The explosion of imprisonment in the US has reverberated in the Middle East—and the shock waves have traveled in both directions.

No publication based in Washington should write about prisons without first noting that America leads the world in incarceration.

Some 2.3 million people in the United States—more than .7 percent of the population—are in detention. Measured another way, the figures are just as dramatic: Individual states dominate the global list of the top 50 incarcerators per capita, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative and the International Centre for Prison Studies. Louisiana ranks first in this ignominious competition, with 1,341 people per 100,000 behind bars. As a whole, the US locks up 716 people out of every 100,000, 20 percent of whom are pre-trial detainees. To put this proportion in perspective, the highest-ranking non-US territory on the prisoner-per-capita list is Cuba, which comes in thirty-ninth at a rate of 510. The only country that imprisons anywhere near the sheer number of people as the United States is China, whose relatively low rate of incarceration (121 per 100,000) applies to a population over four times larger. One of every four people doing time the world over is doing it in a US facility.

Prison populations have boomed since the mid-1980s as a result of aggressive policing, mandatory minimum sentences and “three strikes and you’re out” laws that impose jail time even for small infractions. Particularly but not exclusively in rural areas, politicians see new prisons as a way to generate steady blue-collar jobs for the locals and reap the rewards of being perceived as “tough on crime.” But the runaway growth of incarceration has actually coincided with decreases in the rates of violent crime. Hundreds of thousands of men and women go to jail for minor drug-related offenses. As Michelle Alexander argues, prison populations are so disproportionately black that mass incarceration constitutes “the new Jim Crow.”

The scale of the US penal system looks even larger when accounting for all those whose lives are in some way supervised by correctional institutions. One in every 35 adults—almost 6.9 million men and women—in the United States is on probation or parole. That figure does not include the juvenile justice system, which holds about 80,000 children in residential facilities, including those held in adult prisons.

According to census data from 2010, there are 4,916 incarceration facilities in the United States, public and private. That number includes federal and state penitentiaries, local jails and immigration detention centers.

Even with this staggering number of facilities, many institutions have stuffed their cells past the limits of regulations. Seventeen states have more prisoners than beds, with Illinois, North Dakota and California near or above 150 percent capacity. The Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that overcrowding in California prisons—at that time, more than 200 percent of intended capacity—violated the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to discharge 32,000 prisoners within two years. California was able to reach the court-mandated target of 137 percent capacity after four years, though it achieved some of the reductions by transferring 8,500 inmates to privately managed prisons in other states. A failed 2015 bill in the Mississippi legislature proposed to thin out the crowds and save money by ordering prisoners to erect tent cities. The idea is not unprecedented: Arizona’s Maricopa County has operated a tent city for immigrant detainees since 1993.

Crowding leads to increased rates of violence and communicable disease, and strains the meager prison resources for education, recreation and rehabilitation. Since Congress bars Medicare and Medicaid from covering health care for eligible detainees, state and federal prison medical budgets are the only funds providing care for a population afflicted disproportionately with HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis, diabetes, asthma, heart problems and mental illness. Not surprisingly, the quality of health care in jails and prisons falls far below that outside the fortified walls. California’s prison medical system was put into receivership by a federal court in 2005 to address deficiencies the judge characterized as “depravity.” In 2014, the Arizona Department of Corrections settled a class-action lawsuit requiring an overhaul of medical policies and practices after its inmate population of 33,000 suffered 37 preventable deaths in two years. The conditions at immigration detention centers are even more horrifying. An investigation by the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union in 2008 uncovered reams of internal documents from wardens and Immigration and Customs Enforcement staff regarding detainee injuries and deaths, even as the latter agency claimed to have little information about specific cases when asked by reporters. The documents also suggest that ICE tried to decrease the official mortality rate by releasing detainees just before they died.

