates, known as Big E, had been an ace basketball player and was serving 17 years for possession of crack cocaine. One Saturday in the television room there was none of the usual haggling about which sports game would be watched. Big E’s son, a college freshman, was playing, “and Big E, the best shooter on the compound, had never seen his son play.” He had been in prison since the age of 19.

How did we get to the point where a 19-year-old who has done nothing violent can be put away for almost as long as he has lived, where prisons break up millions of families, and where we have a larger proportion of our people incarcerated than almost any other country in the world, even Putin’s Russia? And at a time when crime rates have been in a long-term decline? With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has a quarter of its prisoners. The number is so high that the American unemployment rate for men would be 2 percent higher (8 percent higher for black men) if they were all suddenly let out. If all Americans behind bars constituted a state, its population would be greater than that of 15 other states, big enough to be entitled to three seats in the House of Representatives. Our jails are so packed that websites have been used to allow wardens and sheriffs to look for space in other facilities if their own is full.

The two most conspicuous causes of this tragedy are the unwinnable war on drugs and Republican tough-on-crime politicking, which reached a nadir with the notorious Willie Horton ad in George H. W. Bush’s successful 1988 presidential campaign, which attacked the Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, for backing a weekend furlough program that gave Horton, a convicted murderer, the chance to commit additional violent crimes. But Democrats were deeply involved in building the prison system as well. Starting in the 1940s, looking for ways to stop the lynching of black people and their abuse by police in the South and fearing a recurrence of the Second World War-era race riots in the North, liberals pushed for more professional training for law enforcement officers.

However, the southern Democrats who then controlled Congress transformed these efforts into block grants to states. As a result, police departments received more money and more advanced weaponry with which to do business as usual. Liberals also pushed for standardized sentences that would curb the discretionary powers of racist judges. But these mandatory minimums inched upward and became cruelly high, and the definition of crimes, with no mention of race, ended up with vastly greater penalties for possession of crack cocaine (used mostly by blacks) than for possession of powdered cocaine (used mostly by white people). Although data show that Americans of different races use drugs in similar proportions, if you’re black you’re more than five times as likely to end up jailed for doing so than if you’re white.

The 1960s brought immense social turbulence and a sharp rise in almost all types of crime. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller sponsored drug laws that put several generations of men, most of them black, away for decades. Quick to moralize against disorder and drawing on the deep American reservoir of racism, politicians at every level promised a ruthless response.

This could take effect so easily because the United States chooses a sizable proportion of its judges and almost all of its district attorneys and county sheriffs by popular election, something that would be thought bizarre almost anywhere else in the world. Prosecutors have enormous power as to what to charge someone with—which can determine whether those mandatory sentences apply or not—and whether to charge a person at all. And judges, in turn, often have great discretion in sentencing. Both prosecutors and judges keep a close eye on the voters who elect them. One recent study of Washington state judges found that the sentences they passed out lengthened by an average of 10 percent when reelection day approached.

By the time Bill Clinton entered the White House in 1993, he and congressional Democrats were determined to show that they were even tougher on crime than Republicans. The following year Congress passed the brutally severe Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the Federal Death Penalty Act, which among other things, added some 60 offenses to the list of capital crimes. With their communities ravaged by crack, most black politicians supported such measures. The number of prosecutors soared during the 1990s, too, and with them the number of prisoners.

The prison boom has also provided a chance to make money. One private company alone, the Corrections Corporation of America, today runs the country’s fifth-largest prison system, after those of the federal government and three states. The less money such companies spend on staff training, food, education, medical care, and rehabilitation, the greater their profits. Recidivism produces what every business wants, returning customers, so it’s no wonder these companies push hard for three-strikes laws and similar measures. In 2011, the two biggest private prison firms donated nearly $3 million to political candidates and hired 242 lobbyists around the country.

The vast majority of prisoners, however, are in public prisons, whose staffs would shrink dramatically if the number of inmates dropped, providing another group with a strong motive for locking people up. Many state prisons are in poor or rural areas, like upstate New York, with few other sources of jobs. Jeff Smith points out that food wholesalers, who know that this market of 2.2 million people is powerless to protest if much of what they have to eat is well past its sell-by date, also have a vested interest in keeping prisons full.

The prison-industrial complex is now as deeply rooted as its military counterpart. With both corporate profits and government salaries at stake, it will be equally difficult to shrink or transform. Everyone from the ACLU to the Koch brothers seems to agree, however, that our prisons are too full, and politicians from both Left and Right have floated cautious proposals for reform. In her superb, comprehensive book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, the University of Pennsylvania political scientist Marie Gottschalk shows why few of the proposed solutions, either singly or together, are going to reduce the proportion of Americans in prison to anywhere near what it was 50 years ago.

