From Inside Supermax: The High Rate of Incarceration (13 of 18)

The Associated Press just released this: “For the first time in U.S. history, more than one of every 100 adults is in jail or prison, according to a new report documenting America’s rank as the world’s No. 1 incarcerator.” Yet we don’t seem to be any safer. Have you done any research on why it is that we incarcerate so many people and yet we seem to have more violent crime? Why are we no safer, despite putting growing numbers of supposed criminals behind bars all the time? Are you familiar with crime rates and justice systems in other countries? Why don’t the Europeans have the problems we do?

It is amazing how many people this country locks away and how violent we are. A lot of people point to guns, but I think that is a cop out and avoiding the harder questions; after all, from 1998-1999 Finland had substantially more guns per 100,000 people than America (one of the very few!), but only had half the fire arm deaths per 100,00 (including suicide) that we did. Another interesting tidbit is that Norway had three times the number of guns per capita as Northern Ireland, but they had equal fire arm deaths per capita (source: Small Arms Survey 2001).

Guns are an easy scapegoat and if they were the cause of our violent society it would be an easy fix. The problem, however, is far more difficult to face. The problem is internal, the problem is our culture. Humans love to externalize hard realities to avoid responsibility. It is far easier to blame “them” and ignore that we are an organic whole as a nation.

Violence and the romanticizing of crime is an integral part of our culture. Our nation was founded upon violent revolution. Throughout our history we glorified the massacres of Nat Turner, the murders of Jesse James, the mafia and its repugnant predation, and the outlaw spirit embodied by “civil disobedience”. We have the mindset that everything is justified to overcome anything which stands in our way, that authority doesn’t matter when it impinges upon the all important individual.

Our society has sacrificed the idea of a collective whole and sense of community on the idolatrous altar of individualism. In order to sell more goods, the individual and his whims have been elevated at all costs. People in America are extremely self-centered and demand far more for themselves than they demand of themselves for society. Our rights are more important than the rights of others.

As long as the individual in our culture is disjointed from the collective whole of society and nation, the “social contract” will be broken. Criminals, by and large, do not identify with their country and society. So there is no social responsibility or understanding that society has a right to subjugate the individual for the health of the whole. That attitude is prevalent among American culture and people really resent that idea. Criminals take that view further than most, but that rejection of belonging to the whole is the root.

Another cultural cause is the hip hop culture. The hip hop culture covers all races, but is more heavily represented among blacks and Hispanics. That means that over half of our prison population is part of this sub-culture. While not all hip hop is gangster rap, ex-gangsters like 50 Cent and Snoop Dog are its biggest stars and even the non-violent hip hop is heavily hedonistic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a large chunk of the prison population adheres to a sub-culture which is all about self gratification and looking out for #1. After all, crime is the ultimate act of selfishness; my right to money is more important than your retirement fund, my right to not be offended is more important than your right to life, my right to not have to work hard and be poor is more important than your right to not be strung out on drugs…

It is too difficult to change American culture, so we take the easy way out – lock up 1% of our population and lock up more – anything but sacrifice our individual sense of entitlement. That attitude is ingrained into our psyche going back to Benjamin Franklin, who said that those willing to give up some freedom for safety deserve neither freedom nor safety. Until we strengthen the individual’s connections with society and start identifying with and thinking in terms of an American organic whole, we will have more and more people putting their perceived needs in front of the rights of others.

 

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