Dostoevsky famously wrote that one can tell a great deal about the culture and governance of a country by the nature of its prisons. Fareed Zakaria points out, "The state [of California] spends $8,667 per [college] student per year. It spends about $50,000 per inmate per year."
I've offered a link below to an important New York Times account of the terrible consequences of solitary confinement. California has more prisoners, and more in solitary confinement, than any other state in the country. The United States has the shameful distinction of having more of its population imprisoned than any other country in the world: 760 prisioners for every 100,000 in the population, six times more than the 2nd nearest, the United Kingdom. Adam Gopnik recently wrote in the New Yorker, "Over all, there are now more people under 'correctional supervision' in America [7.1 million, more than the entire population of the state of Massachusetts]...than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height."
Thirty years ago, in the early 1980s, the American prison population was much lower, in number and in proportion to the number of our population. As Zakaria said in a recent talk, the disastrous "war on drugs" has made the major difference, and of course young black men suffer the consequences disproportionately. Prisons are big business. Most are privately owned and run, and the prison lobby at state and federal levels is powerful. Organizations which gather information and are active in seeking to reform the American prison system are many, perhaps foremost among them the Sentencing Project. They are small compared to the forces arrayed against them, so need every bit of support we can offer.
Zakaria says, "In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons, versus $5.7 billion on higher education. Since 1980, California has built one college campus; it's built 21 prisons."
There are also opportunities for work in prisons on behalf of prisoners' development and education. Two of my friends have for years led meditation groups at San Quentin, a federal penetitentiary not far from my home in northern California.
The article below is accompanied by a collection of slides. The reform proposals which occasioned this article may or may not be implemented, and even if implemented may or may not make a significant difference.
(New York Times, 30 March 2012)
A Humane Alternative