Rupert Cornwell: War hero tackles US over degrading prison conditions

Out of America: Dumping grounds for drug addicts, the mentally ill and petty thieves exposed by Democrat senator

Share
Related Topics

Few United States senators have a more unusual CV than Virginia's Jim Webb. He's a Democrat who was once a Republican and served as Navy Secretary under Ronald Reagan. He's a decorated Vietnam veteran and the highly successful author of Fields of Fire, which is said by many to be the best novel ever written about that war. When he made his senate bid in 2006, his Republican opponent ran adverts criticising some explicit sexy passages in other Webb works. Now he is embarked on perhaps his most improbable mission: the senior senator, from one of the toughest law-and-order states, wants to restore humanity, and proportionality, to the punishment of criminals.

All the focus, right now, is on reforming the US healthcare system. Think prisons, and you think Guantanamo Bay, and the bizarre debate over whether the transfer of its inmates to the mainland would see alleged Islamist terrorists burst out of fearsome maximum-security jails such as Florence, Colorado, and run amok across the Rockies.

When it comes to sending people to jail, America is the undisputed world champion. In 1970, a mere 200,000 people were behind bars. Last year, 2.3 million were held in federal, state and county prisons, more than 1 per cent of all adults in the US and five times the international average. Blacks, predictably, bear the brunt of this compulsion to incarcerate, accounting for 40 per cent of the prison population. This punishment industry gives work to more than two million, more even than the 1.7 million employed in higher education.

The establishments themselves hide behind bureaucratic euphemisms such as the phrase "Department of Corrections". In reality, US prisons are hideously overcrowded breeding grounds for crime, and dumping grounds for drug addicts and the mentally ill: "America's default mental health institutions", as one expert described them. Precious little "correcting" goes on. Of the 700,000 men and women who are released each year, two-thirds are back in jail within three years. As Webb puts it: "Either we are the most evil people on earth, or we're doing something wrong." You don't have to subscribe to the country's spiritually exalted view of itself to know which.

The vast majority of those behind bars pose no threat to society; most inmates in state prisons have been convicted of non-violent offences, mainly related to drugs or property. The colossal growth in prisoner numbers can be traced to the collapse of inner cities and the urban rioting of the late 1960s, the futile "war on drugs", an over-rigid parole system – and, of course, politicians' awareness that nothing wins elections like being tough on law and order.

Back in 1988, the elder George Bush used the infamous Willie Horton case to brand Michael Dukakis, his Democratic presidential opponent, soft on crime. In 1994, California became the first state to pass a "Three Strikes and You're Out" bill; within a year, 24 states had followed in an effort to target violent repeat offenders. Instead they led to nonsenses (upheld by the Supreme Court, no less) such as the sentencing of one recidivist to 25 years to life for stealing a bag of golf clubs. No less pernicious are the minimum-sentencing requirements imposed by many states, which force judges to send people to prison unnecessarily, or for too long.

And so a vicious cycle has set in, whereby the country locks up ever more people for ever less serious offences, at ever greater expense, with ever less resources for rehabilitation.

Common sense – with the help of a firm shove from economic reality – may finally be making a comeback and, as ever, California is setting the example. It's not that the place has gone soft on crime: the Golden State is still planning a new death row facility, even though no one has been executed there since 2006. It's simply that conditions in California's prisons have become untenable, with some operating at 300 per cent of capacity, where violence is endemic, and lockdowns are often the only practical means of keeping order.

Now a panel of federal judges has stepped in, ordering Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to come up with a plan by mid-September to cut the prison population by a quarter, or 40,000, over the next two years.

If Webb has his way, as California goes, so goes the nation. This spring, the Virginia senator introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009. Assuming Congress passes the measure, a top-level body will be established to conduct a review of the US sentencing and prison system, in which nothing would be off-limits, even drug decriminalisation. Only when the commission has submitted its recommendations would lawmakers be in a position to act. And even then, they may not. America's prisons may be falling apart but many Congressmen will not dare suggest less means more in the fight against crime. Unless of course, you've got the bipartisan war-hero credentials of Jim Webb.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Application Support - Enterprise Java, SQL, Oracle, SQL Server

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A well-established financial soft...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: architecture, suitcases and ‘pathetic figures’

John Rentoul
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script after James Foley beheading

Robert Fisk
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape