Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky is a senior fellow at Demos and a writer on social justice issues. His latest book is The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives.

Recent Articles

No Exit

Fifty years ago, more than half a million mentally ill Americans lived in state-run mental hospitals like the one depicted so searingly in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest . Today, laws protect the mentally ill from needless involuntary stays. As a result, fewer than 80,000 people now live in such institutions. The revolution in mental-health care, called "deinstitutionalization," has not, however, lived up to its promises. It is true that mentally ill persons are far less likely to be confined in the bleak, punitive, overcrowded and counterproductive warehouses that passed for hospitals decades ago. Unfortunately, though, it is also true that they are far more likely to be confined in the bleak, punitive, overcrowded and counterproductive warehouses that are U.S. prisons. Somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 people currently live behind bars with a serious mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disease and major depression. Tens of thousands of these men and women are...

No Resources, No Results

In the early 1970s, America's prison population began a dramatic expansion that has continued, uninterrupted, ever since. By the year 2000, one in every 14 general-fund dollars spent by the states was being spent on incarceration. Vast high-security prisons were constructed at a cost of a quarter of a billion dollars each. Today, prison spending is, on average, the third-largest state expenditure (after education and Medicaid); more than $40 billion a year is spent on maintaining and running the more than 1,400 prisons nationwide. During the budget crises of the last couple of years, state political figures have begun realizing just how devastating the prison boom has been. They are also realizing that it is almost impossible to solve their budget crises without reducing the dollars heading into corrections. "The 'get tough' policies of the 1980s come with a high fiscal cost," says Marc Mauer of the Washington-based Sentencing Project think tank. "And policy-makers are increasingly...

Small-Town Blues

On April 17, about 50 residents of Encinal, Texas, drove across the railway tracks to the Veterans' Hall community center to debate whether the impoverished town should add a large, privately run U.S. Marshals Service prison to its meager list of possessions. Specifically, they discussed an environmental assessment commissioned by prison proponents to reassure locals that the prison wouldn't overwhelm the water and sewage systems, kill off the endangered wildlife and violate the peaceful, starry nights. But the real story had played itself out over the previous three years -- and it wasn't so much about environmental malaise as about shady deals, political horse-trading, and a deeply unsavory power grab by a series of private companies and middlemen looking to make a quick buck from the economic misery of Encinal -- a town of 600 people 40 miles north of Laredo -- and surrounding La Salle County. It's a salient warning of the problems this kind of business generates, as Texas now...

Return of the Madhouse

L ast summer, some 600 inmates in the notorious supermaximum-security unit at California's Pelican Bay State Prison stopped eating. They were protesting the conditions in which the state says it must hold its most difficult prisoners: locked up for 23 hours out of every 24 in a barren concrete cell measuring 7 1/2 by 11 feet. One wall of these cells is perforated steel; inmates can squint out through the holes, but there's nothing to see outside either. In Pelican Bay's supermax unit, as in most supermax prisons around the country, the cells are arranged in lines radiating out like spokes from a control hub, so that no prisoner can see another human being--except for those who are double-bunked. Last year, the average population of the Pelican Bay supermax unit was 1,200 inmates, and on average, 288 men shared their tiny space with a "cellie." Since 1995, 12 double-bunked prisoners in the Pelican Bay supermax unit have been murdered by their cell mates. But near-total isolation is the...

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