The Most Punitive Nation in the World

Maureen MurdockCriminal Justice System, Mental Illness15 Comments

prisoner in handcuffs

Robert A. Ferguson’s new book about our addiction to incarceration, Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment, asks a poignant question about our culture. Do we, as a people, have a drive to punish that is especially virulent? The statistics seem to indicate that we do.

According to Ferguson, the United States is the world leader in locking up human beings behind bars. “We are less than 5% of the world’s population, but we warehouse 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Our per capita incarceration rate is seven times greater than France’s, 14 times greater than Japan’s and 24 times greater than India’s.” This is in spite of a decrease in crime for the last three years. Is our obsessive desire for punishment a cultural trait spawned by our Puritanical heritage?

Our proclivity for incarceration costs American taxpayers about $80 billion a year and that does not include the indirect costs—financial and emotional– to families of the incarcerated and their communities. In 2007, there were 1.7 million children in the U. S. with a parent in prison. Imagine what impact that has on those children’s health, welfare and education.

What makes us the most punitive nation in the world? Ferguson surmises that “we are generally unable to understand the pain and suffering of others.” About one of every nine American prisoners is serving a life sentence, many of whom have no chance of parole, some 10,000 of them for nonviolent offenses (often drug possession). More than 50,000 prisoners are held in long-term solitary confinement, even though the United Nations has determined that solitary confinement for longer than 15 days amounts to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” A huge percentage of the prison population in this country suffer from a mental illness.

According to an article entitled “By the Numbers: Mental Illness Behind Bars” written by Sarah Varney in Kaiser Health News, in state prisons, 73% of women and 55% of men have at least one mental health problem; in federal prisons, the incidence of mental illness is 61% of women and 44% of men; and local jails house 75% of women and 63% of men with mental health issues.

I have written about this issue before but I am aware that stigmatization makes it easy to ignore the suffering of the incarcerated mentally ill and their families. Legislators, driven by the mandate to be tough on crime, don’t see the face of those caught in a system that exacerbates their condition. Prosecutors are assessed by their win-loss records, not by whether they have furthered the cause of justice. Judges are constrained by mandatory sentencing laws and are inured to the harshness of the penalties they impose. I hate to think that we are, indeed, a culture that is exceptionally punitive.

It is time to address both our sentence severity as well as our inability to face the fact that so many of our citizens are suffering from mental illness and need appropriate treatment, not incarceration. Prisons offer little in the way of rehabilitation or training for life after incarceration. Most prisoners are released with a cashier’s check for $200 and nowhere to go. Many are barred from housing, certain kinds of jobs, and voting. Their top priorities upon release are getting a job, keeping their families together, and healing from the trauma of prison–– a monumental task if you suffer from a brain disorder.

No wonder our recidivism rate is 67.5%. Ferguson, a professor of law and literature at Columbia University, notes that a dozen or more studies have been written denouncing the situation in recent years with little noticeable effect.

Passage of The Affordable Care Act—and its expansion of Medicaid—offers one positive step in caring for inmates who suffer from a mental illness. It is expected to connect previously uninsured ex-offenders with medical care and mental health treatment. However, in the short term, jails and prisons remain the places where those with severe mental illnesses will be housed in the United States.

Is this how we wish to be remembered?


15 Comments on “The Most Punitive Nation in the World”

  1. The connections to our historical roots as a puritan oriented country is a good analysis to share, Maureen. Those value have passed down through to the Victorian period that many of our own parents or grandparents grew up under, expecting that a person’s entire character is a result of their own adherence to a “godly” way of life–or not, leaving those suffering from social adjustment problems to be seen as perpetrators of their own bad values rather than as victims of social inequalities or chemical imbalances. I saw the same tendency to punish in schools. When we have social bureaucracies that are too large to deal more personally and humanely with “problem” kids or adults, we end up resorting to punitive measures that only exacerbate the problems. Thanks for helping elucidate various aspects of why we are where we are, Maureen.

