Friday, March 6, 2009

Penal Geography: America's Internal Exile System

BOULDER, Colorado -- It is well known that the United States has the proud distinction of having the world's largest prison population, which currently stands at 2.29 million (as of 2007, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics). The US also leads the world in the proportion of the population in prison - 738 out of every 100,000 people are incarcerated, outstripping the nearest competitors Rwanda (691) and Russia (611). If all people under the supervision of the corrections authorities are included (people on parole or probation), the total population swells 7.3 million, or one in every 31 adults.

America's penchant for incarcerating its citizens (and non-citizens) is well documented, but what is less well understood is the exile component of the prison system. "Transportation" has long been a part of criminal justice, when inmates were sent to serve their term in a distant land, like British prisoners sent to Australia. In Russia, criminals were exiled to the remote reaches of the country long before the Soviets turned internal exile into a grotesque science. Whereas Great Britain eventually abandoned exile, the Soviets continued to use it as a means of making criminals and political opponents disappear, sending them off to vast areas of exclusion like the Kolyma Valley and the northern Ural Mountains. The group Memorial, which was founded to document the crimes of the Soviet state, has a great interactive map of the whole gulag system.

At least American prisoners aren't like Russian political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is imprisoned 3,774 miles from Mosocw; his co-defendant, Platon Lebedev, is a bit luckier, sent 1,193 miles to a prison above the Arctic Circle.

We like to think that we are above this barbaric practice, but America's geography of incarceration bears some small, though troubling, similarities to the "Gulag Archipelago." This analogy is not limited to usual spaces of exclusion, like Guantanamo Bay and CIA secret prisons, but can be found throughout the state and federal penal systems.

Imprisonment serves three basic purposes for society: incapacitation, retribution, and rehabilitation. The first of these is the simplest - the offender is removed from society for a period of time because they are perceived to be a threat to commit future crimes. The latter two are less straightforward. Society obviously demands that people pay for their crimes, but calculating the "just deserts" for every offender and offense is an inexact science. Rehabilitation was the primary motivation behind the establishment of the penitentiary system (before prisons appeared in the early 19th century, the state's options for punishment were limited to fines, torture, and execution), but it has since become a much lesser priority, though the terms "corrections" and "penitentiary" (as in, to be penitent for your crimes) persist. Rehabilitation was also found to be arbitary and unfair, as prisoners were subject to indeterminate sentences, and unaccountable parole boards determined whether or not a prisoner was "reformed" and therefore eligible for release.

Okay, being sent to Attica is probably still better than this.

We accept that inmates should be removed from society, but we also know that the vast majority of them will need to be reintegrated back into that same society. Therefore, they need to maintain bonds with the outside world, but there are many structural features of the prison system that prevent them from doing so, the most obvious being the location of corrections facilities. When sent hundreds of miles from home, prisoners lose all links with their former lives, and family and friends are unable to visit them. According to a study by the BJS, 60% of state inmates with children reported being incarcerated more than 100 miles from their last place of residence. In the federal system, prisoners are transported all over the country, far from their last residence or the place in which they committed their crime. But even in state systems, prisoners are sent to remote corners, far from the bonds of home. Beyond the unpleasantness of it all, there are consequences to society for isolating prisoners - several studies have linked long distances from inmates' homes to higher rates of recidivism.

New York offers one of the most glaring examples of this exile system. According to the state's department of corrections, 52% of inmates come from New York City, yet only 25% of the prison population is housed within 100 miles of the city. The vast majority of the state's prisons are located in the northern and western parts of the state, and of the total prison population of 62,599 in 2008, 44.6% of were housed in prisons in rural counties, outside of any metropolitan area, be that New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, or Albany. Prisoners are sent off to areas that are not only remote and rural, but also overwhelmingly white. The result is a system in which a predominantly white guard staff supervises a prison population that is 76% black or Hispanic, marooned hundreds of miles away from their homes and families with no reasonable expectation of regular visits.

There is a reason why it's called the Empire State.

California has a similar gulag archipelago, though the statistics are not as stark as in New York. The state is second in the nation (
behind Texas, obviously) with 172,000 inmates; 16% of them are held in prisons in rural counties (though the counties in California are much, much larger, as is the state, meaning some additional prisons may be just as remote as in New York). If ever there was a symbol of exile, it would be the state's super maximum security prison, Pelican Bay (pictured below), located in the northwestern-most corner of the state in Crescent City, 350 miles from San Francisco. Granted, the prison houses some of the state's worst criminals, but only about 5% of them are serving terms of life without parole, meaning the remaining 95% will return to society at some point in their lives.

It would appear as if being incarcerated in a small state would be an advantage, as you could not be transported too far away from your home and family, but that is not the case. There is an increasing trend of states contracting with privately-owned facilities in other states to house their inmates. California currently has 6,538 prisoners housed out of state (about 4% of the total) to deal with its massive overcrowding, even though this practice was ruled illegal by a state court. Vermont, which has only 2,130 inmates in total, sent 529 of them to a facility in Kentucky run by the Corrections Corporation of America. Hawaii sends about a third of its inmates to private prisons in Arizona, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Kentucky. This usually does result in cost savings for the sending state, but there can be problems for the receiving state. Virginia last year reversed its policy of accepting out-of-state transfers; its state prison beds were being filled with them, while Virginia inmates were serving terms in overcrowded city and county jails not designed to house long-term prisoners. The New York Times documented the phenomenon of out-of-state transfers in 2007, and they published this map of the prison network.

Maybe America's not better - it is 4,450 miles from Honolulu to Wheelright, KY.

There are many, many other issues at work here that I did not mention, such as the politics of prison location, the growth of private prisons, and the inequities of the federal prison system. As I continue my research on this subject, I hope to post more about this in the future. But we have to keep in mind that prisoners, despite their crimes, remain members of our society who are entitled to basic rights. Very few of them have committed acts that anyone could argue caused them to ever forfeit those rights. They must pay their dues, but they will return to our society, so we must incarcerate them in a way that is humane and just so they can be reintegrated as productive members. Sending them to the far ends of the earth, cut off from the ties of home and family is not a good way to accomplish this goal.

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