The Lock-’em-up Culture

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 nation’s leader in public education, was spending more on prisons than it was on public schools. Texas was similarly engaged in a big expansion of its prisons, priced at some $2 billion. In the past two years, the money that states have spent on prisons has risen six times the rate of spending on higher education. (1) Overall, there are now more people under correctional supervision in America — more than six million – than there were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalinism. (2) David Fathi, a specialist in the U.S. prison system, cites a six-fold increase in the U.S. prison population in the 30-year period ending in 2005. (3)

Not only has the U.S. prison population been growing rapidly, it is aging, indicated by the ten-fold increase in prisoners over the age of 65. (4) Nationally, as of the date of Fathi’s article, one in every 11 prisoners was serving a life sentence and it was one in six prisoners in some states. (5)

The provocative title of Fathi’s article, “U.S. Wasting Big Money on Nursing Homes 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 under age 65. (6) Given the increasing imposition of life sentences without the possibility of parole, the setting itself up for a fiscal cost explosion in its prison systems.

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’ drug prescriptions. The California prison systrem identified 21 inmates whose annual health care bill came to just over $2 million each. There are another 1,300 California inmates who require medical attention costing $100,000 or more each. (7)

Solitary Confinement

Deprivation of human contact is a growing practice in the U.S. prison sytem. During the continuing controversy over whether or not the U.S. judicial system could handle the detainees destined for trials at Guantanamo Bay, it has been hard to find a critical comment about the treatment of prisoners at U.S. supermax prisons. Enthusiasts of escape-proof prisons even favorably cite the federal supermax prison built 100 feet under ground. Prisoners held there never see the sky nor an airplane flying through it.

A probing analysis of one of the worst of the worst supermaxs, Pelican Bay in California, has found that the isolation practiced there is psychologically devastating to the prisoners. Except for the possible sound of clanging doors, silence was the predominant impression carrried away by an investigative reporter.

In all the fervor about whether or not torture is a good thing, and if the United States continues to practice it, it is clear that the U.S. citizenry tolerates the psychologically damaging isolation in the supermaxes. Yet, isolation is far from exclusive to the supermaxes. In her book, entitled The Gray Box, journalist Susan Greene estimates that 80,000 Americans — “many with no record of violence inside or outside a prison” — are living in seclusion. They stay there for weeks, months, years, even decades. (8) On any given day, there are about 4,500 men, women and children in some form of isolated confinement in New York State prisons. (9) The damaging effects of isolation are evidenced by those subject to it walking endlessly in small circles. The Poughkeepie Journal’s Mary Beth Pfeiffer studied prison suicides in New York State and found that in a three -year period between 2007 and 2010, inmates in what prisoners call “the Box,” killed themselves at a rate five times higher per capita than those in the general population. (10)

Harsh Treatment of Juveniles

Reference was made in the section above to children being subject to solitary confinement. Juvenile courts have become increasingly punitive, and by the late 1990’s, nearly half of convicted juveniles were behind bars, rather than in community supervision or treatment programs. Moreover, a quarter of them were locked up because of misdemeanors or parole violations. (11) Texas and Michigan share a dubious distinction of leading the parade for harsh treatment of young wrongdoers. Texas has 400 teenagers now serving life entences. (12) In Michigan, being tried as an adult for first degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Also in Michigan, prosecutors can try defendents, as young as 14 years old, without a hearing, a statement of reasons, or even an investigation of the adolescents’ backgrounds. (13) 

Currently, there are some 2,500 American inmates who were given life sentences for killing someone before their 18th birthday, with more than half of them committing their first crime. (14) 

It wasn’t until 2005, in the case of Roper v. Simmons, that the United States became the last Western nation to abolish the death penalty for juveniles. (15)

Texas Is Pecks’ Bad Boy of Punishment for Crimes

If there is a Pecks’ bad boy concerning treatment of those convicted of serious crimes, it is the state of Texas: it leads the nation in executions by a good margin every year; it is the nation’s leader in teenagers sentenced to life imprisonment; and it is 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 caused the U.S. Supreme Court to rebuke it several times. (16)

The Texas parole board rarely, if ever, meets face-to-face, as it conduicts most of its business by phone calls, faxes, emails and regular mail. Parole in very violent crimes is very rarely granted, and on aggregated assault cases, the parole board has approved parole in 0.1 percent of the cases. (17)

Texas also stands out for having no legal means for an actual perpetrator of a crime to confess to it when someone else has been convicted of the crime. Timothy Cole was a tragic victim of this failing.* As previously mentioned, Texas has no formal procedure for dealing with a post-conviction confession by someone else.

Katrina Miller, a corrections official turned academic researcher, is owed a debt of gratitude for discovering that a whopping 30 percent of inmates in Texas prisons meet the clinical definition for “hard of hearing.” (18)

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandated that any entity receiving federal money have an effective communications system for the deaf. An illustration of how poorly implemented this act can be is the case of Texas prison inmate Felix Garcia. When Garcia was tried for murder — it is likely he took the rap for another family member — he wasn’t able to hear words at his trial, only noise. He gets no hearing assistance in prison. In theory, Garcia could file a civil rights lawsuit but the Clinton-era Prison Litigation Reform Act makes it extraordinarily difficult for individual prisoners to bring a federal case. (19)

Racism in the U.S. Criminal Justice System

Many Americans would like to believe that racism has been eradicated from U.S. society. One area of U.S. life where racism is alive and well-embedded is in the criminal justice system. In a New Yorker article entitled “The Caging of America,” Adam Gopnik lays out the case about how black men are targeted for prison: 1) more than half of all black men without a high school diploma will go to prison at some point in their lives; 2) there are more black  men in the grip of the criminal justice system — in prison, on probation, or on parole — than were in slavery in 1850; and 3) blacks are now incarcerated seven times as often as whites. (20)

The nation’s death rows are occupied by black men at a highly disproportionate rate compared to their percentage of the U.S. population and one of the surest ways for a black man to get the death penalty is to kill  a white woman.

The next blog will focus primarily on the conviction of the innocent.

*Timothy Cole, convicted of a rape to which another man confessed, died in prison before any action could be taken on the confession. 


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

(2) Ibid.

(3) David Fathi, “U.S. Wasting Big Money on Nursing Homes With Razor Wire,” The Albuquerque Journal, February 20, 2010.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

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

(8) Diane Dimond, “Solitary Confinement a Stain on U.S. Prison System,” The Albuquerque Journal, February 25. 2012. 

(9) Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, “New York’s Black Sites,” The Nation, July 30/August 6, 2012.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Rachel Aviv, “No Remorse,” The New Yorker, January 2, 2012.

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

(13) Aviv.

(14) Ibid.

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

(16) Ibid.

(17) Ibid.

(18) James Ridgeway, “The Silent Treatment,” Mother Jones, March/April, 2012.

(19) Ibid.

(20) Gopnik.


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