Congrats! US now imprisons more people than China

1. A recent study found that the US now imprisons more people than authoritarian China. Read the Washington Post report. But note that Jacob Sullum rightly asks us to be sceptical of China’s official incarceration figures.

2. Graphic video evidence of prisoner abuse in an American prison has emerged. Read Tim Lynch’s analysis. Remember this occurred in a domestic context where the rule of law is supposedly protected. It’s much harder to obtain such evidence from the secret prisons run by the CIA, or from Guantanamo Bay.

3. The latest edition of the Human Rights Record of the United States (prepared by the Chinese government to counter American preaching about human rights) is also worth reading.

Yep. The US truly is the most qualified nation to spread the values of freedom and democracy through the barrel of a gun.

44 thoughts on “Congrats! US now imprisons more people than China

  1. It would be very helpful if the negative news about America was better known; it might cut down on the millions of people who flood into our country illegally, and the many more millions who come confidently as tourists to have a good time. As for our too-full prisons, they are a shame (those tourists, y’know, for some reason don’t want to see all our criminals on the streets); we are a Judaic-Christian culture with a much-admired government-limiting Constitution, but so many Americans just don’t seem to be able to understand the linkage between freedom and personal responsibility that many end up in jail. Such a harsh American standard for freedom: personal responsibility. On the other hand, we have absolutely no political prisoners or prisoners of conscience (we admire conscience; foolish, I know, but we do; about freedom, we are fierce), and we are notorious for our drive to improve ourselves, including our criminal justice system.

    Hopefully, the sneering contempt of Australian libertarian anti-Americanism will spread and end the message of the Statue of Liberty.

  2. I imagine the crime rate in China is far less than the US. Even the big cities seem pretty safe to me — including those that top the bad list like Shenzhen.

  3. Wonderful! Our resident nihilist US-basher is now citing Confucian-fascist propaganda. While a lot of the imprisonment may have to do with the war on drugs which is unjust what do you think China does to drug dealers? Here a clue Mr Indymedia – their prison is six feet underground.

  4. I don’t think this is ONLY the war on drugs, or the war on terrorism but the usual nanny state angle that most of the industralized world is coming to. Basically laws which are vauge and allow anyone to be prosecuted.

    It is times like these I like to dig up an old poem by Oscar Wilde, Sonnet To Liberty.

    Not that I loved thy children, whose dull eyes
    See nothing save their own unlovely woe,
    Whose minds known nothing, nothing care to know, –
    But that the roar of thy Democracies,
    Thy reigns of Terror, thy great Anarchies,
    Mirror my wildest passions like the sea
    And give my rage a brother — Liberty!
    For this sake only do thy dissonant cries
    Delight my discreet soul, else might all kings
    By bloody knout or treacherous cannonades
    Rob nations of their rights inviolate
    And I remain unmoved – and yet, and yet,
    These Christs that die upon the barricades,
    God knows it I am with them, in some things.

  5. Duoist; Don’t worry about this shit, the Washington Post is not the sort of rag anyone who wanted to hear anything positive about the US would read, unless the advance of the nanny state is considered positive. Any document prepared by the Chinese government to counter American preaching about human rights) is not the sort of place I would look for an impartial view and i doubt that it is even worth reading.

    Certainly the ‘war on drugs’, probably places a huge number of people behind bars for what is a victimless crime, and the legalization of marijuana would probably reduce this by a large degree. I saw figures in the Liberaror Online “The High Cost of the War on Marijuana” indicating that according to a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 12.7 percent of state inmates and 12.4 percent of federal inmates incarcerated for drug violations are there for marijuana offenses.

    China as mentioned has, as mentioned above has a more permanent solution than jail for these offenders, and there are also suggestions that they have a somewhat more relaxed standard of due process than here or in the States.

  6. 1. Not only to be skeptical of China’s figures, but remember that a lot of people aren’t jailed, but killed.

    2. Violence is prisons: Sadly, I’d suggest an inevitable result of a prison system – especially an overcrowded one, which is why I believe it should only be a last resort.

    3. “prepared by the Chinese government to counter American preaching about human rights”… enough said

    You won’t get an argument from me that the US jails too many of its citizens for things which should not be crimes, but this post is unbelievable, and seems motivated more by knee-jerk hatred of all things American.

    “The US truly is the most qualified nation to spread the values of freedom and democracy”

    The biggest mistake the US made was that they tried spreading only democracy (majority rule) – and ignored liberty. So, in newly democratic Afghanistan, a man can be sentenced to death for converting to Christianity, or circulating material from the Internet that “offends Islam”.

    Perhaps liberty can only be achieved when the people themselves fight for it, and not from the top-down – but I think the US, having gone to the trouble of removing the existing regime, should have been a bit more forceful about some elements of the new constitution.

