American Prisons: Some Perspectives

Today’s New York Times carries an editorial entitled “Prison Nation” in which recent statistics on the United States’ prison population released by the Pew Centre on the States are considered. According to these statistics, contained in a report entitled One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, the US’ prison population stands at approximately 1.6 million and racial disparities among those imprisoned are stark. The editorial argues that these statistics “point to a terrible waste of money and lives” and “underscore the urgent challenge facing the federal government and cash-strapped states to reduce their overreliance on incarceration without sacrificing public safety”. The editorial also acknowledges, however, that persuading politicians to reduce their reliance on incarceration will be difficult, “not least because building and running jailhouses has become a major industry”.

The editorial calls to mind two interesting publications. The first is an excellent edited collection entitled (coincidentally) Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor (Amazon) which contains essays on inter alia privatization of prisons, racial disparities, sexual abuse, the HIV/AIDS crisis in American prisons.

The second is the Concluding Observations of the CERD on fifth and sixth periodic reports of the United States, which were released on February 28th. In these Concluding Observations the CERD expressed concern about “the persistent racial disparities in the criminal justice system…including the disproportionate number of persons belonging to racial, ethnic and national minorities in the prison population” (paragraph 20), the fact the “young offenders belonging to racial, ethnic and national minorities, including children, constitute a disproportionate number of those sentenced to life imprisonment without parole” (paragraph 21), and “the persistent and significant racial disparities with regard to the imposition of the death penalty, particularly those associated with the race of the victim” (paragraph 23).