Though other countries use solitary confinement, the United States stands out for its embrace of the practice. Accurate counts are difficult to come by, but a 2000 census by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics recorded over 81,000 people held in some form of segregation. This number is likely an underestimate, as it relies on self-reporting. Seven percent of federal inmates are housed in isolation units, a number that has risen dramatically since the early 1990s. Social science and medical research, as well as testimony from former prisoners, shows that solitary confinement can cause long-term psychological trauma and even brain damage. Some inmates become catatonic, paranoid or suicidal, as highlighted by the appalling case of Kalief Browder, a Bronx youth held in solitary confinement for about two of his three years on Rikers Island. Browder, who killed himself in June, did not commit the robbery for which he was arrested and was never tried. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture advocates a global ban on social isolation as a punitive measure, especially before trial.

In the Bureau of Prisons hierarchy, an “administrative maximum-security penitentiary,” or ADX, is the most secure type of facility, relying heavily on housing prisoners in isolation. The federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado is the only operational ADX, but the Bureau purchased a maximum-security facility in Thomson, Illinois—once on the shortlist of sites to accept Guantánamo detainees and a fiscal sinkhole that has taken fewer than 200 minimum-security prisoners since construction in 2001. ADX Thomson is set to open in the fall of 2016 with 1,600 cells—all for solitary confinement.

Amnesty International’s report about the conditions at ADX Florence describes a human warehouse with limited opportunities for substantive social interaction and few programs “leading to formal qualifications or defined outcomes or goals.” All activities—bathing, eating, praying—are conducted within individual cells, save for up to ten hours per week of exercise. Exercise cages are designed for one occupant and have no equipment. Even some medical and counseling services are conducted by video. All social visits are conducted through plexiglass barriers while inmates remain shackled. In the general population, inmates are allowed six hours per year (30 minutes per month, in 15-minute increments) to speak on the phone outside of legal consultations.

A Government Accountability Office report on segregation within federal prisons found that the Bureau of Prisons has no central system for documenting how segregation is applied across facilities. Neither has the agency assessed whether segregation improves inmate and staff safety or tracked the effects of prolonged isolation on prisoners.

The Bureau of Prisons maintains two communication management units (CMUs), in Terre Haute, Indiana and Marion, Illinois, whose inmates have even more restricted access to phone calls, correspondence, visits and education. A second-wave product of the war on terror—Terre Haute opened in secret in December 2006, Marion in 2008—CMUs are part of the Bureau’s official counterterrorism strategy. Of the 60 to 70 people who live in CMUs, over two thirds are Muslims, not all of whom have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes. Rafil Dhafir, among the first prisoners transferred to Terre Haute, was sentenced to 22 years for operating an unlicensed charity to send humanitarian aid to Iraq in violation of US sanctions. Backlash against such religious and racial profiling precipitated the transfer of a few prisoners convicted of crimes related to environmental and animal rights activism. The Center for Constitutional Rights reports that other inmates in CMUs are noted prisoners’ rights activists, jailhouse religious leaders or vocal critics of Bureau policies.

Like maximum-security prisoners, inmates in CMUs are barred from physical contact with visitors. Unlike other federal prisoners, inmates in CMUs have no private communications, except with their lawyers. All non-legal written correspondence is reviewed thoroughly before delivery. Phone calls (30 minutes per week) and visits (eight hours per month) conducted in languages other than English have to be specially scheduled so that conversations can be simultaneously translated for prison officials. These interactions are also recorded.

For-profit companies manage at least 150 of the 4,916 detention centers in the US. These institutions hold over 130,000 detainees—about 8 percent of the national total—a number that more than doubled between 2002 and 2010. The industry got its start through contracts with the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, and privately run facilities have now cornered the market for immigrant and youth detention, though some states rely heavily on corporate prisons for convicted criminals. More than half of Louisiana inmates are in private jails. Today, the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, along with the (Orwellian-named) Management and Training Corporation, own 90 percent of private detention facilities in the United States. GEO Group also runs prisons in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, living up to its tagline, “A World of Opportunities.” Private prisons promise to cut costs for cash-strapped governments, mainly by skimping on staff and services for the incarcerated.

