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Prison Nation - Asheville Global Report 2003

Asheville Global Report, Jan. 1, 2003.
Book Review - Prison Nation - Asheville Global Report 2003

Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor
Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, editors
Routledge, 2002

By John Brinker

In a recent New York Times editorial ("Two Million Inmates and Counting," Apr. 9), the venerable newspaper expresses moral outrage at the volume of people imprisoned in this country. "This soaring incarceration rate is not tied to the violent crime rate, which is lower than it was in 1974." While this would seem to beg the question, "why are so many people locked up?" the Times doesn’t bother to ask.

Some people are asking that question, and the answer isn’t pretty. Our judicial and prison systems, they say, are not about punishing criminals, let alone rehabilitating them. The prisons, the judicial system, and the institutions of law enforcement serve to enforce and amplify the profound inequalities that have always haunted America. Perhaps the best example of this tendency is the social policy known as the War on Drugs. In an essay entitled "Drug Policy as Social Control," Noam Chomsky asserts: "in the United States the drug war is basically a technique for controlling dangerous populations internal to the country and doesn’t have much to do with drugs... This is a way of controlling working class people."

This essay is included in a new collection entitled Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor. The book exhaustively details the injustices of the prison system in America today, and includes contributions from Chomsky, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Christian Parenti, and many lesser-known prison activists and jailhouse lawyers from around the country. Collectively they paint a convincing and detailed picture of a system that has become a trap for two million of us, overwhelmingly working-class and people of color.

Prison Nation first details some of the practices of the police and the policies of the judicial system that have made the population behind bars so large. Nonviolent street crime is pursued and punished out of proportion to its cost to society while corporate crimes with higher cost in lives and dollars go unpunished. And thanks to the media, the popular image of the “criminal” is the small-time drug dealer, not the Enron executive. The real irony is that street crime is often just an attempt to survive the very conditions that corporate crime creates.

In subsequent sections, the book examines life inside America’s prisons and the barriers set up to keep them there. Inmates typically receive inhuman treatment while they are inside. Not only do guards often abuse their authority, but the entire system encourages violence between prisoners, including rape. Health care is minimal or nonexistent and rates of infectious disease are alarmingly high. Corporate prisons provide even more extreme cases of abuse; when prison administrators ultimately answer to the bottom line, human rights suffer. Efforts to cut costs result in neglect, abuse, and even death. And many legal hurdles have been erected to prevent prison guards and wardens from being held accountable for the conditions they create, ensuring that the status quo is maintained.

Prison Nation is not a book for the faint of heart: it includes detailed accounts of torture and rape. Those whose eyes glaze over when confronted with reams of statistics may have difficulty as well. The book covers so much territory in so much detail that the reader may despair of having a complete understanding of the situation, or—despite accounts of a few victories for the prison reform movement— of changing it. A good antidote would be getting involved in your local prison books program, making contact with real prisoners and hearing their stories.

In a time when American politicians wax poetic about the unique freedom that we enjoy, we must look unflinchingly at evidence that for two million of us, life in America is little better than slavery. Until the growing number of inmates in America’s prisons get the justice they deserve, can we dare call ourselves citizens of a free country? Prison Nation convincingly argues that the answer is "no."