The United States of America, “land of the free,” currently incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any other nation. Since 1980, the prison population has quadrupled to more than 1.3 million, with over 3,600 of these prisoners on death row. Every week, according to The New York Times, “the nation’s prison population swells by about one thousand—enough to fill two new prisons. This growth has occurred even as the crime rate has fallen, by about 16 percent since 1995.”
The federal government has predicted that one of every eleven million men will be imprisoned during his lifetime. It is generally accepted that this “prison boom” is simply the response to a crime wave, but Joseph T. Hallinan suggests that powerful and largely hidden financial motives make it necessary for Americans to be “tough on crime.” He charges that the bogey of rising crime is used to justify the creation of a “prison-industrial complex,” just as the threat of Communism and Soviet expansionism was used to justify the creation of a military-industrial complex in the 1950’s and 1960’s. According to Hallinan, prisons have become public works projects which require a steady flow of inmates to sustain them. This presents the image of the poor, the underprivileged, the uneducated, the unemployed, and the mentally impaired being used as scapegoats.
The nation’s highly publicized “war on drugs” has been a major factor in filling its prisons to overcapacity and forcing the federal and state governments to build more prisons, bigger prisons, and more cost-efficient prisons to house all the men and women imprisoned for drug possession. Most of the new prisons are intentionally placed in areas far removed from where the majority of felonies are actually committed. America’s small towns in regions that have been hard hit by the radical changes in the economy have discovered that prisons, far from being undesirable neighbors, can mean salvation. Prisons provide employment for young men and women who would otherwise move away to look for jobs, leaving hometowns to decay.
Small towns across America are competing and clamoring for the economic panacea of prisons. Fremont County in Colorado, home to thirteen prisons, boasts of being the Corrections Capital of the World. Local residents love their new prisons. A sandwich shop in Tamms, Illinois, renamed its speciality the “Supermax burger” in honor of their ultramodern “supermax” prison. Politicians are well aware of the desirability of having prisons in their bailiwicks and fight to get them. Ironically, while most new prisons are being built in remote rural locations, the prisoners themselves—the only persons not profiting from the boom—come from the cities. Their incarceration far from their homes and families adds another dimension to their punishment.
Since the majority of the convicts come from poor families and poor neighborhoods, it is extremely difficult and costly for their relatives to visit them. In many cases there is no public transportation to the prairies and mountaintops where so many of the new prisons stand in isolation. While the majority of the prisoners are African Americans and Hispanics, the majority of the prison personnel are whites who have no sympathy or understanding for their charges. Hallinan likens this situation to the days of slavery, when those who wore the chains were black and those who guarded them with guns were white.
Hallinan is a journalist and writes in an objective, dispassionate style, letting the facts convey the indignation and apprehension that motivated him to write his book. He relies extensively on interviews, but unfortunately, his reviews are mostly with people outside the walls. His book opens with an interview with former warden Jack Kyle, whom he describes as a tough, law-and-order Texan. “It used to be, he said, that nobody wanted prisons. Couldn’t build ’em in the state of Texas.’ But after the Texas economy went bust in the mid-1980’s, people began to reconsider. Now, ever’body wants ’em.’ He thought this was a mistake. People think they’re just another place to work,’ he warned me. But they’re not.’” Kyle ought to know. Since 1991, the state of Texas, which enjoys the dubious distinction of leading the nation in executions, has undertaken the biggest and most expensive prison-building program in American history. In 1995, when George W. Bush was governor, Texas was opening one new prison nearly every week.
The reader who expects to get a picture of prison conditions as the prisoners themselves experience it (a picture which seems promised by the title Going Up the River) will be in for a disappointment. Hallinan attempts to...
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