Pronouncing Our Own Doom

One fine day, a candidate for president may say the country's goal should be to have only the world's second-highest prison rate, and let Russia or China be No. 1. In terms of incarceration, the U.S. leads the world. The U.S. has a prison rate of 750 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. Russia, in second place, has a rate of only 628 per 100,000. The world average is a pitiful 166 per 100,000.

It's no coincidence that in both the U.S. and Russia, prison is a hot spot for epidemics. In October, a Virginia teen died from MRSA, a staph infection that has been raging in jails and prisons. Even the nice kids are getting sick. In Chicago, my city, MRSA has been percolating for years in the county jail, where we lock up over 110,000 people every year, men piled on top of men.

The current MRSA is pretty gruesome: First come boils, and then it starts to eat the flesh. And the current epidemic came in major part from the overcrowding of U.S. jails and prisons, just as drug-resistant TB comes out of the lock-ups in Russia. MRSA is an epidemic that has spilled not just out of Chicago jails, but out of those of Los Angeles, Dallas, and elsewhere, according to Dr. Robert Daum, a specialist in what he calls the "pandemic." The Chicago Tribune has run stories; so has the Chicago Reader. But far from being alarmed, the county board has actually cut medical staff at the county jail.

Recently, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia convened a hearing on the alarming size of the U.S. prison rate. Since the hearing was being held by the Joint Economic Committee, its pretext was the economic cost -- $200 billion a year. But Webb, not just a senator but a writer, a novelist, might have been doing what more writers in America should be doing -- raising our astonishing rate of imprisonment as a moral concern. Indeed, why is it not a bigger moral issue, even with writers on the left? About 2.1 million Americans are now in prison. Perhaps up to another 5 million are under supervision such as parole or probation.

The people in our prisons are often guilty of no violent crime. "In 2005," Webb said, "four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five for sales." Even in the case of sales, Webb said, most of those who end up in prison have only a "slight" history of ever selling drugs at all.

It's strange that the incarceration rate is not as big an issue in the U.S. now as it was in Dostoevsky's Russia, not to mention Dickens' England. It's strange, because the numbers are so much bigger. For locking up people, the U.S. has a capacity that is unmatched in the history of the world. Putin's Russia cannot spend the $200 billion we can to run our prisons every year.

But even the left seems fairly complacent about the prison rate. If anything, progressives like the fact that we are so quick to prosecute and lock up CEOs and cronies of George Bush's in prison. People are delighted when Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan goes to jail. When there was a chance that Karl Rove might be indicted, my friends were planning parties -- literally. Why celebrate Karl Rove or anyone else going to prison? It's hard to think of any greater tragedy in life than to be locked up in a prison. Certainly we have monsters that we have to get off the streets. But as a liberal, I take no pleasure when the rich and Republican go to jail. For one thing it's just another sad proof that the New Deal regulatory state has collapsed. We have to use criminal law to stop what our now deregulated civil administrative law used to stop.

But why not rejoice if Scooter Libby or Karl Rove goes to prison? It's because one day I may be sitting next to Libby on a plane, and I don't want to end up with any drug-resistant tuberculosis. Dickens pointed out the problem long ago: "But the gaol was a vile place … where dire diseases were bred, that came into court with the prisoners, and sometimes rushed straight from the dock at my Lord Chief Justice himself, and pulled him off the bench. It had more than once happened, that the judge in the black cap pronounced his own doom as certainly as the prisoner's, and even died before him." Dickens was right: Already people are getting sick. As we put more nonviolent people into prison, we may be pronouncing our own doom.