We have listened to continued exclamations of American “exceptionalism”, especially during the Teapublican presidential primaries. The idea being that the United States is an extraordinarily special country on this planet and that to question any of its practices and policies borders on treason. But while this country careens down the path of unprecedented disparity of wealth and the calculated denuding of its educational system and degrading of its physical country, the United States has become truly “exceptional” for imprisoning more of its citizens than any nation on earth.
Amazingly, the United States has 760 prisoners per 100,000 which is simply barbaric, particularly when compared to other developed countries – Japan: 63 per 100,000, Germany: 90 per 100,000, Britain: 153 per 100,000. With all the crime and turmoil in Mexico (208 per 100,000) and Brazil (242 per 100,000), the incarceration rates in these countries are dwarfed by the American propensity to put its citizens in jail.
A further examination of these sad statistics reveals an even deeper flaw in the American system of injustice. The huge numbers of men and women who are arrested on drug charges drive the narrative of America as a jailer nation. The harsh, draconian sentencing mandates that are the weapons of the failed war on drugs have placed hundreds of thousands of Americans in prison for decades with incredibly dysfunctional results.
The lives of these men and women are devastated, stripped of any hopes and dreams by imprisonment as well as the punitive measures that are imposed upon ex-convicts that deny even minimal opportunities for education, employment and advancement.
The families of America’s inmates are also left without parents and spouses with horrific social and economic impact. Entire communities have been eviscerated as too many young men (and women) are carted off to serve decades in prison only to return with no skills or skills best suited for mayhem.
The human cost is almost matched by the insane economic cost to this country. In efforts to appear to be “tough on crime” prisons have popped up across this country like poison mushrooms after the rain. As the Teapublicans rant and rave about the need to reduce the size of government and diminish the services that government should provide to the American people, there always seems to be money available for more prisons.
Consider one set of statistics – since 1980 the state of California has built exactly one college. During the past thirty years the state of California has built 21 prisons. This is a very sad reflection on a country with priorities that are obscenely out of balance.
As already noted, the worst part of this scenario is that this United States of Jail has been created by a totally failed war on drugs. Every study regarding the issue of drugs in society has come to the conclusion that a penal solution is simply no solution at all. Yet this country has spent $1 trillion during the past forty years in this fake war. The result has been the creation of illicit drug cartels that have become multibillion dollar enterprises. In the process resources that could have been used for education, treatment, infrastructure development and economic investment have instead been used for prisons, prison guards and technology that never seems to lessen drug traffic – it only increases the profit margins for the drug dealers.
History is full of stories of nations that got locked into a certain culture or ideology and could not change – and then they were gone. The Roman Empire and the former Soviet Union come to mind. And while we are probably not going to see the United States disappear any time soon, we are certainly witnessing the not so slow deterioration and weakening of this country through the pursuit of policies that hurt millions of people and thousands of communities.
No country can continue to withstand the kind of internal erosion that comes putting millions of people in prison for long periods of time. That the reason for imprisonment has to do with essentially social and cultural choices makes the situation all the more tragic. Too many countries have found ways to decriminalize drug use without turning their cities into modern day versions of Sodom and Gomorrah.
What we do know is that the American approach to drug use has turned to many cities into battlefields and has turned the entire country into some kind of weird 21st century gulag.
What we also know is that this policy is unsustainable. American exceptionalism is also supposed to encompass creativity and innovation. Clearly it is time for that kind of exceptionalism to make itself known.