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April 24, 2008

Down in the Hole in America

The New York Times: "The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prison population . . . . Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries."

The Times reports that the U.S. has the highest number of prisoners per 100,000 population — 751 — in the world. That's compared to Japan, 63; Germany, 88 and England, 151. Even Russia and China stick fewer people in jail cells than the United States. And no one imposes longer prison sentences than American judges.

According to the Times' experts, a number of factors help explain the country's "extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges — many of whom are elected, another American anomaly — yield to populist demands for tough justice."

The Times story doesn't dig into two related issues: the conditions in American prisons; and who benefits when the answer to every anti-social act is a jail cell.

Seven Days readers are probably familiar with Paul Wright, an ex-con from Brattleboro who has become a fierce advocate for U.S. prisoners. Wright started up Prison Legal News in 1990, and has documented dozens of cases of prisoner abuse and exploitation. In January, PLN reported (subscription required) that Vermont leads the country in the percentage of prisoners who take anti-psychotic medications.

Check out Ken Picard's fascinating March 2007 profile of Wright here.

Wright and PLN just published a new anthology, called Prison Profiteers: Who Profits from Mass Incarceration, that examines the $185 billion taxpayers spend locking people up in America. The book looks at the private prison companies, investment banks, churches, medical corporations and other industries and individuals that benefit from the prison business.  

Vermont's Dept. of Corrections publishes its "Fact and Figures" every year @

The average cost of keeping an inmate locked up in a Vermont prison: $45,000.

"word's prison"or "world's prison"> check yer spellin', yo.

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