The modern American prison system evolved as an alternative to flogging: penitentiaries were designed to “cure” prisoners of their criminality—to render them penitent—rehabilitating them into productive members of society. On this score, as on most others, it has failed. Indeed, prisons seem to cause more crime than they prevent, hardly surprising when you throw a bunch of criminals together with nothing to do and lots of time. Today roughly 2.3m people live in America’s prisons, more than live in any American city other than New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. America’s incarceration rate of 750 per 100,000 is five times the world average; roughly one in every 31 Americans—and one in every 11 African-Americans—is under some form of correctional control, whether prison, probation or parole. England and Wales have now exceeded 85,000. In France, with the same population as Britain, prison numbers are 59,655 and in Germany with over 20 million more people, 72,043. The US system would mean about half a million in gaol here.
Nearly all of us think we are too lenient – one only has to look at the number of cases Ambush Predator raises and such matters as 1 in 30 rapes being committed by released rapists to think we should imprison more. Yet the same matters should also lead us to wonder why criminality is so high and why apparent year on year on year drops in recorded crime and what the BCS picks up do not tally with actual increasing numbers in prison and our feelings more should be going for longer. In the US the greater numbers banged up, often in dire conditions, has not acted as a deterrent.
About one third of UK men pick up a ‘list one’ conviction and about 6% do so 5 or more times. A quarter of people in the US have criminal convictions, but I don’t know if their ‘list’ is comparable – it’s still 65 million people.