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Sunday, July 12, 2009

American Prisoners

Maybe you already knew this. I sure didn't. I've read that the U.S. has more than its fair share of prisoners - and I'm not talking about those held illegally at Guatanamo Bay. It didn't take too much digging to find out that we are something of a phenomenon in the world when it comes to incarcerating our citizens. Let's take a look.

The U.S. has less than 5% of the world's population - but almost 25% of the world's prisoners.

The U.S. houses 756 people in jails for every 100,000 residents - a rate that is nearly 500% of the world's average.

About one in every 31 adults is either in prison or on parole in America at any given time.

Black Americans have a 33% likelihood of being imprisoned at some point in their lives.

It's tempting to think that these people probably all "deserve it." After all, we have a great justice system and everyone in the U.S. is innocent until proven guilty. That may be. But the perplexing statistics don't lie. Something is obviously different in the U.S. system of justice from the rest of the world.

It's reported that one-sixth of all the people in prison in America today suffer from mental illnesses of one sort or another. As a matter of fact, there are four times as many mentally ill people in prison as there are in mental hospitals in America!

And we're not talking about a once-in-lifetime thing here, where people serve light prison sentences for mistakes they made when they were "young and foolish." Two-thirds of ex-prisoners are re-arrested ... within three years of being released.

It's also a family affair. More than 1.7 million children in America have at least one parent in prison right now. Those kids are six times more likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves too.

Something about prisons in America seems ineffective. Instead of reforming the offenders and turning them into model citizens --- it seems the system leans more toward disenfranchising them. Even for those who don't return to prison, life is different afterwards. There is the stigma of having a "prison record," which makes it difficult to find gainful employment. So most ex-prisoners are barred from professional jobs and jobs of any key responsibility. They are most likely to end up in manual labor positions --- regardless of their capabilities.

America is one of only a handful of countries that bar prisoners from voting too. And in some states, that ban is lifelong. Over 2% of American adults and about 14% of all black American men are barred from voting in any election for the rest of their lives because of prior criminal convictions.

Perhaps the oddest thing is that the U.S. hasn't always been so different when it comes to incarcerating its citizens. For most of the 20th century, America imprisoned roughly the same proportion of its population as many other countries - about 100 people for every 100,000 citizens. But while other countries held steady at this rate, the American incarceration rate soared to 313 people per 100,000 citizens in 1985. It absolutely mushroomed after that - to 648 people per 100,000 citizens in 1997. (And we sit at 756 people in prison for every 100,000 citizens today.)

We could discuss a variety of pros and cons - surmising a multitude of reasons for this phenomenon. But I think there are some clues as to the breakdown in morality that we seem to be having. For example, about 55% of the population of federal prisons and about 21% of the population in state prisons are serving time for drug-related charges. (An astonishing 75% of those people are black men too.) Other leading reasons for such incarcerations include offenses for sexual related and financial crimes.

The United States of America is known as the richest, most powerful nation on earth. Sadly, it seems that we've used that wealth to indulge ourselves. We are increasingly giving ourselves over to the depravity of drugs, sex and money.

So, do you suppose the recession and economic contraction will have any effect on America's prison population?

Source: U.S. Dept. of Justice

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