Take a moment and think about that. If we're not the "most evil" country in the world -- i.e., the country with the greatest number of evil people in it -- then we Americans are doing something terribly wrong, because we have the greatest number of people incarcerated in our prisons.
If these people deserve to be locked up, then so be it. If they deserve it, then yes, one can make the case that America is home to the most rotten people in the world. While that label is not something to be proud of, we're stuck with it. But if these people don't deserve to be imprisoned, then shame on us, because all we're doing is messing with them.
Are we honestly afraid of all these people? Are we afraid of them or are we just mad at them? Is it retribution or punishment? Or is it a whole other deal, one having more to do with economics than "justice"? Are we running these people through the system in order to provide jobs for judges, police, bailiffs, counselors, court recorders, lawyers, probation officers, prison guards and bail bondsmen?
Another element is the rise of private ("for-profit") prisons, one of the more hideous features of that now ubiquitous phenomenon known as "outsourcing." Under this arrangement, when local, state or federal authorities can't (or choose not to) handle the influx of prisoners, they turn over all or part of the operation to private firms.
Even if we give these for-profit prisons the benefit of the doubt and willingly say they do a better job than government-run prisons (an assertion that has been repeatedly challenged), there's a disturbing component of self-interest involved here. In fact, it's not only disturbing, it's downright frightening.
In order to survive, these private facilities require a constant supply of prisoners. They need prisoners the same way sausage-makers need pigs. Indeed, just as a severe pig epidemic would ravage the sausage industry, a precipitous and sustained drop in the crime rate would ravage the for-profit prison industry.
Bizarre as it sounds, what we now have in the U.S. is a thriving industry that goes home at night and prays for more crime. It's true. Unlike the average citizen who clings to the belief that our society is gradually improving itself, these for-profit prisons (and the shareholders who invest in them) hope that our families and schools and churches will produce more criminals.
Ironically, violent crime (which the FBI classifies as murder, rape, and aggravated assault) has decreased dramatically over the last 15-20 years. For whatever reason (and there are numerous theories), we have become a demonstrably less violent society. Annual homicides now number roughly 16,000. By contrast, there are roughly 32,000 suicides per year.
With violent crime dropping, and Americans generally becoming more law-abiding, our for-profit prisons have been forced to look elsewhere. Accordingly, what they now focus on is exploiting illegal immigrants and drug users, which is why the private prison lobby opposes any meaningful attempt to reform our immigration and drug laws.
Putting people in prison for drug use has always been strange. Yes, drugs are illegal, and yes, they can't be ignored; but insisting that some poor schmuck be locked inside a cage because he wanted to get high seems harsh. And referring to these sorry-assed stoners as "criminals" isn't fair. We should call them what they are: "sausage."
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor, 2nd Edition), was a former labor union rep.