The American Gulag Archipelago

Ed Raymond

The world’s most prolific and brutal jailers were Joseph Stalin of Soviet Russia and Adolph Hitler of Nazi Germany. Both created vast prisons scattered across thousands of miles in the 1930’s to “rehabilitate” dissidents, force millions into slave labor camps, warehouse political foes and the mentally and physically disabled, and fill huge pits and furnaces with those they ordered killed. It’s estimated that Stalin killed about 20 million with bullets and starvation while Hitler killed over six million with bullets and gas chambers. Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was a Russian soldier who served time in various prisons and labor camps, using his experiences to write two remarkable books about life in the “gulags” (prisons).
In “The Gulag Archipelago” he described life and death in 53 major prisons and 423 slave labor camps scattered across the nine times zones of Soviet Russia from 1929 to the 1950’s. Over 14 million Russians served time in the prisons and camps, over half never having a judicial trial. Over a million died in prison, but many older prisoners were sent home just before they died, so they are not recorded as dying in prison. Solzhenitsyn, a Nobel Prize winner, also wrote “One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich,” describing in great detail just one day in the life of Ivan who was sentenced to a long term in a Siberian labor camp. The Russian term “golden sweat” comes from the slave labor camps, meaning that Stalin and the Communists gained a lot of “gold” from slave labor.
If you want a refresher on Hitler’s Nazi Germany and his death camps, read William L. Shirer’s “The Rise And The Fall Of The Third Reich.” It’s a good read.

Are We Running Prison Islands Across Four Time Zones?

The United States may now rank third in the history of nations with the largest number of citizens behind bars. One in every 31 American adults is in jail or on some kind of supervised release. We lead the world in the number and ratio of people incarcerated. We have five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the prison population! At the present time we have 2.3 million behind bars and another seven million under some kind of “correctional supervision” (probation, court orders, etc.) Just prison inmates cost us $80 billion a year. Over 500,000 of our inmates are in for major or minor drug offenses. A gram of drugs may get you 15 years as a minimum sentence.
The U.S ranks first among all nations for the highest ratio of citizens behind bars at 716 per 100,000. Some comparative countries: Israel 223, England 139, Spain 125, Canada 116, France 85, and Sweden 73.  Western European countries average 95. In 1979 we had “only” 314,000 in prison. By 2013 we had 2.4 million. About 160,000 of these inmates are lifers, with a third without the possibility of parole. About 10,000 of the lifers are in prison for non-violent offenses. We are certainly “exceptional” in this category. Our prison population has increased steadily since we changed our philosophy about retaining victims of mental illness in psychiatric hospital beds. We have lost 90 percent of those psychiatric beds since 1960. Prison authorities estimate that over 15 percent of prison inmates have symptoms of severe mental illness.
We are talking big business. The states and the federal government employ 500,000 correctional officers who make up one out of every nine government employees. New York City spends a shocking $167,000 a year on each inmate in its jails. We could send three inmates to Harvard for that price.

The New Jim Crow Law: Put “Them” In Jail

We have more blacks under some kind of correctional control today than we had slaves in 1850. The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group dedicated to the study of crime and punishment, states that 60 percent of the prison population is now racial and ethnic minorities. As an example, one in every ten black males between 30 and 39 are in jail on any given day. One of every nine blacks regardless of age is in jail. By committing a “felony” one out of every 13 blacks have lost the right to vote. Over 5.8 million Americans cannot vote because of prison records. The war on drugs has turned into a war on blacks and Latinos–and a great money-maker for private prison companies infesting and desecrating the land. Remember the New York frisk law?  Eighty-seven percent of the 575,000 people stopped on the New York streets in 2009 were blacks and Latinos.
The largest private prison corporation in the country made offers to 48 governors to buy state-run prisons if they would guarantee to keep the prisons at 90 percent of capacity! Is this in the public interest? Arizona, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Virginia made deals with the private corporations–and have kept their guarantee to keep the prisons filled to 95 percent of capacity, regardless of the crime rate!
Chicago has black communities with incarceration rates triple the U.S. rate--which leads the world. These communities are marked by poverty, unemployment, poor schools, and dysfunctional families. Seventy percent of Illinois inmates are nonviolent, but community functions such as mental health and employment programs are lacking, so over 50 percent of former inmates of those communities return to prison within three years. The U.S. Congress commits the grand sum of $120 for rehab programs for discharged inmates.  How can an ex-prisoner return to society with that kind of support after suffering from poor schools, possible substance abuse, and other socioeconomic  disadvantages? Blacks and whites use and sell drugs at about the same rate, yet blacks are sent to prison 12 times greater than whites. Blacks make up about 13 percent of the population, constitute about 14 percent of drug users, but make up 45 percent of those servoing time for drug offenses.
George Bernard Shaw, an Irish socialist-atheist reprobate, founded The London School of Economics while writing 60 plays and numerous articles about marriage, religion, government boondoggles, health care, and the exploitation of the working class. A cynic of note, he scribbled this sentence about Jesus Christ appearing in a modern court:  
“If Jesus had been indicted by a modern court, he would have been examined by two doctors, found to be obsessed by a delusion; declared incapable of pleading (innocent or guilty); and sent to an asylum.”  This must be  how blacks feel when they go into a white man’s modern court.

