Hooked in America

Prison 2

Prison 2 (Photo credit: planetschwa)

I just read an article by Nick Wing pointing out that the United States puts a greater percentage of its population in jail than any other OECD country. The OECD distinction excludes a number of countries that have poor regard for individual freedom, countries like Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and South Africa, but among countries that do at least claim to value personal rights, we are the worst in this regard. We are worse than Rwanda, worse even than Cuba.

But it’s more than merely numbers.  Doing this is costing us big bucks. According to the Wikipedia page on “prison”, the cost of keeping these people locked up last year was $74,000,000,000, or in Congress-speak, 74 Billion. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg because the prison population is aging and in generally poor health, and that means the bill for prisoner healthcare is due to rise fast. Not that healthcare for prisoners is anything to brag about. Consider this from the Wiki section on healthcare for women in America’s prisons:

Policies regarding health treatment at prison institutions often limit the availability of care. For example, at many institutions women must wait in lines in strenuous conditions until designated times for most medical treatments and medications. Medical treatment oftentimes needs to be requested and approved by correctional officers with little or no medical training. Due to the geographic isolation of prisons and the comparatively low wages offered, there is a lack of qualified and experienced healthcare professionals willing to work in prison which reduces the quality of care offered. Overcrowding and poor environmental facilities exacerbate the problem.

And as for the accommodations, it says this:

American prisons are overcrowded. As of 2009, California’s 158,000 inmates were detained in prisons that were designed to hold 84,000—almost 14,000 of these inmates were sleeping in very tight spaces, or in hallways, or on floors. People are also being incarcerated at an increasing rate and new prisons cannot be built fast enough.

The main reason for our soaring prison population seems to be the abject failure of the so-called War on Drugs and the states’ desire to fight the problem by mandatory sentences which deny judges the authority to exercise any discretion. In effect, our culture has decided to warehouse the problem away from public view at the expense of human suffering, even though about half those in for drugs are there not for distributing but for using.  Many are in for marijuana, something now legalized in several states.  Sending such people to prison seems idiotic to me when they could be out working under supervision.

High resolution scan of engraving by Gustave D...

High resolution scan of engraving by Gustave Doré illustrating Canto XXXIV of Divine Comedy, Inferno, by Dante Alighieri. Caption: Lucifer, King of Hell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m sure some will label me a bleeding-heart for feeling sorry for criminals, and that’s fine, but I’d like any who do to explain to me why it seems to be Christian-based Republicans who most support this policy. Jesus considered everybody worth saving I thought.  Instead, those who have addictive metabolisms and happen to get hooked in America are finding themselves committed to some kind of lower level of hell.

I was glad to read recently that Attorney General Eric Holder has launched prosecution guidelines that may reduce the number of mandatory sentences for some, but it won’t surprise me if the House GOP majority finds some way to squelch it.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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5 Responses to Hooked in America

  1. Jeff says:

    This is a topic well-worth discussing and I am glad you brought it up.

    A few points of context:
    1) The problem largely started in 1980. If we were living in 1980, then you could walk up to today’s prisons and number people of by fives, and four of those five would be walking free in the earlier system.
    2) Many of the Mandatory Sentencing laws and 3 strikes laws, like the “Stand your ground” laws were written by ALEC, In other words, the legal system a potential prisoner has to face is shaped by laws written to ensure profits for Correctional Corporation of America and The GEO Group.
    3) It is arguable that many of our laws are over-broad and allow for selective enforcement. That means that you have a risk of using arbitrary punishment to suppress political dissidence.
    4) It is estimated that something like 95% of crimes are settled out of court, so that means that large sentences are likely being used as a club to force the innocent to accept lesser charges.
    5) Any conviction will tend to make it harder to get a job afterward and not being able to get a job is probably the biggest risk-factor in recidivism.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You pose several interesting aspects of the problem, Jeff, including the notion that there may be institutional motivation for keeping the prison population high. That’s something that never occurred to me and I intend to keep it in mind as I read. Also, I wasn’t aware of ALEC. The idea of using plea bargaining to “suppress political dissidence” seems outlandish, in this country at least, but I would be interested if you have any actual evidence of that. Thanks for chiming in.


