The US prison system continues to fail, so why does it still exist?
- The United States is the world's largest prison warden. As of June 2020, America had the highest prisoner rate, with 655 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population. But according to experts, doing something the most doesn't mean doing it the best.
- The system is a failure both economically and in terms of the way inmates are treated, with many equating it to legal slavery. American prisons en masse are expensive, brutal, and ineffective, so why aren't we trying better alternatives? And what exactly are these overstuffed facilities accomplishing?
- Damien Echols and Shaka Senghor share first-hand accounts of life both in and after prison, while political science professor Marie Gottschalk, activist Liza Jessie Peterson, historian Robert Perkinson, and others speak to the ways that America's treatment of its citizens could and should improve. "The prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis," says Peterson. "Something needs to be done."
'Critical Tourist Map of Oslo' offers uniquely dark perspective on Norway's capital.
- Your standard tourist map is irrepressibly positive about its location—but not this one.
- Norwegian activist/artist Markus Moestue reveals the dark and shameful sides of Oslo.
- He hopes his 'Critical Tourist Map' will inspire others to reveal the dark side of their cities.
"Only negative stuff about Oslo"
Tourism is a conspiracy of euphemisms. Visitors only want to see the best parts of the places they visit. And the places they visit only want to show them their nicest bits. But now, Norwegian activist/artist Markus Moestue is completely reversing that premise. His 'Critical Tourist Map' of Oslo shows the worst, most shameful parts of the Norwegian capital. "It's just like a normal tourist map," he says, "but everything is negative."
In a clip on his website, he's seen wheeling a self-made kiosk across Oslo to distribute his work to passersby: "You guys want a free tourist map? It's a critical one: only negative things. So, nothing about sweaters or lasagna, only negative stuff about Oslo and Norway." Some hesitantly accept the map. Most walk by, nonplussed.
In the same clip, Moestue muses: "If you feel like you live in the best country in the world, take a moment to consider: Is that really a fact? Or is that just the result of a very successful national propaganda?"
One thing is for sure: Norway does have a very positive opinion of itself, and successfully projects that image to the rest of the world. Like its neighboring countries in Scandinavia, it regularly tops global rankings of happiness, equality, eco-awareness and other positive social indicators.
But Moestue argues that there is something rotten in the state of Norway, and he uses the otherwise irrepressibly positive medium of the tourist map to make his point.
"The Critical Tourist Map of Oslo might help you shatter a few myths about the greatness of Norway. Among the topics you'll learn about is Norway's aggressive foreign policy, our involvement in colonial slavery, the unfair asylum system and why Amnesty International has their eyes on our prisons."
A short overview of the places and issues he singles out (see map for full text) follows.
"Cleverly constructed doublethink"
The Royal Palace in Oslo. "The Royal Myth was created by King Olav in 1973, when he arranged a photo of himself pretending to pay for a tram ticket," says Moestue.
Credit: Palickap, CC BY-SA 4.0
Det Kongelige Slott (the Royal Palace) – Slottsplassen 1
"The Royal Myth was created by King Olav in 1973, when he arranged a photo of himself pretending to pay for a tram ticket. That iconic image showed the king being just like us. But of course, it was such a big deal because he's not one of us. This is very cleverly constructed doublethink."
Stortinget (Parliament) – Karl Johanns gate 22
"In 2011, these people voted to bomb Libya. 588 Norwegian bombs helped reduce that country from one of the most stable states in Africa into one of civil war with extreme suffering for its people."
Tordenskioldstatuen (statue of Tordenskiold) – Rådhusplassen (east side)
"Our national hero Tordenskiold operated as a slave-trader during the colonial era. Norway actively downplays this part of our history and has not provided any apologies or paid any reparations."
4. Oslo Prison
Oslo fengsel (Oslo Prison) - Åkebergveien 11
"Amnesty International has complained that this prison in Oslo keeps prisoners in isolation for up to 23 hours a day. This equals torture and may have long-term implications for the prisoners' mental health."
5. Lesbian bench
Karl Johanns gate (?)
"This bench is a memorial for all in Norway who have been discriminated against—and still are—because of their sexual orientation. Still today you can find discrimination, and some religious sects are still trying to 'heal' young people from homosexuality."
