The Lock-’em-up Culture: Part I

The United States has developed a “lock-’em-up” culture through which a pervasive fear of crime has resulted in a massive prison complex, which is straining the budgets of many states. A few years ago it was announced that California, once the leader in public education, was spending more on prisons than it was on public schools. Texas was also engaged in a huge expansion of prisons. In the past two years, the money that states have spent on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. (1)

David Fathi, a specialist on the U.S. prison system, had an article reproduced in the editorial pages of the February 20, 2010 Albuquerque Journal, which refers to a six-fold increase in the U.S. prison population in the 30 years ending in 2005. Overall, there are now more people under correctional supervision in America — more than six million — than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalinism at its height. (2)

In 1980, there were about 220 people incarcerated for every 100,000 Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled to 731. (3) No other country, except Russia, even approaches the U.S. incarceration rate — Germany’s rate is 74 and France’s, 72. (4)

David Fathi’s article referred to above was not focused on the total number of people imprisoned, its focus was on the ten-fold growth in prisoners over the age of 65. Nationally, one in every 11 prisoners is serving a life sentence and it is one in six prisoners in some states.The title of Fathi’s article, “U.S. Wasting Big Money on Nursing Houses With Razor Wire,” is illustrated most concretely by his citation of a 2008 Pew Center on the State Report, which found that keeping someone over age 65 locked up costs about three times the $24,000 annual cost of the average prisoner.

Diane Dimond, who has a column in the Saturday Albuquerque Journal, writes that the Ohio prison system spends nearly $223 million a year on medical care for about 51,000 prisoners. About $28 million is spent on inmates’ prescriptions.One California prison system identified 21 inmates whose annual health bill is just over $2 million each. There are another 1,300 California inmates who require medical attention costing $100,000 or more apiece. (5)

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners were entitled to the same medical and dental treatment as everyone else. (6)

In his book, Convicting the Innocent, University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett examined hundreds of DNA exonerations and found that in at least a third of the cases an eyewitness was shown a “stacked lineup,” where the actual suspect was highlighted. (7) In the case of Timothy Cole, convicted of rape in Texas,* all but one of the photos were mug shots, with the men looking away from the camera and holding their book-in cards. Nationwide, incorrect identification was a factor in the conviction of more than 75 percent of people exonerated by DNA. (8) Cornell law professor Michael Dorf says that “Human beings are not very good at identifying people they only see once for a relatively short period of time” and “studies reveal error rates of as high as 50 percent…” (9)

A number of reforms have been suggested to reduce the tragic occurrence of eyewitness false identifications: 1) implement the practice of “blind administration,” whereby the officer conducting a lineup is not aware of who the suspect is (thus not revealing identity through gesture, vocal inflections, and body language); 2) “non-suggestive” lineups made up of people who generally resemble a witness’es description, so that the suspect does not stand out; 3) allowing witnesses to sign a statement indicating their level of confidence in their choice; and 4) presenting members of a lineup sequentially (to mitigate the pressure to choose someone when presented with a bunch of faces at once).

It  isn’t only false eyewitness testimony, of course, that results in the shameful number of convictions of innocent people in the United States. Law professor Brandon Garrett puts the number of DNA exonerations at 280 as of the writing of his book — published in 2011. (10) However, given the extreme difficulty of freeing the falsely convicted and extrapolating from research on eyewitness identifications and DNA exonerations, professor Garrett conservatively estimates that those wrongly convicted in the U.S. range from a few thousand to 20,000. (11)

On a personal note, when I attended a conference on the  wrongfully convicted in the mid-1990s, at the Chicago branch of the Northwestern Law School, over a third of the 75 or so freed nationwide from Death Row or life sentences were in attendance. Exonerations have been steadily climbing since that conference in Chicago.

If there is a Pecks’ bad boy of treatment of those indicted for serious crimes, it is the state of Texas. Not only does Texas lead the nation, by a good margin, in executions year-after-year, it has sentenced more than 400 teenagers to life imprisonment as of the beginning of 2012. (12) Texas is also the place where sentences of over a thousand years are known to have occurred.

Most appeals in Texas wind up in the Court of Criminal Appeals, which consists primarily of former prosecutors elected to the bench. The court seldom reverses a case, even in the face of glaring errors or unfairness — in one case it upheld the conviction of a man cleared by DNA evidence — and its conduct has prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to rebuke it several times. (13)

The Texas parole board rarely, if ever, meets face-to-face, as it conducts most of fits business by phone calls, faxes, email and regular mail. Parole in very violent cases is rarely granted and on aggravated assault cases, the parole board has approved parole in 0.1 percent of the cases. (14)

Texas also stands out by having no legal means for an actual perpetrator of a crime to confess to it when someone else has been convicted of that crime. See the asterisk on the Timothy Cole case.

The next blog will deal with supermax prisons, solitary confinement, racism in the criminal justice system, punishing juveniles, deaf inmates, the rise of debtors’ imprisonment,  the role of illegal drugs and the role that President Obama could play.


(1) Adam Gopnick, “The Caging of America,” The New Yorker, January 30. 2012.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Michael O’Donnell, “Crime and Punishment,” The Nation, January 30. 2012.

(5) Diane Dimond, “Need Health Care?” Try Going to Prison,” The Albuquerque Journal, September 3, 2011.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Beth Schwartzapbel, “No Country for Innocent Men,” Mother Jones, January/February 2012.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Gopnick.

(13) Schwartzapbel.

(14) Ibid.



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