American Gulag

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the Sunday Island on March 17, 2012 


Motes and Beams

The US prison system is an interesting subject of study because it encapsulates the great themes of the Great American Narrative: Genocide, Slavery, Race, Democracy, Sex and Capitalism.

As recently as July 2011, Hillary Clinton voiced concern over the plight of Internally Displaced Persons in Sri Lanka. It is unlikely that there were ever more than 350,000 in the Sri Lankan IDP camps. There are more than 2.3 million people in US prisons, more than any other nation on earth, a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. America has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.)

The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. England’s rate is 151; Germany’s is 88; and Japan’s is 63. The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate. San Marino, with a population of about 30,000, has one prisoner.

Ethnic justice


African-Americans account for 12% of the U.S. population. At the end of 2005, of those incarcerated in state and federal prisons, 40% were black, 35% were white, and 20% were Hispanic. In 2005, 8.1% of all black males age 25 to 29 were in prison, compared to 2.6% of Hispanic males and 1.1% of white males.


Punishment fitting the crime?


Crime rates are falling but the prison population increases. Americans are locked up for crimes that wouldn’t warrant incarceration elsewhere. Once convicted, Americans are locked up for far longer than prisoners in other nations. We have all seen them on TV – orange-suited, manacled and humiliated in public.


In New York, the 1973 Nelson Rockefeller anti-drug law provides for a mandatory sentence of 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of any illegal drug. There are stiffer penalties for possession of crack, used by Blacks and Hispanics, than for possession of cocaine powder, used by rich white people. The three-strikes policy (life in prison after being convicted of three felonies) of Hillary’s husband made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons. One prisoner received three 25-year sentences for stealing a car and two bicycles.


Of 125,000 federal inmates 97% have been convicted of non-violent crimes. Possibly more than half of the 623,000 inmates in municipal or county jails are innocent. Two-thirds of the one million state prisoners have committed non-violent offenses. Of the country’s total 2.3 million prisoners, 16 % suffer from mental illness.


Only 34% of those in juvenile detention are accused of violent crimes. More than 20% were confined for technical offenses like violating probation, missing curfews, truancy, or running away—often from violence and abuse at home. More than 200,000 youth are also tried as adults in the US every year, and on any given day approximately 8,500 under eighteen are confined in adult prisons and jails.


Seeing the funny side of gang-rape


Have you noticed that an easy standby of American humour is prisoners getting raped in the showers? Not so funny when one considers a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) which showed that 64,500 of the inmates who were in a state or federal prison on the day the latest BJS survey was administered had been sexually abused at their current facility within the previous year, as had 24,000 of those who were in a county jail that day—a total of 88,500 people.


Wilbert Rideau, an inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola Prison Farm) from 1961 through 2001, wrote in 2010 that “slavery was commonplace in Angola with perhaps a quarter of the population in bondage” throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Weak inmates were gang-raped, and traded and sold like cattle. Rideau stated that “The slave’s only way out was to commit suicide, escape or kill his master.” C. Murray Henderson, one of the wardens brought in to clean up the prison, states in his memoirs that systemic sexual slavery was sanctioned and facilitated by the prison guards.


12.1% of young people questioned in a survey said that they’d been sexually abused at their current juvenile detention facility during the preceding year.


Rates of HIV/AIDS are several times higher inside US prisons than outside, just as they are much higher among black Americans than white. Incarceration for trivial offences in the US can amount to an unadjudicated death sentence.


Slavery and prison labour


Many Blues songs have been sung about Parchman Farm (Mississippi State Penitentiary). Blues musicians imprisoned there included Bukka White and Son House. Angola had some Blues singers also, including Robert Pete Williams and Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly). The land on which Angola Prison Farm stands was purchased by Isaac Franklin during the 1830s with the profits from his slave-trading firm. Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, authors of The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, said that Angola was “probably as close to slavery as any person could come in 1930.” Angola is still operated as a working farm; Warden Burl Cain once said “you’ve got to keep the inmates working all day so they’re tired at night.” In 2009, James Ridgeway wrote in Mother Jones magazine that Angola was “An 18,000-acre complex that still resembles the slave plantation it once was.


Prison labour has its roots in slavery. After the Civil War, freed slaves were incarcerated on trumped-up charges and then “hired out” for cotton picking, working in mines and building railroads. One has seen movie depictions of prison farms where prisoners are white – Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels, Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? In reality most inmates have been black. From 1870 until 1910 in the state of Georgia, 88% of hired-out convicts were black. In Alabama, 93% of “hired-out” miners were black. In Mississippi, a huge prison farm similar to the old slave plantations replaced the system of hiring out convicts. The notorious Parchman plantation existed until 1972.


Louisiana- the inmate state


Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration of any state in the USA. Of its 39,000 inmates, 70% are African-American. After BP’s Deepwater Horizon wellhead exploded, coastal residents, many of whom had just seen their livelihoods disappear and were desperate for work, were outraged to see that BP was using prisoners for the clean-up. in Grand Isle, Louisiana, where nine out of ten residents are white, the cleanup workers are almost exclusively African-American men. Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, sent a public letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward asking why black people were over-represented in “the most physically difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most significant exposure to toxins.”


The prison-industrial-military Gulag


Echoing Eisenhower’s warning about the US succumbing to the military-industrial complex, the term “prison-industrial complex” has been coined.
Increasing labour costs obliged business to undermine the power of domestic trade unions and to exploit the labour of developing nations. When the workers in those developing nations became more organised, labour costs increased and western capitalism had to seek another source of cheap labour. Between 1982 and 1994 the prison population of the USA rose 2.7-fold and most of the newly convicted were fit young people, mainly unemployed. Was this coincidence or was the increase in the prison population deliberately engineered to provide a large but very cheap work-force to meet the needs of labour-intensive industries?


There was certainly one example of a [democratically-elected] judge who was a major shareholder in a private prison who had no compunction about sentencing young men to work in his prison to increase his profits.
Western capitalism is capable of using the methods of Soviet Communism or German National Socialism. Stalin had the Gulag; the Third Reich used conquered peoples as slave labourers. Prison policy in the USA is no longer about justice, public safety or rehabilitating recidivists. It is about contracting out labour to industry. Investors do not need to worry about strikes or unemployment insurance. All of the workers are full-time, with no absenteeism.


The prison system is a multimillion-dollar industry with its own trade exhibitions, conventions and websites. It fits neatly into the military-industrial complex. According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens.


Sweat shops

Human rights organisations condemn sweat shops in Asia but they are also being operated in US prisons. At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations.IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, all profit from prison labour. Between 1980 and 1994, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. In privately-run prisons, inmates receive as little as 17 cents per hour, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison company is CCA (Correctional Corporation of America) in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for “highly skilled positions”. For any infraction, CCA inmates get 30 days added to their sentence- which means more profits for CCA. According to a study of New Mexico prisons, it was found that CCA inmates lost “good behavior time” at a rate eight times higher than those in state prisons.


Democracy and prisons


Prisoners don’t pay taxes or care for their children at home, and, because many states bar felons from voting, at least one in seven American black men will have lost the right to vote.


Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a famous book on democracy in America. He had initially gone to the USA to study the American prison system. James Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, who has studied Tocqueville’s work on American penitentiaries, was asked what accounted for America’s booming prison population.”Unfortunately, a lot of the answer is democracy — just what Tocqueville was talking about,” he said. “We have a highly politicized criminal justice system.”