The explosion of imprisonment in the US has reverberated in the Middle East—and the shock waves have traveled in both directions. A few examples: Charles Graner, the Army reservist convicted of torturing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, had previously worked as a guard at two Pennsylvania jails, where he had faced several allegations of maltreatment of inmates and racial bigotry. A former prisoner told the Washington Post that Graner had taunted a Muslim in the cellblock by telling him there was pork residue in his food. In the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, a raft of stories in the New York Times and elsewhere exposed regular physical and sexual abuse of US prisoners.

The Senate torture report released in December 2014 mentioned a trip by Bureau of Prisons officials to the CIA-run “black site” in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit, notorious for torture and the death of a detainee from hypothermia. According to CIA documentation of the visit, Bureau staff were “wowed” by the CIA’s approach to managing prisoners, who were kept naked, constantly shackled to the wall or the floor, and virtually entombed by white noise and darkness, save for the jailers’ headlamps. The Bureau delegation judged the facility in compliance with standards of humane treatment because detainees had access to medical care and the building was clean. So-called progress in US incarceration largely follows this line of thinking. Sterility has come to epitomize sound practice, even as the regulation of prisoners’ minds and bodies has become more invasive and the project of rehabilitation largely abandoned.

As in the war on terror abroad, much of the abuse happens to people not formally charged with an offense. In February, the Guardian revealed a secret interrogation center at Homan Square in Chicago, where police detained political activists and others incommunicado for up to 17 hours, sometimes in shackles. Local lawyers said the center is “analogous to the CIA’s black sites,” though they stressed that such violations of civil rights by city cops long predate the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Lastly, as Ian Urbina reported for us in 2003, the Pentagon is a major customer for products manufactured by prison labor. When gearing up for the invasion of Iraq in 2002, the US military procured 194,950 camouflage shirts and 100 percent of its Kevlar helmets from factories run by Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, at penitentiaries in various states. The captive workers supplied the Pentagon with numerous other items, ranging from chaplain’s vestments to communications headgear to high-caliber ammunition. The price was undoubtedly right: Federal Prison Industries was paying subminimum wages and was exempt from payroll taxes and levies for Social Security. The quasi-public company, founded in 1934, is an official subsidiary of the Bureau of Prisons and by law can sell only to the US government. It advertises itself as a “correctional program,” and comes under frequent fire for undercutting competitors in the private sector.

Mass incarceration is becoming a national concern, with bipartisan support for reform in Congress and in state legislatures. Even conservative lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council—of which the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group were long-time members—at least give lip service to the ills of putting so many people behind bars.

As might be gleaned from the conservatives’ interest in prison reform, many actual initiatives spring from the desire to slash public spending. Some of the effects are salutary. Surely, for example, California could have met the 2011 court order by building more prisons. Instead, in 2014, the state’s voters approved a ballot measure to reduce the sentences for property crimes and reclassify personal drug possession as a misdemeanor. The measure also allows current inmates to petition for early release under the same rules.

But another effect of spending cuts is to shift more and more of the costs of incarceration onto prisoners and their families. Detainees—in some states, even pre-trial detainees—are often billed for an account with the prison commissary. Many states have tried to chop prison health budgets by extracting higher co-payments from inmates or requiring an annual fee for medical care. The Federal Communications Commission recently intervened in another fleecing, capping the rate for long-distance phone calls from jails and prisons at 21 cents per minute, down from the unregulated prices that often exceeded a dollar per minute. The new rules also bar telecommunications companies from charging inmates for the commissions they pay to state corrections systems. A trend in prison services favors videoconferencing in place of family visits, a service with no rate cap.

Incarceration is woven into the fabric of the United States, from the legacy of slavery to the political and economic forces that encourage building more jails and seeking profit from the jailed. Prisons, in a final twist, are also part of international aid packages. The State Department is currently funding and directing the construction of two prisons in Haiti to relieve major overcrowding. The penal society is one American export the world can do without.

How to cite this article:

Amanda Ufheil-Somers, Chris Toensing "From the Editors (Summer 2015)," Middle East Report 275 (Summer 2015).

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