February 13, 2012

Land of the Free

Data reported in Adam Gopnik's New Yorker essay of January 30, "The Caging of America":

1. There are more black men in the grip of the American criminal-justice system today than there were in slavery in 1850. (I have also read that both in absolute numbers and per capita, the US has more black people in its jails than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.)

2. There are more people under "correctional supervision" in America (more than 6 million) than there were in the Russian gulag under Stalin, at its height. (I have read elsewhere, in several academic sources, that 25% of the world's prisoners are in American jails--this in a country that has less than 5% of the world's population. I also read that 1 out of every 31 Americans is caught up in the criminal justice system in one form or another.)

3. More than 50,000 men are currently in solitary confinement in the US.

4. More than 70,000 American prisoners are raped every year.

5. In 1980, 220 people were incarcerated for every 100,000 Americans; in 2010, the figure had risen to 731 (more than tripled). "No other country even approaches that," writes Gopnik.

6. In the last 20 years, the money states spend on prisons in the US has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.

7. A huge percentage of American prisoners are serving sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the developed world (e.g., marijuana use).

Gopnik concludes: "Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today...incarceration...acts as a hidden foundation for the country."


Anonymous infanttyrone said...

Ahh...merican exceptionalism - salute it now, Buddy, or we won't let you live in The Land of the Free no more.

FWIW, in the past few years I have seen quite a few writers refer to the Military Industrial Prison complex.

Anyone know of a website that has comprehensive stats such that we could pull out the numbers of people incarcerated for marijuana possession and other relatively victimless crimes ?

9:35 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

I don't have any cynical or sarcastic comebacks to this starkly ugly news, which shouldn't really come as news at all. It makes me realize that I've got a shadow, a cold fear, somewhere in the back of my mind that I could wind up in the snares of the prison state all too easily, without having done anything. I've got a feeling a lot of us have that vague but lurking sense of fear as well. Or am I just projecting my own fear onto others?

9:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I once worked briefly as a shrink in the American prison system. It's a terrible environment, so I didn't hang around very long. To what Adam Gopnik mentions, I would like to add two more points:

1. The prison system is now America’s largest so-called provider of mental health services, larger than all private and state hospitals combined, all of America’s schools combined, or even the entire VA system. Such “mental health services” in prisons usually boil down to forcing inmates to take very expensive psychiatric medications paid in full by the chumps (a.k.a. “taxpayers”). About one third of inmates are prescribed some kind of psychiatric medication. So the pharmaceutical corporations profit mightily from the high incarceration rates.

2. Most inmates are required to work while in prison, producing things such as furniture, pens, goggles, electronics, etc. I don’t know what it is now, but about 10 years ago when I was there, the average inmate pay was about 25 cents per hour. Thus, slave labor is another motive behind the high incarcerations rates.

So, as China’s salaries increase, I guess we should expect Apple Corporation to start assembling their iPhones in American prisons instead... that development alone should make Steve Jobs very proud... in a postmortem sort of way...


10:09 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


If google doesn't work, try fbi.gov. They have a search function.


10:33 PM  
Anonymous Dovidel said...

Dr. Berman,

You mention that “that both in absolute numbers and per capita, the US has more black people in its jails than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.”

I remember hearing a white South African who had moved to the US back in the 1980’s snap back at some white American who was ranting about how terible it was that black South Africans couldn’t vote in elections. The ‘Afrikaner’ said, “The only difference between the US and South Africa is relative numbers! If you had a majority black population in the US, you can be absolutely certain that blacks wouldn’t be voting here either!” Please don’t get me wrong, it was terrible in South Africa – and from what I hear, it still is. I say this only because I think this South African had sized-up the situation in the US pretty accurately.

(I should add – the fact that anyone is allowed to vote here simply shows how little choice there really is.)

David Rosen

1:02 AM  
Anonymous Dan said...

And how many Americans die of marijuana overdose every year? The answer is zero. Black incarceration was quite low in the 60's and 70's as the economy was humming. It rose dramatically when the economy started to tank. Thus its a way to keep unemployed black youth off the streets. Oh, by the way, solitary confinement is considered a form of torture. But who cares about such niceties?
Just saw the best of Jaywalking and I think we all need to pack up ASAP. What countries border the US? Australia and Hawaii of course.Luis Armstrong was the first man on the moon. Who wrote Handel's Messiah? Sorry, I don't read books. Who lives in Vatican City? The Vaticans.Where is the Panama Canal? In China. And finally, as Jay and a woman are looking at an American flag flying in the wind, "How many stars are on the American flag?" I don't know. The flag is moving too fast.
I can just imagine what founts of knowledge and wisdom their children are.

