THE BLOG
01/18/2015 08:36 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2015

The American Gulag

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

If they were moved all at once, they could almost replace the population of Jamaica (2.7 million) and they would leave Qatar, Namibia, Macedonia, or Latvia swimming in extra people. I'm talking about the incarcerated in America -- an estimated 2.4 million people at any moment in "1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories." That's just about one of every 100 Americans, more than 60 percent of whom are people of color. Add in another almost five million on probation or in some way under the supervision of the criminal justice system and you've reached about seven million, the equivalent of the population of Serbia or Paraguay. In other words, a reasonably sized nation of prisoners.

Not surprisingly, that's also the largest prison population on Earth. No other country comes close. Put another way, on any day of your choice, the United States, with 5 percent of the world's population, has close to 25 percent of the people imprisoned on this planet. That population, by the way, has risen by 700 percent since 1970, a tidal movement for incarceration that only in recent years has shown small signs of finally ebbing. In short, state by state or as a country, the U.S. leaves the rest of the world in the dust. (USA! USA!)

And that's just to scratch the surface of what, if we were being honest, would have to be called the American Gulag, a vast carceral archipelago that no other country can match and into which millions of human beings are simply deep-sixed. The urge to reform such a system should be applauded, but as with so many "reforms" in our era, the latest "alternative" forms of confinement may, in the end, only be extending and expanding the prison system into other parts of American life. In her piece, "Your Home Is Your Prison," Maya Schenwar, editor-in-chief of Truthout and author of the new book Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn't Work and How We Can Do Better suggests that it may ensure that new concepts of how to lock down America are coming to a neighborhood near you.