Monday, June 20, 2005

Surpassing the Gulag in Scale

Amnesty International, in its 2005 report, condemned Washington's violations of the Geneva Conventions: "The detention facility at Guantánamo Bay has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law" (emphasis added, "Foreword," Amnesty International Report 2005). The dramatic metaphor of "the gulag" used in Amnesty International's criticism stirred conservative opposition. Among its critics is David Bosco, a senior editor of Foreign Policy, who put the metaphor to an "equivalency test" and found it wanting ("Gulag v. Gitmo: Equivalency Test," New Republic, 3 Jun. 2005). Among other things, Bosco notes:
During a press conference on Tuesday, President Bush rejected the charge as "absurd." Amnesty has defended its use of the term. Below, a comparison of the two prison systems, with the aid of Anne Applebaum's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gulag: A History.

Individuals Detained:

Gulag: Approximately 20 million passed through the Gulag. The population at any one time was generally around two million.

Guantánamo: 750 prisoners have passed through the camp. The current population is about 520. (Bosco, 3 Jun. 2005)
Bosco's "test" should be faulted for its literal-mindedness that fails to appreciate the fact that a hyperbole is not an assertion of "equivalency."

Nevertheless, the gulag statistics mentioned above is useful, for it reminds us of prison statistics of the United States:
  • "Overall, corrections authorities incarcerated 2,212,475 prisoners at the end of 2003. . . . As of December 31, 2003, one in every 140 U.S. residents was confined in a state or federal prison or a local jail" (emphasis added, US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, "U.S. Prison Population Approaches 1.5 Million," 7. Nov. 2004).

  • "In 2003, 6.9 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at yearend 2003 -- 3.2% of all U.S. adult residents or 1 in every 32 adults" (emphasis added, US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Corrections Statistics").

  • "[A]ssuming that recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated 1 of every 20 persons (5%) can be expected to serve time in prison during their lifetime" (emphasis added, US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Lifetime Likelihood of Going to State or Federal Prison").

  • "The reality is inescapable: America has become a nation of ex-cons. Thirteen million people have been convicted of a felony and spent some time locked up. That's almost 7 percent of U.S. adult residents. If all of these people were placed on an island together, that island would have a population larger than many countries, including Sweden, Bolivia, Senegal, Greece, or Somalia" (emphasis added, Tom Cochran, "Executive Director's Column" [dated 7 May 2004], U.S. Mayor Newspaper 71.9, 10 May 2004 -- see, also, Human Rights Watch, No Second Chance: People with Criminal Records Denied Access to Public Housing, 2004).
That's not counting foreigners whom Washington has detained in Guantánamo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere; rendered to other governments (that it regularly criticizes for human rights violations); summarily executed; or tortured to death.

In terms of scale of incarceration, the US Prison-Industrial Complex -- even without Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, et al. -- has already surpassed the gulag in the Soviet Union.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The comparision in the New Republic article between the gulag and the U.S. jail in Cuba is wrong factually. The Gulag with the entire prison population of the U.S.S.R in any one year was around 1.5 million. Check out the work of J.Arch Geddes, a historian of the gulag who has access to the Kremlin archives. The rate of incaceration in the U.S.S.R at its height in the early 1950s was 1400 per 100,000. The U.S. is currently over 700 per 100,000. We as a nation are halfway to the gulag. Some U.S. states like Texas and Louisiana have had incaceration rates over 1,100 per 100,000. Some states I would argue are already nearly at the all time high rate of incarceration in the U.S.S.R. See the work of Penologist Nils Christie. However, we don't need to get to that level to have a more rational and humane criminal system.