8:22 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

Last night on PBS was a documentary, Slavery by Another Name. You and your readers might find this interesting also. Here's the synopsis:


SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME challenges one of America's most cherished assumptions: the belief that slavery in this country ended with Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. This documentary tells a harrowing story of how in the South, even as chattel slavery came to an end, new forms of involuntary servitude, including convict leasing, debt slavery and peonage, took its place with shocking force -- brutalizing and ultimately circumscribing the lives of hundreds of thousands of African Americans well into the 20th century. It was a system in which men, often guilty of no crime at all, were arrested, compelled to work without pay, repeatedly bought and sold and coerced to do the bidding of masters. The program spans eight decades, from 1865 to 1945, revealing the interlocking forces in both the South and the North that enabled this "neoslavery" to begin and persist. Using archival photographs and dramatic re-enactments, filmed on location in Alabama and Georgia, it tells the forgotten stories of both victims and perpetrators of neoslavery and includes interviews with their descendants living today. The program also features interviews with Douglas Blackmon, author of the Pulitzer Prize- winning book "Slavery by Another Name" and with leading scholars of this period.

8:47 AM  
Blogger EarthwayExperience said...

Not trying to detract from your point (a very good point), Russel Means (http://www.youtube.com/user/RussellMeansFreedom), a Lakota Elder, says all Americans are living on a Reservation. Americans rights are being taken away daily and no one says a thing.
People are out of work, out of food, out of hope.
At least in prison they have three meals a day, health care, dental care - I say this tongue in cheek, but ITS TRUE.

9:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your fear of the prison complex that America has built, and continues to build at a rate of 2 new 1000+ bed private prisons per month, is very valid. You should indeed be afraid, as I was when I worked there.

It is very easy to get tangled in this monstrosity – a wise crack at the address of a TSA officer, or a cop, or a judge can easily land you in prison for many months, and that on pre-trial basis alone. So I think that now, more than ever before, it is important to have the telephone number of a very good lawyer on hand (if you can afford one). Like they say, just because you’re paranoid does not mean they’re not after you.


9:36 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Gd examples. It's impt to remember at all times that at least 96% of the American public have meat in their heads.


In addition, most Americans are not aware of the findings of Phillip Magness and Sebastian Page in their book, "Colonisation after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement," based on findings they stumbled upon in the (British) National Archives at Kew Gardens. These documents reveal a very different Lincoln than the one portrayed, for example, by Eric Foner. To wit:

1. Lincoln was in fact an advocate of a 'separate but equal doctrine' (as he told an Illinois audience in 1858). He was also an enthusiastic supporter of the Illinois branch of the American Colonization Society, and the theme was a central plank in the Republican Party platform.

2. In March 1861 he instructed the American minister to Guatemala to secure land for a colony of black settlers. Colonization schemes were also explored for the Caribbean, Central America, Africa, and the American West. Lincoln attached colonization to virtually every prospective scheme for emancipation, and continued to support these plans thru 1864. His admin was also outsourcing colonization to England.

3. The # of slaves actually emancipated by the 1863 Proclamation were roughly 50,000 out of a total of 3.9 million.

4. Virtually all of Lincoln's words and actions during 1864-65 led towards an outcome of abandoning slaves to their former masters, under the banner of states' rights. Foner claims (in "The Fiery Trial") that the American public gave up on the notion of colonization after the Proclamation, but in fact the notion persisted even in radical circles. In 1868, the NYT editorialized that the US shd annex Cuba and deport the entire black population to that island. Racial equality was as alien to the North as it was to the South.

For an elaboration of all this, see Nicholas Guyatt, "A Topic Best Avoided," London Rev. of Bks, 1 Dec 2011.


11:31 AM  
Anonymous shep said...

Sunday, I watched a re-run on C-SPAN, from 2000 I believe, where Brian Lamb interviews Lerone Bennett, Jr. about his book "Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream".

Great program! Hope this link works if anyone is interested.


Turns out, in 1858, Lincoln called for a "Free White Haven".

Sad how much of history is revised and unknown to even the most intellectual (myself excepted)!

Also, Mr Bennett was the national editor for Ebony Magazine and had written an article that was published in the magazine called "Was Lincoln a White Supremacist? I cd not find it and I believe, not sure, this was the basis for the book that Mr Bennett eventually wrote and published through Johnson Publishing.

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Mark Notzon said...

"The money spent on prisons...has risen six times the rate spent on higher education."

Of course, if the money were available for higher education, it would most likely get soaked up in prestige infrastructure, administrative salaries, and so on. Just having more money available for another wouldn't mean a mini (Re-)Enlightenment had occured.