6. Indigenous peoples
Samisk Hus (Sami House) - Dronningens gate 8B
"Many efforts have been made to assimilate the indigenous people of Norway. Sami and Kven have had their cultures diminished. Use of their languages and symbols was discouraged, sometimes outlawed. Today, these languages are under threat of extinction."
The gap between history and reality
"In most countries, what we are taught about our own nation in school does not correspond much to reality," says Moestue. This map sets about correcting that shortcoming, at least for Oslo and Norway.
7. Oslo Courthouse
Oslo Tingrett (Oslo District Court) - C. J. Hambros plass 4
"Norway often claims to defend freedom of speech. But unfortunately, we are one of many countries that has not wanted to protect Julian Assange. When the Dalai Lama visited Norway, our prime minister refused to meet with him."
8. Government building
Regjeringsbygget (the Cabinet Building) – Akersgata 42
"In 2011, a Norwegian right-wing terrorist bombed this building, and killed 69 people in another location that same day. Altogether, 77 people lost their lives. He was a former member of the political party FrP. In 2018, the justice minister from FrP was forced to resign after spreading the same conspiracy theories as the terrorist had—mainly hate speech towards Muslims and the Labor Party."
Utlendingsinternat (National Police Immigration Detention Centre) - Trandumveien 80, Mogreina
"Asylum seekers in Trandum camp, north of Oslo, are held in conditions worse than in prison, including days of complete isolation, no chairs and minimal medical assistance. They have not had any trial and have not committed any crimes."
Equinor Oslo – Martin Linges vei 33, Fornebu (farther location than shown on this map)
"State-owned energy company Equinor spends millions on advertising aimed directly at the Norwegians. Their non-stop campaigning has made the Norwegian population one of the most climate-illiterate in the world."
11. Nobel Peace Center
Nobel Fredssenter (Nobel Peace Center) – Brynjulf Bulls plass 1
"The myth of Norway as a peace-loving nation has been widely promoted. However, since Norway's contribution to the bombing of Serbia, the attack on Afghanistan and the U.S. war against Iraq, this image should be adjusted."
East Side Oslo – Nylandsveien area
"Even though most drug use takes place on Oslo's West Side, the poorer East Side suffers more arrests and fines. Lots of resources are spent on the war on drugs, but the policy is lacking a holistic approach."
13. Jewish deportations
"During WWII, more than 600 Jews were deported from Norway to the Nazi death camps. The Norwegian police arrested the Jews and put them onto ships. After the war, the police chief in charge was pardoned. His next job was to hunt communists."
"In most countries, what we are taught about our own nation in school does not correspond much to reality," says Moestue. This map sets about correcting that shortcoming, at least for his own country. "Is Norway the most happy place, the most environmentally conscious, the most peace-loving or the most ethical [country on Earth]? Hardly!"
Seagull resting in Tordenskiold's hat. "It sometimes feels like Norway has no colonial history and nobody ate any sugar in the 17th century."
Credit: Michal Klajban, CC BY-SA 3.0
Perhaps somewhat too convinced of the malleability of public opinion, Mr Moestue muses: "People don't want to just come to Oslo, look around, go back home and say: Hey, I've been to Oslo, to have the best kebab or to have some mediocre Chinese food there. No. People want to go to Oslo and then they want to go back home, and they want to say: I've been to Oslo. I've seen Oslo. And it's really, really bad."
Most foreigners - and a good deal of Norwegians - will probably not know that the country has a colonial past, for example. "We had fortresses in Africa and colonies in the Caribbean. Norway actively downplays this part of our history and has not provided any apologies or paid any reparations," says Moestue. But "it sometimes feels like Norway has no colonial history and nobody ate any sugar in the 17th century."
However, don't mistake Mr Moestue's negativism for nihilism. Ultimately, his map has a positive point to make: "I feel that Norway is using too much resources appearing to be good, and too little effort actually doing good!"
And there's another thing the artist hopes is map will achieve: "I'm hoping others will make their own tourist maps about their own cities. If they look hard enough I'm sure it's also pretty bad!"
Learn more about Mr Moestue's map on his website.
Strange Maps #1056
Got a strange map? Let me know via email@example.com.
The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.
