DEAR BUBBAS AND BUBBETTES,
Take a deep breath before you read these articles and attachments, and perhaps take a stiff drink too.
Growing profits now being made by private sector prisons, and then increased profits by mistreating these prisoners? Can this venture capital innovation possibly be true?
Then take a step back and think about how we might try to reign in this abuse of our liberal democratic republican ideology.
So here is one suggestion. Suppose that in order to win and keep one of these privatized prison contracts each of the directors of these companies would have to agree to spend three nights in each of these prisons during each year. They would have to arrive as if they were real prisoners, and then go through the full experience anonymously. just like everyone else in a striped suit.
Just imagine how quickly these abuses described below would probably end, how quickly the quality of daily life in these prisons would improve, but also how quickly the profits would shrink, and perhaps the privatization experiment would probably quickly end too!!
And here is another one. How about decriminalizing some of these minor offences that now lead to incarcerations, like the possession of small amounts of marijuana, etc. Many other countries seem to be surviving very well with much softer legislation and much more moral penal systems.
And, finally, how about making it illegal for owners of privately run prisons to lobby legislative and executive officials!
Anyway, enjoy and reflect once again on how our uber-innovative political experiment keeps coming up with these strange profit generating anomalies.
And don’t forget also, with just about 5% of the world’s population we as a country now stand out as the world leader with about a quarter of the world’s total incarcerations.
I’m not sure this is something we should be very proud of. Then again, if you can make some bucks from this business, well, you know, well, hmmm, etc.
Enjoy and please share your own thoughts on all of this too. Andy
THE SHOCKING WAYS THE CORPORATE PRISON INDUSTRY GAMES THE SYSTEM
By Rania Khalek, AlterNet, 30 November 2011. Rania Khalek is an associate writer for AlterNet.
The United States, with just 5 percent of the world’s population, currently holds 25 percent of the world's prisoners, and for the last 30 years America’s business entrepreneurs have found a lucrative way to cash in on the incarceration surplus: private for-profit prisons.
While the implications of an industry that locks human beings in cages for profit is an old story, there is an important part of the history of private prisons that often goes untold.
Just a decade ago, private prisons were a dying industry awash in corruption and mired in lawsuits, particularly Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation's largest private prison operator.
Today, these companies are booming once again, yet the lawsuits and scandals continue to pile up. Meanwhile, more and more evidence shows that compared to publicly run prisons, private jails are filthier, more violent, less accountable, and contrary to what privatization advocates peddle as truth, do not save money. In fact, more recent findings suggest that private prisons could be more costly.
So why are they still in business?
In a recently published report, "Banking on Bondage: Mass Incarceration and Private Prisons," (see below) the American Civil Liberties Union examines the history of prison privatization and finds that private prison companies owe their continued and prosperous existence to skyrocketing immigration detention post September 11 as well as the firm hold they have gained over elected and appointed officials.
The Rise of Private Prisons
David Shapiro, the primary author of the ACLU report, told AlterNet that prior to the early 1980s, private prisons were “virtually nonexistent.” That quickly changed as the War on Drugs ‘tough on crime’ mentality swept the nation with institution of draconian sentencing and release laws for nonviolent offenders, causing an explosion in US incarceration rate.
State and federal governments increasingly struggled with overcrowded prisons and the rising costs of housing the rapidly growing pool of inmates.
Coupled with the emergence of privatization madness under Ronald Reagan (a pattern that has continued under both Democrat and Republican administrations), skyrocketing imprisonment presented the perfect opportunity for the private sector to get in on the action, with promises of cost savings and more efficient operations than government-run facilities.
In 1984, the Corrections Corporation of America was awarded a contract to operate a public jail in Hamilton County, Tennessee, and the nation’s first-ever private prison was born.
According to the ACLU report, from 1970 to 2005, the number of people locked up in the US shot up by 700 percent. Meanwhile, between 1990 and 2009 the number of prisoners behind private prison bars exploded from 7,000 to 129,000 inmates, a growth rate of 1600 percent. But the private prison boom of the ‘90s did not last.
Immigration Detention Saves the Day
In 1999, independent auditors were skeptical about whether CCA could stay afloat because beds were empty and the company experienced a $72 million net loss in revenue. By 2000, an article in BusinessWeek declared
“the industry is in a rut, and its prospects have been severely trimmed. Overbuilding and ill-fated financial schemes have hammered stock prices. States, once eager to outsource their inmates, are backing out of private prison contracts. News of escapes and violence at private prisons adds to a climate of distrust.” The article concludes that “the industry's heyday may already be history.”