I live in a town of 1,800 in a rural county where a fair number of young folks 18-20 report more often to a parole officer than to a boss. (I volunteer teach a GED class for them.) At the same time the local high school was proud to unveil one of those brick box digital signs for the school--as if people driving by weren't already loaded with digital devices to tell the time and the temp. I would love to program the display to read "Your house is on fire and you don't know it. Have a nice day."

9:59 PM  
Anonymous Joseph S. said...

This American Life had a Valentine's Day show this past Sunday. One of the segments was about undercover cops posing as students in high schools in Florida and a boy who falls head over heels for one of them. After getting close to him, the undercover cop tries repeatedly to get him to buy her marijuana which he doesn't want to do and tries to convince her out of. He's so smitten with her, however, that eventually he buys $25 worth of weed(which is, you should know, not much) and gives it to her. A few weeks later, BAM, the guy, an honor roll student whose only real crime was falling in love with the wrong person, gets arrested. In the interview with Ira Glass, the officer just keeps on talking about how "these kids" (the cop's 25) have to understand the dangers of drugs, not acknowledging at all that she manipulated him into doing it (I don't know about you, but one of the least intelligent species on the planet is a teenage boy in love). The kid accepted a plea bargain, but now he has a felony for drug dealing. This all being in Florida, OxyContin capitol of the world.

Marijuana has to be one of the most benign drugs ever to scheduled by the DEA. I've seen more violent people on a caffeine highs. And yet so many lives are ruined and so many prisons are packed because the Land of the Free believes marijuana to be as dangerous as heroin and less so than cocaine (which is a Schedule II substance).

1:56 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


What a sad, cruel story. Pity the kid didn't have a better lawyer, as entrapment is a gd defense.


5:12 AM  
Anonymous esquimaux said...

As the pyramid of wealth narrows, more and more of the population becomes surplus. Societies have customarily reduced their overpopulation by loss of life in war, emmigration and conquest. I suspect that when these traditional means of reducing overpopulation fail, a fourth alternative is the massive imprisonment we're talking about.

It would make sense for Apple or any company (Thiessen, Siemens, Krupp in NSDAP Germany) to have their merchandise assembled by prison labor if the cost of that labor, to the company, would be less than the cost of labor abroad, which it may be as prison labor, in the U.S., is subsidized by the public. There would also, as a by-product for the imprisoned, be skills training in assembling hi-tech products.

I suspect that, in one way, prison conditions, for U.S. inmates, may be better than prison conditions in other totalitarian states (food, shelter from the elements); in another way worse in terms of the rape and violence to which the prison system permits inmates to be exposed. Drug-induced catatonia as a means of prison population control wouldn't surprise me once the prison population becomes too large aqnd expensive to house in buildings and camps.

Marijuana, in this culture, is taboo largely on account of its association with the counter-culture. A taboo doesn't need to make sense. In fact, the virtue of taboo is that it doesn't make sense. Violations of a taboo carry extreme penalties. Rational arguments about marijuana's beneficence, not to say harmlessness, are nothing to the point.

Will American imprisonment eventually take the form of mass murder of inmates as it did in Nazi Germany and, perhaps, in the Soviet Union? Who knows...

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here cometh Gulag Inc.:



4:14 PM  
Anonymous EM said...

As Esquimaux said, it's mainly about labor.

If you have an industrial - or post-industrial - economy, you will have always some sort of "labor problem" - too little labor to satisfy business needs, or too much labor so that you get crime, or labor that's too organized and restive, or whatever.

Right now, there is waaaay to much labor. Lots of people with no jobs lead to things like black markets (inluding the drug trade), property crimes, fraud and other ways of "cheating", and general threats to the status quo (all those people hanging around may start to get ideas, or at least, threaten the system's perceived legitimacy). Circuses work, but that's not always enough - you have to do something with all those extra people. Our society uses various excuses to put them in jail. And jail has the added benefit of "creating jobs" (communities fight to get prisons for this reason). And once they're incarcerated, the super-cheap slave labor pool is perfect for business interests. So you get prison labor. One thing just sort of flows naturally from the last.

Sure there are plenty of racist elements, and America has a legacy of Puritanism, and whatever other points we can all make - but when you come down to it, this is really a "labor problem", and prison is the "solution".

I'm reminded of the Jay Gould quote "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half" - except Jay Gould was primitive. Why pay one half to kill the other? Pay one half to incarcerate the other half, and then use the incarcerated half as slave labor! So much better!

12:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Today on the Alyona Show there was a very good and thorough discussion about private prisons. The discussion begins at minute 35 into the show:



9:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you considered crime statistics and racial correlations corresponding to the rapid increase of non-white immigrants post-immigration act of 1965 and low white birth rate?
The popular Freakonomics book explains away the major decrease in crime in the 90's, when it had been predicted to explode, by correlating it with the previous generation's use of abortion. I don't know how to explain this without sounding racist, but less fatherless black kids equals less crime.
What about Europe in comparison to America, some countries have 9 out of 10 rapes committed by a small minority of immigrants... Europe is also more "un-free" but also not saturated with social strife, unless you count the recent default of Greece. Consider Britain, which forbids carrying knives--self-defense is not justifiable. Yet Norway especially has very liberal prisons in which inmates live can live on a psuedo-farm.

12:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon @ 12:02,

I live in Europe right now, I also lived in the US for 30 years, I worked in the US justice system, and I also lived in England, which you mentioned. What you say about blacks was said 100 years ago about the Irish and the Italians. The truth is, America is a psychopatic society built on violence, fear, and the worst kind of individualist selfishness that inevitably leads to high crime, ruthless exploitation, and marginalization. England is not as violent, but by far the worst place to be in Europe, much having to do with an entire generation of young white brits that are entitled, ignorant, and severely morally degenerate. When I lived in England, the only people I could have an intelligent conversation with were the Indian, Pakistani, or Eastern European immigrants.

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Joseph S. said...


That does sound racist. You seem to be espousing an old myth that I think needs to be addressed. Race (a misleading word in itself) does not correlate to crime. It's a red herring to look at prisons across the nation and see many "minority" inmates. You have to dig a bit deeper than that. Impoverished Caucasians, Asians, African-Americans, Mexicans and everyone else all have a higher likelihood of being tossed into prison at sometime in their life than compared to do those with a similar ethnic makeup. Coming from an impoverished community means you were dealt a crap hand of cards and may likely lead a rough life somewhere down the road. Remember, though, just because one's predisposed to something (whether it's crime, cancer, or good ol' irritability, to name a few things) doesn't mean that that person's predestined for it.

Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian wrote a wonderful paper a few years ago with a similar thesis in The Journal of Marriage and Family entitled "The Color of Family Ties: Race, Class, Gender, and Extended Family Involvement." At one point they write that "social class rather than culture is the key to understanding the differences... between Whites and ethnic minorities."

8:35 PM  
Anonymous shep said...

Anon @ 5:55,

"The truth is, America is a psychopatic society built on violence, fear, and the worst kind of individualist selfishness that inevitably leads to high crime, ruthless exploitation, and marginalization."


Joseph S.,
"Coming from an impoverished community means you were dealt a crap hand of cards..."

I was dealt a Royal Flush, except for the money part. That was 70 yrs. ago and I am shamed to be a silver spoon white to this day.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Paul Emmons said...

It also scandalizes me that laws are on the books whereby one can be executed for a crime committed as a "child;" that life imprisonment for a homicide committed in childhood (i.e. under 18) is fairly routine; and that in some States, e.g. Florida, a child can be tried "as an adult" almost at a prosecutor's whim.

And our countrymen couldn't get why Elian Gonzales's father would want to take his little boy back to Cuba.

Our criminal codes are such an affront to the civilized standards of other nations that they sometimes refuse to extradite to the U.S. We still presume to preach human rights to the rest of the world, but our words ring hollow. More and more, the rest of the world knows it.

Apparently, part of being the world's most advanced and prosperous society is that we must give up on some kids as hopelessly botched jobs before they've even begun to repay the investment made in them. In its benightedness, the rest of the world just doesn't understand the tradeoffs.

8:14 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Thanks for yr input. In future, probably best to post to most recent post, since there is a tendency for readers not to return to previous ones.

I did wanna add, however, that Julian's most recent post, on the medical system, can also be related to the prison system; because America's problems are not individually institutional. Rather, they are systemic; they emerge from the same late-cowboy-capitalist-severe-individualist framework that is finally taking this country down. Ultimately, all American institutions operate out of the same set of principles.


10:15 PM  
Anonymous meri said...

When I lived in Los Angeles, I received a jaywalking ticket 4 simply crossing a small street during the day when it was perfectly safe, no cars coming, etc. It was for $77 & @the time I cdn't afford it, so I recvd a warrant 4 my arrest in the mail! It really scared me, caused me a lot of grief&anguish till I found out from a friend I cd just go to a dept w/in the courthouse &they wd advocate 4 me. So I was able to go to court &the judge dismissed the ticket but I was so scared of going to jail! I can't believe I suffered so much fear &stress over just crossing a street! But what was really disturbing was the reaction I'd gotten from most LA natives. Well, crossing the st is dangerous, ppl get hit by cars, the police r protecting us, etc.

