« no blogging today | Main | Moussaoui prosecution »

September 25, 2003

imprisonment in the USSR and the USA

According to a scholarly article cited here, there were between 2 million and 2.5 million people in Soviet prisons and camps every year between 1938 and 1953. The current population in US jails plus prisons also exceeds 2 million (Bureau of Justice Statistics). This comparison has not escaped people's notice, as a Google search of "Gulag" and "prison population" will reveal.

Of course, there are differences between prisons in the US and in Stalin's Soviet Union. First, the vast majority of incarcerated people in America have committed crimes, and they have received due process, albeit flawed in some cases. Second, conditions in US prisons are better than conditions in Siberian work camps. Third, our incarceration rate is lower as a percentage of our population, although it may be higher in some inner-city neighborhoods today than it was in the USSR circa 1950. Fourth, the modern rationale for mass incarceration (reducing crime) is better than Stalin's reason (terrorizing people into submission to him personally). Above all, the Soviet terror involved mass killing as well as imprisonment.

Nevertheless, at the very least, the incarceration of 2 million Americans—with collateral damage to their victims, and to their families and communities—represents a social failure that's unique in today's world and comparable to the disasters under Stalin.

September 25, 2003 11:28 AM | category: none


Site Meter