America's Gulag

It was a sunny summer day in Appalachia -- Aug. 30, 1993, to be precise. There we were, gathered in a clearing fresh with bulldozer tread marks, bunting hanging from a yellow and white circus tent, a middle-school band playing the Star-Spangled Banner, a mayor, a congressman, an ex-governor and a senator lined up like a set-up to a punch line but only making speeches. The congressman quoted Mark Twain; Robert Byrd, the West Virginia senator, quoted something Doric, as he usually does whether he's remembering his days as a butcher or speaking of yesterday's quorum call; and everybody applauded at the right times. You'd have thought it was a ribbon-cutting at a state fair. But then the dignitaries and their wives picked up shovels, formed a semi-circle for the photo-op, and broke ground on a $76-million federal prison.

We were a couple of miles outside of Beckley, W.Va. I was a reporter at the time, covering the gala groundbreaking for the local paper and witnessing from the ground up the making of America's gulag. It may have been hyperbole to call it such two decades ago, when the nation's incarceration rate wasn't yet Siberian. But a rate that held around 110 people per 100,000 for 50 years started shooting up in the mid-1970s to the current 702 per, the highest in the world -- Russia, China, Belarus and other old reliables of repression included. Hyperbole no more. About this time last year a serial number somewhere in the archipelago tripped the prison census past 2 million for the first time in the nation's history. No gala celebration for that one, but only because congressmen have been too busy shoveling tax dollars at that other illusion of law and ordure, the national security state.

And so we come to the defining Venn diagram of this dark shades era in which the so-called war on terror and the war on so-called low-lives collude with razor-wired symmetry. One foretold the other.

We take it pretty much for granted that the response to the terrorist attacks of 2001 had to be as radical as the government made them, that they had to downgrade civil liberties and index mutual suspicions to a color code, that they had to plump up military spending and give birth to domestic security's Frankenstein even though there is not a whit of proof that any of it makes a difference. But the response wasn't at all pre-ordained. It was a choice, a bad choice, driven more by political opportunism than by evidence. The economy would have been in recession had it not been for spending on "homeland security," two wars, and the biggest expansion of government and the military since the early 1980s. Security firms, military subcontractors, some police departments, multinationals such as Bechtel and Halliburton (the Penn & Teller of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, at U.S. taxpayers' expense) are happy profiteers. The safety dividends for everybody else are harder to see.

The law-and-order types of the Nixon era, and again of the 1990s, did the same thing with drugs and crime. They saw an easy opportunity in fostering a culture of punishment and an industry to go with it regardless of the cost to society, or the evidence that whips and chains aren't the answer to crime as are balanced laws, strong safety nets and strong economies. The result: The nation is spending upwards of $50 billion a year on prisons, an average of close to $70 per inmate per day. It is an industry "bigger than major league baseball, bigger than the porn industry," according to Wall Street Journal reporter John Hallinan's recent book on prisons. Companies from AT&T to Procter & Gamble are cashing in, so are state governments (the state of Florida made $13.8 million off of inmate phone calls in 1997). Close to half a million people earn their living from prison jobs, double the proportion in 1980. What goes in must come out: A reverse exodus of inmates is flooding back to society. They'll be hardened, disadvantaged and disenfranchised (nearly 5 million ex-felons are denied the right to vote, including 7 percent of Florida's voting-age population). Great for the prison business, but the gulag's safety dividend is just as hard to see as "homeland security's" dividend.

In retrospect, the gala groundbreaking of that Appalachian prison a decade ago made sense, in its own senseless way. It was the kind of boosterism that encouraged people to buy into the idea. It made something oppressive look attractive. It gave madness its method. The same thing happened all over the country. In Tamms, Ill., a sign outside of town says "WELCOME TO TAMMS / THE HOME OF THE SUPERMAX," as if hosting one of the nation's harshest prisons were an honor. A diner there sells the "Supermax Burger." The prison hub at Florence, Colo., counts one prisoner for every three free citizens and boasts, on souvenir T-shirts, of being the "Corrections Capital of the World."

The same thing has been happening for the last couple of years to justify the war on terror and its destructive collaterals (newfound scorn for immigrants, old allies, the Bill of Rights, turning the globe into a game of Risk). The buy-in this time, the method to the madness, is unquestioning patriotism with a good dose of messianic entitlement -- God bless this, God bless that, and damn the consequences. The buy-in is complete, although the prisoners, in this case, are us.

Pierre Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at


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