06/25/2013 01:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Number One With a Bullet: America's Prison Paradise


The United States locks away more of its citizens, per capita and in simple, raw numbers than any other country on the planet. We're number one with a bullet -- even though you don't necessarily have to commit a crime with a bullet to get in. Eat your hearts out, wicked despots of the world. You're not the only ones who get to laugh your sinister little laugh, and yell, "Throw away the key."

Patriots and politicians alike often tell us that detractors and terrorists hate us for our freedoms. While these national cheerleaders might be right -- it's hard for me to say, as I'm not inside the mind of a terrorist -- I suspect some of our enemies might be jealous of us for a completely different reason. Our astonishing rate of incarceration could very well cause a crisis of confidence in the most ardent of radical militants and haters out there who are trying to keep up with us when it comes to crushing the dreams of millions of people -- meaning the folks behind bars, and their families.

If you think our detention rate, which clocks in at about 716 souls (figures vary) for every 100,000 citizens, is a reeking paradox when held up against our civil liberties, you're right. China, a regular target of human rights criticism, imprisons around 118 people for every 100,000 residents. America's total prison population is well over 2 million, while China, with a significantly larger civilian population living under much tighter governmental controls, has just over 1.6 million inmates locked away. Even if those numbers are adjusted to include prisoners held in detention centers, China is only on par with the United States as far as overall numbers go, but still lags way behind on a per capita basis.

What this means is that an American, statistically speaking, has a greater chance of losing his or her freedom than someone living in China, Egypt or Russian, and quite likely (although figures are hard to verify) a resident of that bastion of personal freedom, North Korea. That's saying a lot.

If you happen to be black, male and American, your chances of going to prison increase dramatically -- around six times the rate of whites, although thankfully that figure has dropped in recent years. While these high detention rates might create a "prison paradise" for the good people running and profiting from the prison industry, it's bad news for taxpayers (31,000 dollars on average or more per inmate annually), and society as a whole.

For a nation that prides itself on liberty, the ability of the government to take away that liberty for years and decades, based upon harsh minimum sentencing laws, is hard to abide. Irrespective if you agree or disagree with certain laws, especially those concerning the import, distribution and manufacture of prohibited pharmaceutical substances and plants, also known as the "war on drugs," the amount of prison time handed down for violations of these laws has gone from a hard-hitting tool designed to curb crime rates, to a crime in itself.

I've lived in countries, mostly in Europe, where marijuana, prostitution and jaywalking are all technically illegal. Even so, if the police catch you jaywalking with a couple of hookers on your arm and a joint dangling from your lips (don't try this at home, kiddies), you probably won't get arrested -- as long as you're not disturbing the peace. While the authorities don't encourage these kinds of activities, society, and the justice system have decided not to waste valuable resources on small fry like you.

Armed robbers, killers and serial rapists should be locked up for lengthy periods of time, without a doubt. Other criminals pose less of an ongoing risk to society. If the vacuum left by jailing someone (a street-level dope slinger, for example) is easily filled, thus offsetting the community's need for and the cost of severe prison sentences, money and time are wasted, not to mention the life that's left rotting behind bars.

How can we continue to claim that we're one of the most open societies on Earth, while still reserving the right to take away the freedom of our citizens for disproportionate lengths of time when compared to the crime committed, on a scale larger than any dictator, totalitarian government or military junta could ever hope to match? "Do the crime, do the time" when blindly applied leads to a nation of criminals.

Americans are an extremely competitive lot, which has benefited our society immeasurably, yet when it comes to caging our fellow citizens for years on end, perhaps we should step back and let another nation take the lead for a while. We don't always have to be number one.