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May 2002 • Vol 2, No. 5 •

US Prisons:

Horror Behind Bars


By Raisa Pages

The cells measure 2.3 by 3.3 meters and are designed so that inmates cannot see each other. They remain in this small space for 23 hours of the day and during the hour of exercise they are tied up in shackles. Food is given to them through the small opening in the door of their cell. This describes Pelican Bay State Prison in California, one of the most notorious in the United States for its cruelty.

The majority of U.S. states spend more money building prisons than schools. California has one of the largest prison systems in the world, and public funds allocated to maintaining the prison system are greater than what goes to education. Many more penitentiaries than schools have been built, a surprising reality, not only for its local repercussions, but also for its social significance in the most powerful nation in the world.

The United States has the unfortunate record of being the country with the largest prison population in the world, two million. The number of inmates increases at an alarming rate of 50 percent every 10 years.

With 5 percent of the global population, it harbors 25 percent of the prisoners reported worldwide. The U.S. Justice Department asserts that there are 690 prisoners for every 100,000 inhabitants, much higher than the European average of less than 100 inmates.

Lucrative business

The privatization of prisons in the United States has become a lucrative business, something truly incredible. “The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), as this private industry is called, is the biggest beneficiary of penal policy, based on repression and punishment more than reintegration and education,” journalist Marta Caravantes commented.

Comparative studies indicate that private prisons register costs of 10-15 percent less than those of public institutions, and that cost efficiency is reflected in the lower quality of inmates’ food and medical services, lower salaries and other conditions, all in the name of profit.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution legalizes these practices by adopting the exception: slavery and forced labor are not prohibited from being applied “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

With $7 billion in new investments every year, the prison industry’s annual budget exceeds $35 billion and has more than a half million workers, making it the second largest employer in the United States after General Motors.

Caravantes considers the private correctional facilities, which employ the cheapest labor on the whole continent, without social protection, a prosperous business extending through 27 states and including 120 penitentiaries. Prisoners package products for Microsoft, Starbucks and Jansport and also provide labor for other companies.

“Behind the growth of the Prison Industrial Complex are Wall Street firms and banks that primarily supply the funds for the construction of private prisons,” denounces Monica Moorehead, coordinator of the Millions for Mumia Abu-Jamal, an African-American freedom fighter who has been battling his death sentence for over 20 years. Abu-Jamal is one of the best-known prisoners in the world for his restless struggle against the injustices of the U.S. system.

Some believe that an effort is under way to export private prisons to Latin American and Europe. The largest of the U.S. prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America, is operating in England and some companies want to invest in Mexico, seeking greater profits from prisoners outside their national territory.

Twenty-five U.S. states continue allowing the execution of mentally retarded prisoners, denounced by the organization Human Rights Watch.

U.S. prisons are currently being transformed into new concentration camps to imprison the homeless, unemployed, intoxicated, mentally ill and other minorities who are cannon fodder in the current U.S. justice system, according to specialist Jerome G. Miller, an expert on the prison system and social reintegration techniques, cited in Sally Burch’s article, published on the Internet.

More than 60 percent of the inmates belong to racial minorities and ethnic groups. African-Americans account for 12 percent of the total population but fill half the prisons of the United States and receive disproportionate sentences. In New York, one out of every three young black men is imprisoned or on parole.

Estimates on the current rate of African-American imprisonment indicate that the majority of men between 18 and 49 years of age will be incarcerated within a decade. In some cities, one third of young African-American men are awaiting trial or already imprisoned.

The treatment of Native Americans involves the same violations of human rights. The most prominent case is that of Leonard Peltier, who has been imprisoned for over 26 years after an extremely irregular trial.

The International Action Center of New York has labeled the U.S. prison system the institution which legalizes racist oppression and apartheid, a new type of segregation reserved for the lowest and most marginalized classes.

Hispanics and African-Americans are victims of this cruel prison policy. Considered a social problem, they are locked up to prevent them from bothering whites of the comfortable class.

The five Cubans, convicted unjustly last year in an illegal trial and given excessive sentences, are part of this racist policy. These men, whose mission was to protect Cuba from criminal actions perpetrated by counterrevolutionary groups based in Miami, are currently imprisoned throughout the United States, the country that has massacred the Afghan people under the justification of fighting terrorism.

Ripping out eyes and other hair-raising self-mutilations by disturbed prisoners are not just scenes from U.S. cinema, where prison dramas have become recurring themes.

Journalist Sasha Abramsky denounced the punishments meted out by the prison guards in an article published in American Prospect magazine, in which she asserts that maximum security prisons have become the technological equivalent of the snakes’ nest.

Horrified by the violence characterizing U.S. prisons, psychiatrist Terry Kupers, author of the book “Prison Madness,” considers these centers the largest mental asylums in the United States, due to the doubling of the number of patients interned in the state institution specialized in dementia, reports Inter Press Service.

The treatment received by U.S. prisoners is directed at degrading human beings instead of improving their mental state. Kupers declared how in solitary confinement cells, he was struck by the level of psychosis in prisoners, who scream profanities, injure themselves and are covered in excrement.

The weakening of the U.S. mental health system in recent decades, which reduced psychiatric wards to a minimum, is one of the reasons why prisons are full of mentally ill people, according to a study published by the British magazine The Lancet. The federal budget approved this year does not provide a solution to the problem.

The authors of the study, psychiatrist Seena Fazel of Oxford University and British medical doctor John Danesh of Cambridge selected 12 industrialized countries for their long-term study.

One of every seven inmates in the 12 developed nations, more than one million people, suffer from psychosis or deep depression which could lead to suicidal behavior. In addition, one in two men and one in five women suffer from personality disorders, the experts confirmed.

One year ago, another denunciation, made by Human Rights Watch, called for U.S. legislation prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded prisoners, currently practiced in 25 states, according to that organization. In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the execution of mentally retarded people was constitutional. At that moment only two of the 50 states prohibited it, although the number in favor of eliminating the practice has risen to 13.

Many sick people on death row remain in legal limbo, wondering what their destiny will be.

Raisa Pages is an international staff writer for Granma, English language newspaper of Cuban Communist Party.





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