The '80s and '90s witnessed a rash of strict sentencing laws. Voters who lived through the rise of violent crime in the '60s and '70s offered full-throated support for such laws. Anxious to woo such voters, legislators hawked tough-on-crime rhetoric and passed ever-punitive legislation, such as Reagan's creation of mandatory minimum sentences through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.
In hindsight, the consequences are as obvious as they are unsettling. Stricter laws gave judges less latitude in sentencing, and prison populations skyrocketed across the country. By 1990, state prison populations reached 115 percent of their highest capacity. Unable to house their new charges, nor garner equally enthusiastic support for the taxes necessary to fund building new facilities, some states turned to for-profit prison companies to manage the influx. As of 2019, 28 states incarcerate people in for-profit prisons.
Given this history, it's not without irony that a new study published in Labour Economics found privately-run prisons don't help states manage incarceration. The presence of such prisons may actually increase the number of incarcerated individuals as well as their sentence lengths.
Cool hand rebuke
A chart showing prison population rates (per 100,000 people) in 2018. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Researchers at Washington State University sought to determine how the availability of private prisons affected rates of incarceration in the United States. To answer that question, they performed a regression analysis on state and individual data from 1989 to 2008. Their analysis revealed a positive correlation.
As the number of private-prison beds increased per capita, so too did sentence lengths and the number of incarcerated people per capita. All told, the increase was 178 prisoners per million population per year. That comes to a taxpayer-funded bill between approximately $2-10 million annually—assuming those additional prisoners are housed in privately-run facilities. When it comes to increased sentence lengths, Gregmar Galinato, a professor in WSU's School of Economic Sciences who co-authored the study, notes that not all crimes are judged equally.
"For crimes like property damage, fraud, or non-violent drug crimes—crimes where judges have more leeway in sentencing—states saw higher sentencing rates and significant increases in sentence lengths when private prisons were established," he said in a release.
The researchers advanced two potential explanations for this interstate discrepancy. The first is good old-fashioned corruption. In states where they operate, for-profit companies can incentivize legislators to push for stricter sentencing laws and bribe judges to inflate sentence lengths.
A haunting modern example is the "Kids for Cash" scandal. In 2007, the Juvenile Law Center began receiving reports that hundreds of Pennsylvania juveniles were being tried and sentenced without defense lawyers present as representation. An investigation revealed that Robert Powell, a co-owner of two private juvenile prisons, was paying off two judges to return guilty verdicts and severe sentences to bolster incarceration at his facilities.
The second explanation is simply the availability of prison beds. As Galinato explains, judges become more hesitant to send non-violent offenders to prison in states where capacity is a concern. However, privately-run prisons reduce such concerns, making it easier for judges to mete out harsher punishments.
Who profits with for-profit prisons?
The Labour Economics study suggests that privately-run prisons do convicts a few favors at the moment of sentencing. However, proponents of private prisons often point to other benefits when making their case. Specifically, they argue that private prisons reduce operating costs, stimulate innovation in the correctional system, and reduce recidivism—the rate at which released prisoners are rearrested and return to prison.
In regard to recidivism, the research is mixed. One study compared roughly 400 former prisoners from Florida, 200 released from private prisons and 200 from state-run facilities. It found the private-prison cohort maintained lower rates of recidivism. However, another Florida study found no significant rate differences. And two other studies—one from Oklahoma and another out of Minnesota, both comparing much larger cohorts than the first Florida study— found that prisoners leaving private prisons had a greater risk of recidivism.
The research is also inconclusive regarding cost savings. A Hamilton Project analysis noted that such comparisons are difficult because private prisons, like all private companies, are not required to release operational details. In comparing what studies were available, the authors estimate the costs to be comparable and that "in practice the primary mechanism for cost saving in private prisons is lower salaries for correctional officers"—about $7,000 less than their public peers. They add that competition-driven innovation is lacking as the three largest firms control nearly the entire market.
"We aren't saying private prisons are bad," Galinato said. "But states need to be careful with them. If your state has previous and regular issues with corruption, I wouldn't be surprised to see laws being more skewed to give longer sentences, for example. If the goal is to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals, increasing the number of private prisons may not be the way to go."
What makes some psychopaths better able to control their antisocial tendencies?
- Researchers have long struggled to explain the stark differences in life outcomes of psychopaths.
- A new study suggests that the personality trait conscientiousness helps psychopaths develop impulse-control skills over time.