A 2001 article in the American Prospect, Bailing Out Private Jails, offers a snapshot of the industry’s bleak future at the turn of the century:
… with the states pulling back from the trouble-plagued facilities and Wall Street reacting even more strongly to the deaths and scandals, the companies have found themselves overleveraged and undercapitalized--CCA, in particular. It built new prisons "on spec," assuming that contracts to fill them would follow, and by my estimate the company now has more than 8,500 prison beds standing empty. The firm last year came close to a financial meltdown: Its stock lost 93 percent of its value in 2000, and its accountants reported a fourth-quarter loss of more than a third of a billion dollars.
With demand down, private prisons were forced to seek out new markets if they were to survive, so they turned to immigration detention. According to the Columbia Law Review, the daily average of immigrants detained in 1994 was 6000.
After Congress passed Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) in 1996, which authorized the mandatory detention of noncitizens with criminal convictions, immigration detention swelled dramatically. By 2001, the number of detained immigrants more than tripled to 20,000. But this alone wasn’t enough to save private prisons.
According to the ACLU report, heightened immigration enforcement following the 2001 terrorist attacks were largely responsible for resurrecting the private prison boom, as was predicted by Steve Logan, CEO of Cornell Corrections which has since been acquired by the GEO Group, the 2nd largest private prison operator.
On a conference call with investors just two months after 9/11 Logan said:
I think it’s clear that with the events of Sept. 11, there’s a heightened focus on detention, both on the borders and within the U.S. [and] more people get caught. So that’s a positive for our business. The federal business is the best business for us.
He was right.
The number of immigrants detained annually has nearly doubled, to 390,000 since immigration enforcement was transferred to the newly formed Department of Homeland Security in 2003, creating a huge market for private prison operators, who house almost 50 percent of all federally detained immigrants compared with just 6 percent of state prisoners and 16 percent of federal prisoners.
Since 2001, CCA revenues have increased 88 percent, earning over $1 billion annually for the last eight years in a row. Today, CCA receives 40 percent of its business from the federal government, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
GEO Group revenues shot up as well, from $517 million in 2002 to $1.3 billion in 2010, a 121 percent increase.
Given the private prison industry’s heavy reliance on immigration detention, it comes as no surprise that Arizona’s draconian immigration law SB 1070 was shaped with the assistance of private prison leaders and lobbyists.
The law authorizes Arizona police to arrest and detain individuals they suspect are undocumented if they fail to provide paperwork proving their legal residence, essentially legalizing racial profiling.
Gaming the System
Although these companies are increasingly depended on immigration detention, they have not given up on the criminal justice market.
For private prisons whose profits are dependent on a constant and growing pool of prisoners, that means supporting policies that maintain and even increase the incarceration rate.
For inmates, that translates to longer sentences, unsanitary conditions, and as Shapiro documents in the ACLU report, brutal violence, corruption, and abuse with little to no oversight.
“Leniency and sentencing changes actually pose a threat to business models of these companies. The more crime there is the more business private prison companies get, and the more strict sentencing laws there are the more taxpayer money is poured into private prison companies incarcerating individuals for nonviolent offenses,” says Shapiro.
The CCA lays out the risks to their business model in their 2010 Annual Report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC):
The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.
The GEO Group, highlighted similar risks to their revenue stream in the company’s 2010 Annual Report:
[A]ny changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities. Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.
In other words, a more humane criminal justice and immigration detention system threatens the very existence of these companies, and according to the ACLU report, they have flooded government at the state and federal level with cash and armies of lobbyists to keep the laws as harsh and cruel as ever.
That explains why CCA spent over $18 million on federal lobbying between 1999 and 2009 and has spent $970,000 on federal lobbying in 2010 alone. As for state government influence-peddling, the ACLU report cites a study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics which found that from 2003 to 2011 CCA hired 199 lobbyists in 32 states while GEO Group hired 72 lobbyists in 17 states.
The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released a comprehensive report in June called "Gaming the System," (see attached) that comprehensively lays out the tactics private prison companies exercise to push for tougher sentencing policies that add to the private prison population. While their strategy is built largely around campaign contributions and lobbying, they also cultivate and maintain special relationships with current and former elected and appointed officials, which can lead to disastrous consequences.
The Human Cost
Despite numerous cases of corruption, the private prison industry continues to thrive with little oversight, largely due to a revolving door between public and private corrections that, according to Shapiro,
"may contribute to the ability of some companies to win contracts or to avoid sufficient scrutiny from the corrections departments charged with overseeing their operations."
One of the most egregious examples of this dynamic took place at a West Texas juvenile prison run by GEO Group where inmates were found living in filth.
In 2007, the Texas Youth Commission, which was responsible for monitoring the quality of the facility, fired several employees who not only failed to report on the horrific conditions but also actually praised and thanked the GEO staff for their fine work, awarding them an overall compliance score of 97.7 percent.
It was eventually discovered that the prior to working for TYC, the state monitors had been employed by the GEO Group.
The situation became even more troubling when independent auditors were sent to the jail, where they
"got so much fecal matter on their shoes they had to wipe their feet on the grass outside.”
Among the long list of reported findings was evidence of
“racial segregation [in] the dorms; Hispanics are not allowed to be cell mates with African-Americans."
The youth reported to the auditors that they were "disciplined for speaking Spanish," prevented from speaking to their lawyers, denied access to medical treatment, and even "forced to urinate or defecate in some container other than a toilet" due to a lack of toilets in some of the cells.
The potential for such injustice involving incarcerated children isn't limited to Pennsylvania. The ACLU report notes,
"According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, privately owned corporations operate more than 50 percent of youth correctional facilities in the United States."
There is no clearer example of dangers associated mixing profit-making and juvenile rehabilitation than the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (WGYCF) operated by the GEO Group in Mississippi. WGYCF, which has been called "the deepest depths of hell," is the nation's largest juvenile prison. It houses 1,200 young males between the ages of 13 and 22, 67 percent of whom are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. The facility was originally established by the Mississippi state legislature to create a safe environment for juveniles charged as adults by keeping them separate from the cruel and harsh conditions often found in adult prisons.
Unfortunately, that mission is incompatible with the priorities of the for-profit prison industry.
As it turns out, conditions at WGYCF are so atrocious that the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center have teamed up to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf the inmates against the prison operator (GEO Group), prison administrators, and state officials.
The complaint alleges,
"The for-profit entities that manage WGYCF perpetuate violence and corruption."
More specifically, youth have been kicked and punched while handcuffed, others stripped naked and confined to solitary for weeks at a time.
Another inmate was
"held hostage in his cell for almost 24 hours, brutally raped and physically assaulted after prison staff failed to heed his plea for protection."
Another lives with permanent brain damage after suffering multiple stabbings and beatings that prison staff are described as having been complicit in.
While each atrocity sounds more chilling than the next, even more striking is the prospect that this inexplicable violence and neglect may be rooted in the insatiable desire for higher profit margins through cost cutting at the expense of the safety and health of inmates.
An investigation carried out by NPR found that state audits from both 2005 and 2010 indicate that there were fewer guards despite an increase in the number of prisoners. According to the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, most juvenile facilities around the country have one guard for every 10 to 12 juveniles. At WGYCF there is 1 guard for every 60 inmates. Yet, as the ACLU report points out,
"private companies, including the GEO Group...have extracted more than $100 million in revenue from the facility’s operation."
Since salaries make up the largest chunk of correctional budget expenses, hiring fewer guards can prove to be quite lucrative, especially since the one full-time state employee tasked with monitoring the prisons operations has his salary reimbursed by the private company operating the facility.
The violence doesn’t stop at WGYCF. According to Shapiro, there is evidence, including multiple studies carried out by the Justice Department, that for-profit prisons are more violent than governmentally operated facilities, which is likely the result of understaffed, poorly paid, and poorly trained guards.
These are the companies we are putting in charge of the expanding immigration detention system, and so far, their track record fairs no better.
Last year, the New York Times and ACLU obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act detailing107 deaths in ICE detention since October 2003. According to the report, nine of those deaths occurred at a CCA detention center in Eloy, Arizona, “more than any other immigration jail under contract to the federal government."
“the documents show how officials — some still in key positions — used their role as overseers to cover up evidence of mistreatment, deflect scrutiny by the news media or prepare exculpatory public statements after gathering facts that pointed to substandard care or abuse,” underscoring the lack of oversight that exists in immigration detention as it is.
Private Prisons Must Go
Despite the questionable cost-cutting measures that private prisons have employed, there is little to no evidence that they cost less than government run corrections as privatization advocates have claimed.
According to Shapiro, evidence behind the assertion that private prisons save money is “mixed at best,” with a number of studies even showing that privatizing jails may actually cost the state more money.
An analysis conducted by the Arizona Department of Corrections of the state’s prisons indicated just that, finding that Arizona’s prisons may be more costly than publicly run prisons even though they avoid housing sick inmates to save on healthcare costs, something state run facilities cannot do.
In 2007, researchers from the University of Utah Criminal Justice Center published a meta-analysis of previous privatization studies and concluded,
“Cost savings from privatization are not guaranteed and quality of services is not improved. Across the board effect sizes were small, so small that the value of moving to a privately managed system is questionable.”
“In general the evidence that there are these cost savings associated is questionable and dangerous because the only way that money really can be saved is by putting less people in prison. This argument has the potential to get politicians side-tracked from the making the moral and ethical and financially sustainable decisions.”
Shapiro believes the best way to scale back the abuses of the private prison industry is to reduce the number of people in prison.
“This is crippling state budgets. We can’t pay for roads or schools because so much money being funneled in corrections. It’s tearing apart families and communities completely counterproductive. It’s good for no one except the private prison industry,” says Shapiro.
BANKING ON BONDAGE:
PRIVATE PRISONS AND MASS INCARCERATION
The ACLU, November 2, 2011
The imprisonment of human beings at record levels is both a moral failure and an economic one — especially at a time when more and more Americans are struggling to make ends meet and when state governments confront enormous fiscal crises. This report finds, however, that mass incarceration provides a gigantic windfall for one special interest group — the private prison industry — even as current incarceration levels harm the country as a whole. While the nation's unprecedented rate of imprisonment deprives individuals of freedom, wrests loved ones from their families, and drains the resources of governments, communities, and taxpayers, the private prison industry reaps lucrative rewards.
As the public good suffers from mass incarceration, private prison companies obtain more and more government dollars, and private prison executives at the leading companies rake in enormous compensation packages, in some cases totaling millions of dollars.
The Spoils of Mass Incarceration
The United States imprisons more people — both per capita and in absolute terms — than any other nation in the world, including Russia, China, and Iran.
Over the past four decades, imprisonment in the United States has increased explosively, spurred by criminal laws that impose steep sentences and curtail the opportunity to earn probation and parole. The current incarceration rate deprives record numbers of individuals of their liberty, disproportionately affects people of color, and has at best a minimal effect on public safety.
Meanwhile, the crippling cost of imprisoning increasing numbers of Americans saddles government budgets with rising debt and exacerbates the current fiscal crises confronting states across the nation.
Leading private prison companies essentially admit that their business model depends on high rates of incarceration. For example, in a 2010 Annual Report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company, stated:
"The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by . . . leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices . . . ."
As incarceration rates skyrocket, the private prison industry expands at exponential rates, holding ever more people in its prisons and jails, and generating massive profits. Private prisons for adults were virtually non-existent until the early 1980s, but the number of prisoners in private prisons increased by approximately 1600% between 1990 and 2009.
Today, for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6% of state prisoners, 16% of federal prisoners, and, according to one report, nearly half of all immigrants detained by the federal government.
In 2010, the two largest private prison companies alone received nearly $3 billion dollars in revenue, and their top executives, according to one source, each received annual compensation packages worth well over $3 million.
A Danger to State Finances
While supporters of privatization tout the idea that governments can save money through private facilities, the evidence for supposed cost savings is mixed at best. As state governments across the nation confront deep fiscal deficits, the assertion that private prisons demonstrably reduce the costs of incarceration can be dangerous and irresponsible.
Such claims may lure states into building private prisons or privatizing existing ones rather than reducing incarceration rates and limiting corrections spending through serious criminal justice reform.
This year, advocates of for-profit prisons trotted out privatization schemes as a supposed answer to budgetary woes in numerous states:
ICE now intends to create a new network of massive immigration detention centers, managed largely by private companies, in states including New Jersey, Texas, Florida, California and Illinois.
According to a news report, in August 2011, ICE's plans to send 1,250 immigration detainees to Essex County, New Jersey threatened to unravel amid allegations that a private prison company seeking the contract, whose executives enjoyed close ties to Governor Chris Christie, received "special treatment" from the county.
The fiscal crisis confronting the federal government, however, has done nothing to dampen Washington's spending binge on privatized immigration detention.
While evidence is mixed, certain empirical studies show a heightened level of violence against prisoners in private institutions. This may reflect in part the higher rate of staff turnover in private prisons, which can result in inexperienced guards walking the tiers.