  2. Excellent Maureen! We don’t have a Justice System, it’s a Punishment System. I agree with Heather, and we have to work hard to educate the next generation and change our culture of greed and inhumanity. Our cruelty to those with Mental Illness has no place in a civilized society. Thanks for all that you do so consistently and eloquently.

  3. The truth about the USA being “punitive” makes me very sad–how can we change this?It seems an enormous and almost impossible job to turn it around–I guess what you are doing by educating everyone is at least a beginning for change.Thanks, Maureen, for giving me the awareness of this.

  4. Yes, and it’s all probably about money and fear. We are probably the greediest nation in the world and prisons are big business – making money for the few at the expense of many. It’s quite disgusting.
    Thanks for posting.

  5. This is very powerful and timely. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has recently publicly called for a change in sentencing and prison conditions in the Federal system. However, most of the incarcerated felons in this country are under state criminal justice systems, some of which have contracted the imprisonment of their convicts to prisons owned and operated by private, for-profit industry. This has had terrible consequences for the prisoners for several reasons:
    (1) it further distances and isolates the legislatures, courts and executive branches of these states from the duty to provide humane conditions for prisoners, making this part of the criminal justice system merely an impersonal public expense equivalent to road and highway construction; (2) the profit motive of the prison operators encourages holding operating costs low, resulting in poorly trained and underpaid guards and staff; and (3) as with any for-profit business, particularly ones with publicly traded stock ownership, the incentive is to “grow the business and profits”, so lobbyists for these companies support more, not less, sentencing of prisoners to long terms for non-violent crimes, including mentally ill and drug use offenders. Our state governors and legislators need to be told that criminal justice is not just a budgetary item, it is a moral duty that was recognized over 200 years ago in the Bill of Rights’ prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment in the US Constitution. Moreover, the greatest failure of our present system in most states is the lack of education, modern vocational training, and post-incarceration support for prisoners, virtually guaranteeing recidivism as their only path to survival. I have been told by a reliable source that the recidivism rate for ex-felons who are able to hold jobs after release is 3 percent. Three percent!!! You would think it would be a no-brainer to invest public funds in post-release support programs to make this the norm rather than the exception.

    1. Thanks for your very thorough analysis, Bill. The other problem is that Governors, like Jerry Brown in California, make a big show of promising funds for rehabilitation and re-entry programs for inmates and then, when the press is no longer bringing attention to the issue, fail to deliver the promised programs.

  6. Maureen, I so appreciate you continuing to illuminate this vital issue. Just as we tend to blame others for whatever ills befall us, so we blame the mentally ill for their transgressions. Our society makes breaking laws a moral issue instead of taking responsibility for a broken system. (It does sound like echos of Puritan foundations.) I think when we provide better care for pregnant mothers, adequate support for broken families and therapy for troubled teens we will see fewer mentally ill persons in prison. In the mean time, we need to continue to do what you and others are doing to support our mentally ill before, during and after their prison stay… housing, jobs, community … support.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Marti. You’re right that the prison population would decrease if we, as a society, tackled core issues like troubled teens, broken families, and addiction. Ex-prisoners are in desperate need of housing, jobs, and community support.

  7. This is so eloquent, Maureen. Thank you. It raises the two most important questions of our time: Who are we? What kind of a society do we want to be?

    1. Thanks, Carolyn. You’re right. If we are going to seriously address these issues, we have to commit to becoming a sane society that treats others with wisdom and compassion, not punishment and retribution.

  8. Tragically, the incarcerated U.S. percentage rate is not surprising, which has increased expoentially with greed-driven Capitalism (more visibiy present in the 21st Century) and the spread of ego-consciousness, which feed on punishing those who fail to conform and use | consume those designated as expendable by Corporatism and the existing unjust “legal” system. Both create a culture of fear that dissolves integrity and seeds false judgment against others.

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