In the Media

Welcome to Incarceration America | Sadhbh Walshe

PUBLISHED January 4, 2012

The US locks up a greater proportion of its population than any other country in the world. This fact bears closer examination

We like locking people up in America. If incarceration were an Olympic sport, the United States would come away with every gold medal available and break a few world records in the process. On average, Americans are locked up at a rate (pdf) four times higher than any other nationality, and we have the world's largest female prison population by a considerable margin.

Before the "get tough" policies adopted in the 1970s, less than 200,000 on average were behind bars. Now that number is closer to 2 million. That may make you feel more safe, or less, if you consider that all of our chances of ending up in prison someday have increased exponentially. With that in mind, we kind of owe it to ourselves to at least know what goes on behind prison walls.

With this new series, we hope to shed some light on what life is like inside our prisons by hearing directly from inmates, their families, correction officers and anyone else whose life is impacted by the practice of incarceration.?So far, my correspondence with inmates has revealed a fascinating world of endurance, resourcefulness, terrible choices, terrible cruelty and a lot of pain and suffering.

The most disturbing aspect of the corrections model, as it currently stands, however, is how much it has failed to either rehabilitate offenders or deter them from re-offending. No matter how harsh the prison stay, at least four in ten inmates will end up back inside (pdf), soon after their release ? usually on a more serious charge and for a longer, and more expensive, stay.

One of my correspondents, who is 20 years into a life sentence he earned for a crime he committed while serving time for a lesser offense, gave me his take on why prisons are often better at turning small-time crooks into full-on felons rather than model citizens.

"We do not live in a civilised society here. It could be, but rather than separate repeat violent offenders and have programs/services designed to show young, confused, antisocial people how to become productive members of society once released, or just allow them to learn enough in a safe enough environment to be able to draw on later when they run out of piss and vinegar, they throw us all together with a pile of bones to fight over like hungry dogs."

It's no surprise that prison yards are brutal places or that overcrowding and deteriorating conditions would lead them to be even more so. What is surprising is that rather than trying to reduce prison populations or improve conditions, the response has been to build tougher, meaner prisons to contain the violence by isolating the so-called "worst of the worst" in Secure Housing Units (SHUs), otherwise known as the "box" or the "hole" ? or, in polite parlance, a solitary confinement cell. My correspondent described how he earned his place in one of these solitary units two years into his prison stay.

"I came to the SHU for being involved in a mel?e. That's how it was described in my write-up. Doesn't sound so bad right? A donnybrook, a knockabout, a mel?e, involving myself and five other prisoners. There were some escalating racial tensions on the yard at that time. Several white folks had been stabbed or beaten in previous months.

"I was actually only out there waiting on a transfer to another prison. Had a bus ticket already and I expect the course of my life would have been much different had I caught that bus. But somebody said something somebody else didn't like and the next thing flat, there were four guys on one side and two of us on the other, trying to make the others meet with Jesus. We fought with knives and chains and teeth and claws.

"I got an additional two years added to my sentence, a one-way ticket to the SHU, 40 stitches, a broken hand and a nice little scar as a reminder."

Eighteen years later, he's still in the SHU, and presumably, his chance of inflicting violence on other inmates or being subjected to violence has considerably diminished. Still, the SHU has its downside. Aside from driving many occupants to the insane asylum or to suicide, they come with the rather hefty price tag ? of approximately $75,000 per inmate per year, about three times the cost of a regular prison stay (pdf). So far, this guy's prison term has cost the taxpayer around $1,350,000.

One can't help but wonder what a difference it might have made to his life, or to the lives of others like him, had even a fraction of that sum been invested in his well-being before the spectre of prison crossed his horizon.

Not every person who gets locked up has such an extreme experience, nor are they all choir boys who have been falsely accused. But when you consider the degenerative nature of incarceration and the fact that we generally accept that prisons are hellholes that drive both captor and captive to do terrible things, you'd think we'd be doing everything in our power to keep people out of them.

We're not, of course, and for the time being, nearly 2 million people are languishing behind bars, some deservedly so, others not so much. It's easier, I realise, to turn a blind eye, but we should know what goes on inside our prisons. After all, even if you never end up in one yourself, you will be paying dearly for the many others who will.

Interested parties should write to:

Sadhbh Walshe
PO Box 1466
New York, NY 10150

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