- However, this process seems to apply only to individuals who score high in certain psychopathic traits.
What explains the stark differences in the life outcomes of psychopaths? Consider that one in five CEOs is a psychopath. That same rate also applies to prisoners. Of course, not all psychopaths are business leaders and criminals. But researchers have long struggled to explain why some psychopaths are relatively "successful," and others engage in antisocial behavior that ruins lives.
Now, a new study — set to be published in the journal Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment — aims to shed light on the factors that control psychopathic behavior.
"Psychopathic individuals are very prone to engaging in antisocial behaviors but what our findings suggest is that some may actually be better able to inhibit these impulses than others," lead author Emily Lasko, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, told VCU News. "Although we don't know exactly what precipitates this increase in conscientious impulse control over time, we do know that this does occur for individuals high in certain psychopathy traits who have been relatively more 'successful' than their peers."
'Successful' versus 'unsuccessful' psychopaths
The study notes that psychopathy exists on a spectrum in society, and it can manifest through a variety of personality traits, such as interpersonal manipulation, impulsivity, callousness, grandiosity, and boldness. Some traits may help psychopaths become "successful," defined as those who adapt to social norms and avoid incarceration.
For example, the psychopathic trait fearlessness may help a psychopath become a good first-responder, while interpersonal manipulation might help a psychopath become an effective lawyer. In contrast, the psychopathic trait impulsivity may make a psychopath more likely to commit crime.
The researchers hypothesized that psychopaths who are able develop impulse-control skills are more likely to be successful. The team suggested that successful psychopaths develop a mechanism that gives them greater control over their behavior, helping them thwart their heightened antisocial impulses.
Conscientiousness is the trait that predicts whether a psychopath will develop this mechanism, according to the study.
"The compensatory model posits that people higher in certain psychopathic traits (such as grandiosity and manipulation) are able to compensate for and overcome, to some extent, their antisocial impulses via increases in trait conscientiousness, specifically impulse control," Lasko said.
Lasko et al.
To test the hypothesis, the researchers examined data from a seven-year longitudinal study on adolescent criminals in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
"Although these participants are not objectively 'successful,' this was an ideal sample to test our hypotheses for two main reasons," the researchers wrote. "First, adolescents are in a prime developmental phase for the improvement of impulse control. Allowing us the longitudinal variability we would need to test our compensatory model. Second, offenders are prone to antisocial acts, by definition, and their rates of recidivism provided a real-world index of 'successful' versus 'unsuccessful' psychopathy phenotypes."
The study found that adolescents who scored high in grandiose-manipulative psychopathic traits early in the study were more likely to develop better impulse control and less aggression over time. Psychopaths who scored higher in impulsivity didn't see as much of an increase.
The findings support the idea that psychopathy isn't just about personality deficits, but rather a combination of heightened and diminished traits, some of which compensate for each other over time.
"Our findings support a novel model of psychopathy that we propose, which runs contradictory to the other existing models of psychopathy in that it focuses more on the strengths or 'surpluses' associated with psychopathy rather than just deficits," she said. "Psychopathy is not a personality trait simply composed of deficits — there are many forms that it can take."
The findings also suggest that the Big Five model of personality — of which conscientiousness is part — is an important tool for understanding psychopathy.
"Together, these results point to the consequential nature of the development of conscientious traits for psychopathic individuals, which may promote adaptive re-entry into society. Indeed, even 'unsuccessful' offenders in our sample exhibited associations between their grandiose-manipulative traits and greater impulse control (albeit to a substantially lesser degree)."
Over 800 prisoners in Texas relate their experiences.
As criminologists, we spent nine months interviewing over 800 prisoners in Texas in 2016. They told us about their lives before and during prison, as well as their impending return to the community, a journey shared by over 600,000 people each year.
We also learned about a significant reality in prisons: gangs.
Our new book pulls back the curtain on how gangs compete for control and structure prison life. Gangs wield power behind bars, but they are more fractured and have less control than people believe.
Getting in, getting out
Despite fairly extensive research on street gangs, there is little research on gangs in prison.
Conducting research in prisons is rare because it is hard to gain access. Prison officials tend to be risk-averse and loathe to let outsiders inside the walls. Even if researchers get inside, there's the possibility that prisoners will not participate in interviews. When the topic is gangs, these issues are even bigger.
