THE world’s tallest building is now in Dubai rather than New York. Its largest shopping mall is in Beijing, and its biggest Ferris wheel in Singapore. Once-mighty General Motors is suspended in a limbo between bail-out and bankruptcy; and the “war on terror” has demonstrated the limits of American military might.
But in one area America is going from strength to strength—the incarceration of its population. America has less than 5% of the world’s people but almost 25% of its prisoners. It imprisons 756 people per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the world average. About one in every 31 adults is either in prison or on parole. Black men have a one-in-three chance of being imprisoned at some point in their lives. “A Leviathan unmatched in human history”, is how Glenn Loury, professor of social studies at Brown University, characterises America’s prison system.
Conditions in the Leviathan’s belly can be brutal. More than 20% of inmates report that they have been sexually assaulted by guards or fellow inmates. Federal prisons are operating at more than 130% of capacity. A sixth of prisoners suffer from mental illness of one sort or another. There are four times as many mentally ill people in prison as in mental hospitals.
As well as being brutal, prisons are ineffective. They may keep offenders off the streets, but they fail to discourage them from offending. Two-thirds of ex-prisoners are re-arrested within three years of being released. The punishment extends to prisoners’ families, too. America’s 1.7m “prison orphans” are six times more likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves. The punishment also sometimes continues after prisoners are released. America is one of only a handful of countries that bar prisoners from voting, and in some states that ban is lifelong: 2% of American adults and 14% of black men are disfranchised because of criminal convictions.
It is possible to pick holes in these figures. Some of the world’s most repressive regimes do not own up to their addiction to imprisonment (does anyone really believe that Cuba imprisons only five in every 1,000 of its citizens?). No sane person would rather be locked up in Russia or China than in America. A country as large and diverse as America boasts plenty of model prisons and exemplary training programmes. But all that said, the conclusion remains stark: America’s incarceration habit is a disgrace, wasting resources at home and damaging the country abroad.