Repeal absurdly punitive laws? Fine. But “if all drug cases were eliminated, the U.S. imprisonment rate would still have quadrupled over the past 35 years.” Reduce the appalling disparities in how different races are treated by the law? Fine. But even the rate at which white Americans are locked up is more than four times that of all prisoners in multiethnic France. Far more lenient penalties for nonviolent offenses? Fine. But nearly half of those behind bars in America are there for violent crimes. Get rid of private prisons? Fine. But they contain less than 10 percent of Americans behind bars.

Few officeholders, Gottschalk explains, are willing to take two uncomfortable steps, each of which means reversing decades of political rhetoric. One is to admit that as punishment for a wide variety of crimes, prison sentences accomplish little. They do not undo a crime or make it certain that the same person won’t commit the same crime again. Communities ranging from Brooklyn, New York, to Oakland California, have made encouraging experiments in “restorative justice,” in which convicted criminals are sentenced to apologize to those they hurt, repay people they robbed, and do community service in the neighborhoods they have harmed. But, for most prosecutors, promoting such programs is not a promising path to election.

The other urgent task, according to Gottschalk, is to ensure that when we do send people to prison, they have much shorter sentences. It used to be a life sentence meant that a well-behaved American inmate was likely to be released after 10 to 15 years—a recognition that merely growing older has far more influence than length of time served on the likelihood that someone might commit another crime. But U.S. prisons are now full of people serving several consecutive life sentences or life without parole—a punishment that virtually did not exist half a century ago and is almost unknown in the rest of the world.

“The total life-sentenced population in the United States is approximately 160,000,” she writes, “or roughly twice the size of the entire incarcerated population in Japan.” And some so-called reforms are meaningless: “The governor of Iowa commuted all the mandatory life sentences of his state’s juvenile offenders but declared that they would be eligible for parole only after serving 60 years.” This reminds me of a similar act of clemency under King George IV of Britain in 1820, when five members of the revolutionary Cato Street Conspiracy were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, and the last two parts of the sentence were remitted to mere beheading.


Photo by Getty Images/Lupashchenkoiryna.

Breaking the pattern that has so many men, women, and teenagers wasting their lives in custody also demands bettering their opportunities for education, jobs, and much more on the outside. It is telling that the Nordic countries, with some of the world’s lowest imprisonment rates, are highly developed welfare states far more egalitarian than the United States. Programs that promise inmates “a second chance” on release, Gottschalk declares, mean little when “many of the people cycling in and out of prison and jail were never really given a first chance.”

This is all too true. But much as I prefer Nordic social democracy to our own wildly unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity, that change is not likely to arrive any time soon. We cannot wait until then to drastically reduce the number of people we have in prison. Even counting white prisoners alone, the United States has well over twice as many people, per capita, locked up as Spain where 20 percent of the population is out of work and the welfare state is weaker than in Scandinavia. And we have more people per capita of any single race in prison than South Africa, where the unemployment rate for the black majority is catastrophic and the welfare state is fragile at best.

Was there ever a country that was once as enthusiastic about imprisoning people as we are but changed its ways dramatically? There was—and it was Finland.

In 1950, with a prison system and criminal code that had changed little from their origins under the Russia of the tsars, Finland had a higher incarceration rate than we then had in the United States. In Finland, 187 people out of every 100,000 were behind bars, as against only 175 here. A long series of reforms—not without their hard-line opponents—brought the Finnish rate of incarceration far down, just as our own soared. Today, we have 710 people per 100,000 in prison in the United Sates, compared to 58 in Finland. “One important idea that emerged,” write two scholars of Finland’s changes, “was that prison cures nobody. As a result, policies were enacted that prison sentences should rarely be used in smaller crimes and other penalty systems should be developed instead.”

Although the prisons I saw in Finland certainly isolated inmates from the outside world, much that happened inside them was directed toward making sure that released prisoners could return to society. If you had half your sentence completed and had permission, you could leave Kerava Prison on weekends. Everything possible was done to ease that transition. The diploma you get on completing one of the classes I saw, for instance, is certified by an outside organization; it doesn’t say you received your training in prison.

A host of offerings within the walls addressed the problems that landed men in trouble in the first place. There were programs for anger management and drug rehabilitation, as well as both individual and group psychotherapy. Prisoners could also take part in a 12-step program similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous and a class in life skills that met three times a week. And, in an idea copied from Sweden, the prison hosted a series of speakers: former convicts who shared their experiences of readjusting to the world.

A released prisoner in the United States is frequently barred from voting, public housing, pensions, and disability benefits, and is lucky if he receives anything more than bus fare and, according to Jeff Smith, a routine farewell from a guard: “You’ll be back, shitbird.” At Kerava prison in Finland, before an inmate is released, a social worker travels to his hometown to make sure that he will have a job and a safe place to live.


Adam Hochschild is a journalist and author who has written on issues of human rights and social justice. Excerpted from his latest book, Lessons from a Dark Time and Other Essays (University of California Press, 2019).  

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