That was not our experience. About half of the people we interviewed were affiliated with gangs. Gang and nongang prisoners told us, "I'd rather talk to you than sit in my cell." They saw the interview as cathartic; they were able to "get things off their chest" to a neutral party.
The 'war years'
Prison gangs exploded across the U.S. with the rise of mass incarceration in the 1980s. Texas prisons were mostly gang-free until bloody battles broke out in 1984-85 between the Mexican Mafia and Texas Syndicate as well as the Aryan Brotherhood and Mandingo Warriors. Fifty-two prisoners were murdered in a 21-month period that became known as the "war years."
Over 50 different gangs were represented in our study. Most of these gangs were active in prison and on the street. All of the 12 "security threat groups," or STGs as they are termed by prison officials, fit the classic view of prison gangs: organized, conspiratorial and violent. The remaining gangs are called "cliques." If security threat groups are like criminal organizations, cliques are like a band of criminals without clear leadership, direction or structure.
Race and ethnicity mattered to all gangs. Geographic proximity is the great social sorter for street gangs; it is race and ethnicity for prison gangs. Nearly all of the prison gangs were composed of a single race or ethnicity.
The people we spoke with made it clear that prison gangs in Texas are not what they used to be. Prison gangs were described as "watered down," no longer having the teeth to enforce rules, especially the security threat groups. Few prisoners, including gang members, believed that gangs brought order to prisons or made prisons safer, a claim often made about prison gangs. The perception of power is stronger than its reality.
While gangs may not have iron-fisted control over prison life, it would be wrong to think they lack influence. If gang members compose only a minority of prisoners, around 20% in Texas according to our research, how do they wield power?
Gangs use violence to resolve disputes, discipline members and protect their interests. Stories of violence are passed down across generations to ensure the memory lives on. The "war years" occurred more than 30 years ago, yet still loom large in the minds of the people we interviewed.
Gangs bring a different flavor to prison violence. There is a multiplier effect. A violent incident involving a gang member expands the pool of future victims and offenders because of the collective gang identity. Being in a gang means assuming these liabilities.
Joining the gang
For the uninitiated, prison is scary. People are stripped of their identity, roles and status from the outside. About half of the prison population is convicted of a violent offense. Joining a gang would seem like a pretty good decision.
Our research reveals that about 10% of inmates in Texas joined a gang for the first time in prison, while another 10% imported their gang affiliation from the street. Status and protection were common reasons for joining a gang in prison, much like on the street. But ideology was also important, such as race supremacy or vigilantism, which we rarely observe in street gangs.
Still, most prisoners don't end up in gangs. That's true even though avoiding gangs is harder in prison than on the street. Nongang members get their affiliations "checked" and are often recruited when they step onto a prison unit. Those that want to avoid gangs cite their religion, homosexuality or even status as sex offenders – most gangs ban inmates convicted of sex crimes – as reasons to not to join.
Blood in, blood out
It was once believed that once you join a gang you could never leave. Criminologists have dispelled this myth among street gangs; young people leave gangs regularly, and usually without repercussions like violence. We also found this to be the case in prison, even for the security threat groups.
Disillusionment is the leading reason for leaving. Gang members eventually realize they are sold a bill of goods on gangs. Snitching, victimization, solitary confinement and delayed parole crystallize discontent with gang life.
Leaving a gang is more difficult in prison. Walking away is not a credible option. Gang members sought permission or "gave notice" of intentions to leave, or enrolled in the prison system's two-year exit program.
Block the on-ramps, open the off-ramps
Despite decades of effort, breaking the grip of gangs on prison has been unsuccessful. The "silver bullet" simply doesn't exist.
Placing gang members in solitary confinement is thought to be a solution, but that's a management approach. It applies a Band-Aid to a bullet wound that could hurt more than help. And one-size-fits-all approaches to rehabilitation ignore the baggage of gang affiliation.
To compete for control, gangs need numbers, which is why focusing on points of entry and exit offers hope for reducing the power of gangs in attracting new members and encouraging current members to leave.
Doing nothing only allows the problem to fester and grow. Prisoners today will eventually become the neighbors, religious congregants and employees of tomorrow. We want people to leave prison in a condition better than they arrived. That means effective responses to gangs.