As far as prisons go, the Soviet Gulags under Joseph Stalin are considered some of the worst in history. With over 18 million victims during the 40 years they were in use, far more than the Nazi concentration camps, the Gulags resulted in the death of just under a million people, nowhere near the extremes of Nazi Germany. But, knowing this number, how many people who actually suffered in the very harsh conditions of the Soviet prison system, a more chilling realization comes up – that the United States is rapidly approaching the Soviet’s for number of people in prison.
As of 2009, the United States has over 7 million people who are either in prison, or are on probation at this time. Since direct numbers do not exist for the total former prison population, the estimates for the total number of people who are in, or have been through the US prison system comes to just under 20 million, more than the Soviet Gulags.
During the 1950’s, the United States prided itself on its system of justice, that we would never carry out a system engineered to create a prison-state. However with the rise of manditory minimum sentencing, thanks to the so-called war on drugs combined with numerous companies using prisons as a cheap pool of labor, it is hard to see the difference anymore. From manufacturing to agriculture, from drug laws to the return of debtors prisons, the United States has created the very thing we attacked the old Soviet Union over, only privatized, and for-profit.
The Soviet Gulag was, above all else, designed for what the Soviet’s called vospitaniye or perevospitaniye, re-education. The goal was to prevent the recurrence of crime, and for the most part, it was successful. During a prisoners long labor, they were also educated – not just in vocational activities but also in cultural. The Gulags were a center of expanding the arts, particularly music, in the Soviet Union. It would be inconceivable here in the United States to imagine whole orchestras of prisoners – but we have no issue with prisoners stitching together women’s lingerie.
But wait, those who would defend the United States would say. The Gulags arrested political prisoners, not just those convicted of crimes. The reality is, those in the Gulags were convicted of crimes, many times over inflated charges based on mandatory minimum sentences, multiple-strike convictions, in short, the very things we ourselves are doing. They picked some arbitrary activity which their opposition would be engaged in, and focused enforcement selectively, just as we find here in the United States. Even the most abhorrent of crimes is forgiven if you fit in with the politically connected and wealthy within the United States.
Now, thankfully we are finally seeing these trends drop, with not as many executions, but we still are far beyond historical average. Our prisoners now have a lower death rate while incarcerated, thanks in part to better access to medicine overall, while the federal prisoner death rate continues to climb.
The United States has lost its moral authority to criticize other nations in so many areas due to the abandonment of our own ethical standards. It should come as no surprise that the neoconservatives who dominate our political system would have done this to our once great nation. Now all we can ask is what are we going to do about it?