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    Step one is legalize most drugs and tax the hell out of them. That resolves your prison population problems to a great extent. Purchasing drugs and using them becomes legal. However actions while “high” remain illegal, like driving, etc.

    I seriously doubt that the rate of addiction will skyrocket if such happens. Sane people (addicts are not sane by my definition) can drink in moderation and receive the benefit of such use of alcohol, wine with dinner for example. Why not a “dubbie” after dinner even in a public place to eat, I wonder?

    BUT, I recently saw a program on TV about CA judges having to let parole offenders go without incarcerration. The “clip” showed outrageous cases where such violators then proceeded to kill people. The problem of overcrowding exacerrbates that problem. Our Justice system cannot make rational decisions WHO to lock up or keep locked up.

    I am far from being a “bleeding heart” liberal for sure. But I “feel sorry” for anyone addicted to drugs or alcohol. Such use itself is however a PERSONAL (and only to a limited degree a medical) problem and can only be corrected by personal changes in behavior, the use of drugs or alcohol. There are as well many effective and FREE programs available to help (but not cure) people with such addictions. Don’t take my word for it. Go talk to “James” at our local Water Garden, a man “in the trenches” fighting that problem all the time. There are others around town as well doing the same thing.

    BUT, when illegal actions are taken as a result of addiction, theft to support a habit, rage and public assualts, etc. then law enforcement MUST step in and incarrcerate such offenders for sure. Public safety demands such actions.

    “Jails, institutions or death” are the inevitiable result of chemical addiction, whether such chemicals are legally obtained or illegally obtained. Like it or not, addiction has been proven to be a progressive disease.

    Law enforcement will not change that FACT. You may disagree with such a “strong” statement. But I suggest it was said many years ago based on brutal experience and that statement continues to be proven time and time again, even today as it applies to addiction. But law enforcement is NOT the solution to addiction and thus far medical science is not very effective as well. We all know that prohibition failed miserably to “fix” addiction, do we not? Yet we continue to “prohibit” the use of drugs today? Does that not confuse you?



  3. Jim Wheeler says:

    We all know that prohibition failed miserably to “fix” addiction, do we not? Yet we continue to “prohibit” the use of drugs today? Does that not confuse you?

    Nope, I’m not confused at all, even though I have no direct experience with addiction, fortunately. I truly enjoy a glass of wine and I feel sorry for those who can’t. And Prohibition is an excellent example of how morality can not be legislated.

    My wife and I are currently catching up on episodes of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” which is easily the classiest and most brilliant TV series we have ever seen, and if you haven’t seen it, it happens to be about illegal drugs. It is worthy of Shakespeare in my opinion, a morality play in tens of acts.

    I recognize that your experience with addiction supersedes my own, so I accept your assertion that it is a “progressive disease”. I’m happy to hear you endorse legalization of “most” drugs, which is the same conclusion I came to many years ago. “Breaking Bad” is excellent dramatization of how the criminal activity that derives from exploiting illegal drugs is worse than mere addiction of the vulnerable in the population. I’m glad too that you recognize the critical role that benign government needs to play in the problem.


  4. ansonburlingame says:

    “Benign government”!!! My goodness, I have been calling for that for a LONG time, for sure. Actually I use the term “limited government”. In areas such as National Security we should not be “benign” at all.

    You have long criticized me for my “rants” against “no loads”. You find me far too rude, lack compassion, etc. in such matters. But I would hope you can begin to understand WHY I call for far less government and far more personal corrective action on the part of MANY that have a huge personal problem with addiction. That DISEASE is the root cause of many crimes in America, directly or indirectly. Yet it is a disease that medical science has not yet found a way to cure, or even mitigate, with a “;pill”, etc.

    As for legalization of most drugs, I have already stated my view that addiction rate, new people becoming addicted, will not “skyrocket” if such happens. But there is a rate that might go up, rather steeply. It is the sucide rate. Taking a bottle of pills is the “easy way out”, much less “painful” than jumping off a bridge, etc. People that are not addicted might well avail themselves of suicidal levels of “pills” or chemicals.

    If we legalize drugs, then self euthanazia MIGHT become a huge public debate. Certainly no need for Dr. Kovorkian when such happens. As well, physicians won’t make money with office calls simply to get a prescription for a “hang nail” that hurts.



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