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A Country Called Prison pp1-91

The Unknown's picture

          The United States, which is about 1/8th the size of China and India combined has more prisoners than those two countries put together. The United States, which only a little but bigger than Indonesia in total population, incarcerates 14 times more people than that nation (x). The United States ranks second in the rate of incarceration for every 100,000 people of population. The United States incarcerates 707 people out of every 100,000 (xi). Most nations other than Russia and the United States that have high incarceration rates are small and poor. The US’ crime rate is lower than Germany’s and almost the same as Germany’s (xiv). The average yearly salary for a correctional officer is $38,970, or $749 a week (xvi). It was surprising and disturbing to learn that in order to become a correctional officer, one does not to have advanced training or certification because on-the-job-training is provided. Over 400,00 people in the United States were employed in correctional jobs in 2012 (xvi). There are over 90,000 probation officers and correctional treatment experts (xvi). A report on prisons which was completed by the Pew Trusts determines that, from 1977 to 2003, local and state spending on prisons increased by more than 1,100%. At the same time, spending for health care and education increased by less than 600% and public welfare spending increased by a little more than 700% (xvi). The majority of former inmates go back to prison within five years of their release.

            The first legal code with some precision is known as the Code of Hammurabi. The code was named after the 6th Babylonian king and it dates from around 1770 BCE and is comprised of over 280 laws and punishments (1). Many of these laws concern legal matters of agreement, issues of inheritance, divorce, and family concerns. The code is also concerned with criminality, including suitable punishments for certain acts. Enforcing various punishments, including banishment and beheading, has been thought of historically and still thought of, as a public good. The purpose behind creating the “eye-for-an-eye” principle in actual fact aimed to prevent people from taking unreasonable personal vengeance for wrongs carried out against them.  

            There is a misconception that inmates, which are often young, will learn from iron discipline and use what they learned out into the world when they are released. Inmates are sent to quasi-military style prisons where their heads are shaved, correctional officers act like drill sergeants, and they exercise regularly. Contemporary societies have resolved that incapacitating those who people are afraid of is the best way to keep people secure.

            Workhouses in Great Britain were instituted to keep possible troublemakers out of the streets. Workhouses were basically factory-style prisons that produced a source of low-cost labor for the emerging capitalist class. These laborers were frequently exploited.

            The book also discusses different forms of indentured servitude.

            Before the Civil War, it was an unlawful act for a slave to free him/hur/theirself from slavery. Following the 1862 Confiscation Act, which declared that all slaves who looked for safety for security behind union lines were free, numerous ex-slaves, which were then referred to as “freedmen,” were sent to refugee camps where they were employed by loyal Unionist plantation owners for minimal payment. Many people died in the abominable conditions of the camps.

            Prisons have existed since the first millennium BC (9). By 1650, many immigrants to America were indentured servants who had sold themselves into slavery in order to go to the New World. As cities were built in what would become the United States, jails were among the first structures that were constructed.

            In the 1800s, prisons were being constructed in eleven states and many of them were called penitentiaries, because crime was deemed a sin.

           Because many people leaving prison have not worked steadily throughout their lifetimes, their social security retirement income is often very low, if it exists at all.


Anne Dalke's picture

Thank you, The Unknown, for this ongoing “book report” from A Country Called Prison. Are there patterns to be pulled out from this wealth of historical detail? Particular points that surprise or intrigue you, make you want to learn more about the shape of this narrative?

I’m curious, for instance, about calling prison “a country”—what are the implications of that framing? What is the relationship of that country to the USA, or to other countries in the world? (Thinking here of one of the texts onewhowalks is going to use, “Rethinking the Nation-State: The Many Meanings of Sovereignty”). Eager to learn more, A.