After an infamous escape from an Arizona private prison in 2010, for example, the Arizona Department of Corrections reported that at the prison,
"[s]taff are fairly 'green' across all shifts," "are not proficient with weapons," and habitually ignore sounding alarms. Private facilities have also been linked to atrocious conditions. In a juvenile facility in Texas, for example, auditors reported, "[c]ells were filthy, smelled of feces and urine."
Just three weeks before the release of this report, prisoner fights in several locations throughout a private prison in Oklahoma left 46 prisoners injured and required 16 inmates to be sent to the hospital, some of them in critical condition.
The risks to safety confronting inmates in private prisons are especially relevant at present, as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a case that could, depending on the outcome, prevent federal prisoners in private institutions from seeking compensation for constitutional violations — including deliberate indifference to prisoners' physical well being.
Certain private prison companies employ shrewd tactics to obtain more and more government contracts to incarcerate prisoners. In February 2011, for example, a jury convicted former Luzerene County, Pennsylvania Judge Mark Ciavarella of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy in connection with payments received from a private prison developer.
Tactics employed by some private prison companies, or individuals associated with the private prison industry, to gain influence or acquire more contracts or inmates include: use of questionable financial incentives; benefitting from the "revolving door" between public and private corrections; extensive lobbying; lavish campaign contributions; and efforts to control information.
* * * *
A copy of the full ACLU report is attached.
Part One of this Report traces the rise of the for-profit prison industry over the past 30 years, demonstrating that private prisons reaped lucrative spoils as incarceration rates reached historic levels.
Part Two focuses on the supposed benefits associated with private prisons, showing that the view that private prison companies provide demonstrable economic benefits and humane facilities is debatable at best.
Part Three discusses the tactics private prison companies have used to obtain control of more and more human beings and taxpayer dollars.
The time to halt the expansion of for-profit incarceration is now. The evidence that private prisons provide savings compared to publicly operated facilities is highly questionable, and certain studies point to worse conditions in for-profit facilities. The private prison industry helped to create the mass incarceration crisis and feeds off of this social ill. Private prisons cannot be part of the solution — economic or ethical — to the problem of mass incarceration.
U.S. PRISON POPULATION
DWARFS THAT OF OTHER NATIONS
By Adam Liptak, New York Times, 23 April 2008.
The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners.
Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.
Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.
The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College London.
China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison. (That number excludes hundreds of thousands of people held in administrative detention, most of them in China's extrajudicial system of re-education through labor, which often singles out political activists who have not committed crimes.)
San Marino, with a population of about 30,000, is at the end of the long list of 218 countries compiled by the center. It has a single prisoner.
The United States comes in first, too, on a more meaningful list from the prison studies center, the one ranked in order of the incarceration rates. It has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.)
The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England's rate is 151; Germany's is 88; and Japan's is 63.
The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate.
There is little question that the high incarceration rate here has helped drive down crime, though there is debate about how much.
Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad point to a tangle of factors to explain America's extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net.
Even democracy plays a role, as judges — many of whom are elected, another American anomaly — yield to populist demands for tough justice.
Whatever the reason, the gap between American justice and that of the rest of the world is enormous and growing.
It used to be that Europeans came to the United States to study its prison systems. They came away impressed.
"In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States," Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured American penitentiaries in 1831, wrote in "Democracy in America."
"Far from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is viewed with horror," James Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, wrote last year in Social Research. "Certainly there are no European governments sending delegations to learn from us about how to manage prisons."
Prison sentences here have become
"vastly harsher than in any other country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared," Michael Tonry, a leading authority on crime policy, wrote in "The Handbook of Crime and Punishment."
Indeed, said Vivien Stern, a research fellow at the prison studies center in London, the American incarceration rate has made the United States
"a rogue state, a country that has made a decision not to follow what is a normal Western approach."
The spike in American incarceration rates is quite recent. From 1925 to 1975, the rate remained stable, around 110 people in prison per 100,000 people.
It shot up with the movement to get tough on crime in the late 1970s. (These numbers exclude people held in jails, as comprehensive information on prisoners held in state and local jails was not collected until relatively recently.)
The nation's relatively high violent crime rate, partly driven by the much easier availability of guns here, helps explain the number of people in American prisons.
"The assault rate in New York and London is not that much different," said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group. "But if you look at the murder rate, particularly with firearms, it's much higher."
Despite the recent decline in the murder rate in the United States, it is still about four times that of many nations in Western Europe.
But that is only a partial explanation. The United States, in fact, has relatively low rates of nonviolent crime. It has lower burglary and robbery rates than Australia, Canada and England.
“People who commit nonviolent crimes in the rest of the world are less likely to receive prison time and certainly less likely to receive long sentences. The United States is, for instance, the only advanced country that incarcerates people for minor property crimes like passing bad checks”, Whitman wrote.
Efforts to combat illegal drugs play a major role in explaining long prison sentences in the United States as well. In 1980, there were about 40,000 people in American jails and prisons for drug crimes. These days, there are almost 500,000.
Those figures have drawn contempt from European critics.
"The U.S. pursues the war on drugs with an ignorant fanaticism," said Stern of King's College.
Many American prosecutors, on the other hand, say that locking up people involved in the drug trade is imperative, as it helps thwart demand for illegal drugs and drives down other kinds of crime.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey, for instance, has fought hard to prevent the early release of people in federal prison on crack cocaine offenses, saying that many of them "are among the most serious and violent offenders."
Still, it is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes American prison policy. Indeed, the mere number of sentences imposed here would not place the United States at the top of the incarceration lists. If lists were compiled based on annual admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would outpace the United States. But American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher.
Burglars in the United States serve an average of 16 months in prison, according to Mauer, compared with 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England.
Many specialists dismissed race as an important distinguishing factor in the American prison rate. It is true that blacks are much more likely to be imprisoned than other groups in the United States, but that is not a particularly distinctive phenomenon. Minorities in Canada, Britain and Australia are also disproportionately represented in those nation's prisons, and the ratios are similar to or larger than those in the United States.
Some scholars have found that English-speaking nations have higher prison rates.
"Although it is not at all clear what it is about Anglo-Saxon culture that makes predominantly English-speaking countries especially punitive, they are," Tonry wrote last year in "Crime, Punishment and Politics in Comparative Perspective."
"It could be related to economies that are more capitalistic and political cultures that are less social democratic than those of most European countries," Tonry wrote. "Or it could have something to do with the Protestant religions with strong Calvinist overtones that were long influential."
The American character — self-reliant, independent, judgmental — also plays a role.
"America is a comparatively tough place, which puts a strong emphasis on individual responsibility," Whitman of Yale wrote. "That attitude has shown up in the American criminal justice of the last 30 years."
French-speaking countries, by contrast, have "comparatively mild penal policies," Tonry wrote.
Of course, sentencing policies within the United States are not monolithic, and national comparisons can be misleading.
"Minnesota looks more like Sweden than like Texas," said Mauer of the Sentencing Project.
(Sweden imprisons about 80 people per 100,000 of population; Minnesota, about 300; and Texas, almost 1,000. Maine has the lowest incarceration rate in the United States, at 273; and Louisiana the highest, at 1,138.)
Whatever the reasons, there is little dispute that America's exceptional incarceration rate has had an impact on crime.
"As one might expect, a good case can be made that fewer Americans are now being victimized" thanks to the tougher crime policies, Paul Cassell, an authority on sentencing and a former federal judge, wrote in The Stanford Law Review.
From 1981 to 1996, according to Justice Department statistics, the risk of punishment rose in the United States and fell in England. The crime rates predictably moved in the opposite directions, falling in the United States and rising in England.
"These figures," Cassell wrote, "should give one pause before too quickly concluding that European sentences are appropriate."
Other commentators were more definitive.
"The simple truth is that imprisonment works," wrote Kent Scheidegger and Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in The Stanford Law and Policy Review. "Locking up criminals for longer periods reduces the level of crime. The benefits of doing so far offset the costs."
There is a counterexample, however, to the north.
"Rises and falls in Canada's crime rate have closely paralleled America's for 40 years," Tonry wrote last year. "But its imprisonment rate has remained stable."
Several specialists here and abroad pointed to a surprising explanation for the high incarceration rate in the United States: democracy.
Most state court judges and prosecutors in the United States are elected and are therefore sensitive to a public that is, according to opinion polls, generally in favor of tough crime policies. In the rest of the world, criminal justice professionals tend to be civil servants who are insulated from popular demands for tough sentencing.
Whitman, who has studied Tocqueville's work on American penitentiaries, was asked what accounted for America's booming prison population.
"Unfortunately, a lot of the answer is democracy — just what Tocqueville was talking about," he said. "We have a highly politicized criminal justice system."