Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Gulag Americana

Alexander Solzhenitsyn made famous the phrase "Gulag Archipelago" to describe the system of penal servitude and internal exile instituted by the old Soviet Union. Millions of Soviet citizens, quite frequently innocent of any crime, or honest revolutionaries who crossed an invisible ideological Rubicon, were capriciously ensnared in this vast and degrading enterprise.

Anybody who has watched the recurring MSNBC series "Lockdown" knows that over the last 30 years we have initiated our own internal Gulag, what may be aptly called "Gulag Americana." This nation of prisons is spread throughout our country, from sea to shining sea. Of course, many who deserve incarceration, dysfunctional criminals who have victimized law-abiding citizens, populate it. There is, however, a base line that can be established for western industrialized nations regarding the proportion of their citizens jailed at any given time, which is approximately 1 in 1000. That was the historic rate in the U.S. until the 1980s, and the current rate in most European countries. Based on that statistic we should have approximately 300,000 people in our prisons. In point of fact, we have a nationwide inmate population of about 2.1 million, a rate 7 times greater than should be the norm. This is a result of our "war on drugs" which has had a disproportionate effect on minority, in particular, African-American, males. As a result nearly one third of all young African American males 20-35 year of age will have spent time in jail during their lifetime, with all the stigma and trauma associated with that experience. This criminalization of a whole demographic is unprecedented in the annals of modern civilization. The Prison-Industrial Complex, which has been spawned by the “war on drugs” profits enormously from the vast outpouring of public funds needed to maintain and expand our homegrown gulag. The article referenced by the above link was written in 1998 and a decade later things have only gotten worse with an increase in the prison population of 300,000 (16%) from 1.8 to 2.1 million. During the same decade our total population has grown at an 11% clip from 270 to 300 million. In other words, the problem is becoming ever more acute as our prison population continues to grow at an ever increasing rate relative to total population growth.

As reported at ScienceDaily, "The mammoth increase in the United States' prison population since the 1970s is having profound demographic consequences that disproportionately affect black males.” Obviously the ramifications of our insane system of criminal injustice are having profound societal effects. It means that at present there is an excess of 1.8 million inmates incarcerated in our jails. People who under any regime of human and civil rights should be getting treatment for their addiction and given gainful employment. If the number of non-violent inmates housed in our jails is factored into our unemployment statistics it would raise our unemployment rate from the current 5.7% to nearly 7%. Of course, when the true unemployment rate is calculated using the parameters employed in the 1960s it’s more on the order of 12% or 13% if convicts are factored in as well. It can be readily seen that the burgeoning prison population particularly amongst young adult African American males is a convenient release valve for chronic unemployment in our county’s inner cities. Better to have the proletariat languish in jail than be on the streets “looking for trouble.”

So what are the implications of the “Gulag Americana?” They are that our gulag is a systemic part of our socio-political order. It is as much an assault on human rights as the Soviet system ever was and the devastating impact it is having on untold millions of our citizens is for all intents an untold story that our candidates for office will not even discuss.

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