How To Get Life In Prison Without Parole For Stealing Gobstoppers Candy

Move to Louisiana if you want to become a lifer without parole. It leads the whole world in the ratio of inmates to citizens. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is three times Iran’s, seven times China’s, and ten times Germany’s according to Charles Blow of the New York Times. One in 86 Louisiana citizens is in prison, double our national average, and it leads the nation in lifers without possibility of parole. It spends less than any other state on inmates.
Bill Winters, an alcoholic 54-year-old black with a long arrest record for minor burglaries, public drunkeness, and drug addiction, is an example of what happens to blacks in this world-leading state. In 2009, Bill in a drunken state, entered an unlocked doctor’s office and took a package of Gobstoppers candy. He was arrested by security. In a series of trials and appeals, Bill was finally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Dennis Winters had this to say about his brother’s sentence: “He’s not a violent person. He’s fragile. He wouldn’t hurt anybody except maybe for himself. I just don’t get how they’re going to give him life for some Gobstopper candy.” If Bill lives a normal lifespan of 80, he will spend 26 years in prison for taking a 25-cent box of candy. Bill might share a cell with another lifer without parole who stole a $159 jacket–or another who was caught siphoning gas from a truck! Another is there because he sold $10 worth of pot to an undercover officer. They are permanent residents of the American gulag archipelago.

Keeping Geriatric Inmates Is Getting To Be Very Expensive

In the infamous 5,000-inmate Angola  Prison in Louisiana over a third of the prisoners are over 50, with 859 between 55 and 64 years old.  Angola has 130 old offenders whose annual medical costs are over $100,000 each. And Louisiana runs a “cheap” prison system. We have over 250,000 inmates across the country who are classified as elderly and aging. After years of little or no medical care most of these inmates are in very poor health. Connecticut has so many elderly inmates with serious medical problems they are transferring some to private nursing homes. California is currently building an $839 million hospital for sick and elderly inmate patients. It will have room for 1,722 elderly patients. If you think this makes some sense, please let me know.
In the U.S. the annual cost of housing an average prisoner is $34,135. (Remember when Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich said it was cheaper to send a man to Penn State than to send him to the state pen?) An inmate over 50 costs an average $68,270. The average U.S. household has an income of $40,000. Is there any relationship among these figures? By 2030 over one-third of all prisoners will be over 55.
Is justice blind and dumb? Victor Hugo in the 19th Century published Les Miserables, the story of Jean Valjean, the escaped  convict who does “good” at every turn, and the stoic, implacable Inspector Javert who will travel to the ends of the earth to find Valjean and put him back as a convict rower in a ship. Javert defines blind justice with his great line: “It is a pity the law doesn’t allow me to be merciful.” In the longest novel ever written, Hugo attempts to answer questions about putting mercy into practice over the demands of the victims. It is an “arresting” question.

We Have Had Some Slight Improvements In Correctional Facilities In 150 Years

A memoir written by Austin Reed titled “The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison” outlines his 20 years spent in the Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York, starting in 1830. The 304-page manuscript was discovered by a rare-books dealer at an upstate New York estate sale. As a black child born of free parents in Rochester in the first part of the 19th Century, Austen got into trouble early and was sentenced to the New York House of Refuge, a very early juvenile reform school in Manhattan. He had knifed a white man who had whipped him for some offense. He learned to read and write there, but he was not rehabilitated and a series of thefts later sent him to Auburn.
At Auburn brutal punishments were the norm. Inmates suffered severe whippings and an early form of waterboarding called the “shower-bath.” The shower-bath was sometimes fatal.
Reed once suffered 67 lashes with a whip–and then had his back washed with a very salty brine. The cells had no candles and no windows. The inmates were forced to work ten hours a day in total silence. They were never allowed to speak, had no leisure time, and were forced to walk in lockstep when moved from one area to another. Access to reading materials was severely limited, although in his 20 years he read the Bible, Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” and William Cowper’s poem “The Morning Dream.”

As A World Leader, Shouldn’t We Do Something About What We Lead It In?

We lead the developed world in two major categories: (1) the number of prisoners per 100,000 population, (2) the number of guns and firearm deaths per 100,000. We have 88 guns and 10 firearm deaths per 100,000. For decades we have killed about 30,000 and wounded over 100,000 per year. How many billions does it take to bury that number and repair the guts, brains, hearts, and other parts of a mutilated body? One would think Tea Party Republicans and so-called conservatives would want to know the cost.
Inmates suffer humiliation, mutilation, rape, beatings, chain gangs, and sometimes the ultimate, death by electric chair, bullets, or drugs. Firearm victims suffer life-changing wounds, mental and physical mutilation, and death in caskets. Shouldn’t we attempt to find out why we lead the world in these two important categories?