BTW, I believe this incarceration of blacks & hispanics is a backlash against the civil rights movement. Ppl rebelled back in the 60s & 70s so now those ppl r being jailed b4 they have a chance to rebel again.

11:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Urban legends at their best.

Murder rates in Russia, South Africa, and virtually ALL of South and Central America dwarf America.
Most criminal prosecutions are state, not federal, and it is virtually impossible to get to prison in most states for possession of marijuana unless you are talking about over 500 pounds which is by the way the threshold for interest by the Feds on the southwest border.
The "Caging" article in the NEW YORKER is chock-a-block with semi-accurate and misleading statistics attempting to paint America as a prison nation, when in fact we have achieved what almost no other major multi-cultural country has - relatively low crime and a high degree of legal due process (yes you can point to the excesses of both the Bush and Obama administrations in Guantanomo but that has about as much to do with ordinary Americans as the summary execution of Osama Bin Laden without due process.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Anon (cd u give us a handle in the future?)(also best to send message to most recent post, as readers tend not to look at older ones)-

Not so. If u.r. going to refute the New Yorker article, you are going to have to get very specific, beyond "chock-a-block." Those folks always do their homework, I've found. And numerous sources that I've read over the past few yrs, in reliable journals, note that we incarcerate 1/4 of the world's prison population; and that u can certainly go to jail for smoking dope--this too has been verified. As for world data on homicide, this can be misleading. For example, Mexico's rate is 2x that of the US, but in fact it's confined mostly to border states involved in drug wars, for wh/the US shares major responsibility. The homicide rate of Mexico City is 9 per 100,000 per annum, wh/is the same as Wichita KS or Stockton CA. In addition, many places w/high homicide rates, such as Colombia, are involved in political turmoil that accounts for this; it's not quite the same thing as "ordinary" murders, crimes of passion, etc. Finally, when you compare the US to England, Europe, and Scandanavia, u.c. that those countries put us to shame.


3:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doesn't look good for America. I've kinda known this in my subconscious for a long time now. I try very hard to be honest to myself. The positive, one could say, is that not all societies are doomed to fail. Europe might prevail, as they seem to be more well rounded. I've notice that in America, folks have stopped listening to facts and push their own agenda instead. This is NOT good.

10:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's not forget that it was the liberal programs of the 1960s that amounted to a near genocide against blacks and the subsequent incarceration , also, 70,000 rapes at the hands of the morally superior liberal bureaucracy. This is the state liberals love??

7:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In addition to the huge numbers of people incarcverated, there is an equally and probably much larger population "under probation." They are rarely discussed. Many of those must endiure terms of probation that are so severe that they are effectively imprisoned in their own homes without being able to get jobs. They are reduced to a kind of slavery where every move is sverely restricted, sometimes for life.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


The most recent and reliable data I read on the US criminal justice system is that if you include everyone caught up in it, including folks on probation, then it amounts to 1 out of every 31 Americans. An astounding figure, it seems to me.


9:21 PM  
Anonymous stonelifter said...

We don't have a crime problem in the USA. We have a demographic problem in the USA. No matter the legal advantages and money spent negros continue to grind the nation down and fill up prisons, and they fill them up for a lot more than smoking pot.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Glock said...

I felt more free in the occupied nation of Wales. The very guns that were supposed to guarantee the freedom of the US citizen are in fact the guns that oppress. I could not believe the use of pepper spray on old women, tazers on protestors and the way innocent people get shot for not 'looking right'; instead of feeling secure when a cop drives past, I feel I should be filing a "menacing with intent" charge.

2:55 PM  
Anonymous TonyU said...

@ stonelifter
“We don't have a crime problem in the USA. We have a demographic problem in the USA. No matter the legal advantages and money spent negros continue to grind the nation down and fill up prisons, and they fill them up for a lot more than smoking pot”

You must be living in some fantasy land – a land filled with hate and self-delusions.

Bernard Madoff is not a negro, but he caused more suicides among people like you than whatever you think all the negroes did to you.

The greedy bankers and wall street thieves are not negroes, but they have your kind tightly hemmed in. Even your president of past few decades and the members of congress are the slaves of the same goons. But you must take out your frustrations on negroes.

If the real criminals in America are sent to prison, half of the white people would be in prison today. If all the traitors are sent to prison, all the officials of all levels of governments in America would be languishing in prisons, and 99% of them are whites.

1:27 AM  

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