Imagine a country where criminals are kept in prisons close to their homes, the inmates have TVs in their rooms, even their sexual partners are allowed to visit them in private.
In such a country, you’d think people might be lining up to get incarcerated. But as a prisoner rights advocate explained at a conference on campus this spring, in the country in question, Sweden, the imprisonment rate is 64 per 100,000 people. In the United States, home of “the slammer,” the rate is more than 10 times greater — 690 per 100,000, the advocate said.
Certain aspects of U.S. society may be the envy of the civilized world, but our corrections system apparently isn’t one of them. Scholars and human rights advocates at the two-day Accountability in the Treatment of Prisoners conference, organized by the Law School’s Center for Civil and Human Rights, said foreign democracies are appalled by Americans’ apathy toward conditions in their prisons and the sheer volume of citizens we lock up.
The U.S. prison population has more than quadrupled since 1980 to nearly 2 million people, according to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. At this rate, the group estimates, one in 20 children today will serve time in a state or federal prison during their lifetimes.
Jamie Fellner, associate counsel for the group, said one of every 142 residents of the United States is currently behind bars, a rate second only to Rwanda. In the African country, the mass lockup is an outgrowth of the ethnic genocide of several years ago. In the United States, the most oft-cited reasons are the war on drugs and get-tough-on-crime policies that have been popular politically since the early 1980s.
In opening the conference, Juan Mendez, director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, stated, “The worth of a democracy has to be measured by the treatment of the least privileged of the society.” If so, the United States has reason to be concerned.
Earlier this year Human Rights Watch issued a 378-page report detailing the prevalence of male rape in U.S. prisons. Conference speakers said conditions actually have improved in many countries’ prisons in recent years as a result of governments allowing independent monitors. But the United States has been, in the words of one speaker, “allergic” to any outside monitoring.
Conditions in U.S. prisons are widely expected to worsen in coming years as a result of overcrowding. Robert J. Ohlemiller, deputy commissioner of the Indiana Department of Corrections, said his agency projects a 20 percent increase in the prison population over the next five years. At the same time the department is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain employees. “Understaffed prisons,” he said, “are dangerous.”
“People expect a continued decline of standards and then another Attica,” said Ken Falk, legal director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, referring to the deadly prison riot in western New York in 1971.
If little political will exists in the United States to improve prison conditions, it’s probably because today’s voters are more apt to look at prisons as places of punishment, where criminals get their “just desserts,” than as resources for rehabilitation, conference speakers said. If prison conditions are unpleasant, maybe that will discourage people from committing crimes.
But Fellner of Human Rights Watch said “certainty of arrest” has been found to be far more of a deterrent to crime than harsh prison conditions. And she said tolerating rape and other abuse goes against a fundamental principal of justice, namely: “People are put in prison as a punishment, not to be punished.”
Ed Cohen is an associate editor of this magazine.Links