A Nation in Chains

Earlier this month, the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College London released its annual World Prison Population List. And there, standing proudly at the head of the line, towering far above all others, is that shining city on the hill, the United States of America. But strangely enough, the Bush gang and its many media sycophants failed to celebrate – or even note – yet another instance where a triumphant America leads the world. Where are the cheering hordes shouting "USA! USA!" at the news that the land of the free imprisons more people than any other country in the world – both in raw numbers and as a percentage of its population?

Yes, the world’s greatest democracy now has more than two million of its citizens locked up in iron cages: an incarceration rate of 714 per 100,000 of the national population, the Centre reports. The only countries within shouting distance are such bastions of penological enlightenment as China (1.55 million prisoners, plus some unsorted "administrative detainees"), Russia (a wimpy 763,000) and Brazil (330,000), whose exemplary prison management has been on such prominent display this week.

Inside the Homeland, the state of Texas sets the pace, as you might imagine. During George W. Bush’s tenure there as governor in the 1990s, Texas had the fastest growing prison population in the country, almost doubling the national rate, as the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice reports. In fact, by the time Dubya was translated to glory by Daddy’s buddies on the Supreme Court, one out of every 20 adult Texans were "either in prison, jail, on probation or parole," the CJCJ notes; a level of "judicial control" that reached to one in three for African-American males. George also killed more convicts than any other governor in modern U.S. history as well – a nice warm-up for the valorous feats of mass slaughter yet to come.

But although the U.S. prison population has soared to record-breaking heights during George W. Bush’s presidency, America’s status as the most punitive nation on earth is by no means solely his doing. Bush is merely standing on the shoulders of giants – such as, say, Bill Clinton, who once created 50 brand-new federal offenses in a single draconian measure, and expanded the federal death penalty to 60 new offenses during his term. In fact, like the great cathedrals of old, the building of Fortress America has been the work of decades, with an entire society yoked to the common task. At each step, the promulgation of ever-more draconian punishments for ever-lesser offenses, and the criminalization of ever-broader swathes of ordinary human behavior, have been greeted with hosannahs from a public and press who seem to be insatiable gluttons for punishment – someone else’s punishment, that is, and preferably someone of dusky hue.

The main engine of this mass incarceration has been the 35-year " war on drugs": a spurious battle against an abstract noun that provides an endless fount of profits, payoffs and power for the politically connected while only worsening the problem it purports to address – just like the "war on terror." The "war on drugs" has in fact been the most effective assault on an underclass since Stalin’s campaign against the kulaks.

It was launched by Richard Nixon, after urban unrest had shaken major American cities during those famous "long, hot summers" of the Sixties. Yet even as the crackdowns began, America’s inner cities were being flooded with heroin, much of it originating in Southeast Asia, where the CIA and its hired warlords ran well-funded black ops in and around Vietnam. At home, criminal gangs reaped staggering riches from the criminalization of the natural, if often unhealthy, human craving for intoxication. Ronald Reagan upped the ante in the 1980s, with a rash of "mandatory sentencing" laws that can put even first-time, small-time offenders away for years. His term also saw a new flood – crack cocaine – devastating the inner cities, even as his covert operators used drug money to fund the terrorist Contra army in Nicaragua and run illegal weapons to Iran, while the downtown druglords grew more powerful. The American underclass was caught in a classic pincer movement, attacked by both the state and the gangs. There were no more "long, hot summers" of protest against injustice; there was simply the struggle to survive.

Under Reagan, Bush I and Clinton, the feverish privatization of the prison system added a new impetus for wholesale, long-term detention. Politically-wired corporations need to keep those profit-making cells filled, and the politicians they grease are happy to oblige with "tougher" sentences and new crimes to prosecute. Now Bush Junior is readying another front in the war on the underclass, promising this week to build 4,000 new cells for immigrant detainees this year alone – having prudently handed Halliburton a $385 million "contingency" contract back in February to build, lo and behold, "immigrant detention centers" should the need for them arise, the NY Times reports.

Like the war on drugs, the equally ill-conceived war on immigrants will be directed at the poorest and most vulnerable, not the "coyote" gangs who profit from this human trafficking – and certainly not the American businesses and wealthy Homelanders who love the dirt-cheap labor of the illegals. Those for-profit prisons will soon be filled to bursting with this new harvest.

A nation’s true values can be measured in how it treats the poor, the weak, the damaged, the unconnected. For more than 30 years, the answer of the American power structure has been clear: you lock them up, you shut them up, you grind them down – and make big bucks in the process.

A version of this column appeared in the May 19th edition of The Moscow Times.

May 23, 2006

Chris Floyd, Global Eye columnist for the Moscow Times, is the author of Empire Burlesque: The Secret History of the Bush Regime.

Copyright © 2006 Chris Floyd

 
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