  7. Perhaps liberty can only be achieved when the people themselves fight for it, and not from the top-down – but I think the US, having gone to the trouble of removing the existing regime, should have been a bit more forceful about some elements of the new constitution.

    There is no perhaps about it Fleeced, but otherwise it is spot on.

  8. As an observer of the American justice system I would say that its fault is that justice, like health care, is not a right. It is a commodity which is only available at a price.
    A price much higher than many people can afford.
    Both justice and health care are luxury items that the rich can afford, and the poor cannot. Good lawyers cost big bucks.
    Thats how it works. If you got big bucks, you stay out of the slammer, but if you don’t got the do ra mi boys, well it doesn’t matter if you did it or not. If you ain’t got connections, or the do ra mi, if they say you did it, you did it, because there aren’t too many lawyers who want to invest a lot of time and trouble to defend you if you want to plead “not guilty”. At best, they’ll provide a lawyer that will try to make a deal and make a plea for clemency
    if you’ll plead “guilty”.
    In America, everything is a commodity, and as commodities, both justice and health care are truly luxury items.

  9. Sukrit

    I’m not sure of your point Is it that China is better at defending the human rights of prisoners than the US? If so, are you really this naive?

  10. Questioning my motivations (anti-americanism, love of China, etc.) or intelligence will only get you so far people.

    The issue is that we should judge bad policy and abuse of government power with objective eyes, whether it’s committed by an American or Chinese government. Double standards are only useful if you’re the President and need to justify policy mistakes by citing good intentions. As I’m not a bureaucrat closely involved with defending government activities, I take the sceptical view.

    Perhaps I should start up a regular “US Human Rights watch” feature on this blog to document the abuses that make the news on a daily basis. I might dig up the historical examples too, e.g. Japanese internment camps.

    Others are free to spend their time cataloguing Chinese human rights abuses if they wish. But I like focusing on the US because it has the most interventionist foreign policy in the world.

    The Chinese Human Rights report is worth reading not because you should believe every word, but because it cites publicly available information and mounts the counter-argument to the proposition that the US has an impeccable record of defending individual freedoms.

  11. Well in that case you are at the very least being misleading. To start, you are not looking at reasons for imprisonment, merely the number incarcerated. From the data you have provided as a premise for the conclusion that the US is a bigger human rights abuser than China, your argument is not deductively valid.
    As an aside, I would love to start a “Chinese Human Rights Watch” but their press is not free to report on human rights violations like that of the USA.

  12. Good point Sukrit — I am often suprised by the degree of unthinking america-worship by non-american libertarians. The american libertarians don’t seem to share this blind spot as much.

    Of course, america does have many virtues. Perhaps the greatest of which is that america tolerates a high degree of internal criticism. Noam Chomsky is a yank.

  13. Others are free to spend their time cataloguing Chinese human rights abuses if they wish. But I like focusing on the US because it has the most interventionist foreign policy in the world.

    And it makes you feel better too, doesn’t it? I mean, kicking the shit out of America is cool these days. Especially since it doesn’t strain the intellect too much.

    But let’s suppose foreign policy interventionism is truly the criterion by which you choose your ‘subject’. How on earth did you arrive at the conclusion America is the most interventionist?

    Which country has a standing army of foreign mercenaries? Which country has intervened in Africa more times than America has intervened anywhere? Which country has a similar policy towards troublesome prisoners as China. Which country invented foreign arrogance? I’ll give you a clue – it’s not America. It begins with F.

  14. it cites publicly available information and mounts the counter-argument to the proposition that the US has an impeccable record of defending individual freedoms

    Straw man argument Sukrit. I’ve never heard anyone propose America’s record is impeccable. At most I’ve heard it described as better than most, which it probably is. And the prison population is not a very good indicator either – or perhaps it is; Australia’s prison population is soaring.

  15. Faroe Islands?

    I think the petty and pathetic accusations of “anti-americans” show that some people are scared of debate. It’s like the cliche claim of “racism” against anybody who questions aboriginal policy, or “anti-semitism” against anybody who questions Israel’s policies.

    It is perfectly legitimate for a libertarian to complain about government policy. It is simply weird for some libertarians to fall in love with a large and growing, interventionist and increasingly un-liberal government.

    Let me make this clear — disagreeing with the policies of the american government does not make somebody anti-american.

  16. Let me make this clear

    Let me make this clear, Sukrit is anti-American. That doesn’t make me, or anyone else who disagrees with him, scared of debate or “in love” with America. It’s him.

  17. Perhaps we should ask him.

    Sukrit — what is your opinion of American people, the American constitution, the American environment, the American accent, American entertainment, American food, the electoral college system and the American foreign policy.

    Personally, my answers are indifferent, like, like, indifferent, like, indifferent, dislike, dislike.

    I’m not sure where that puts me on the “anti-american” scale. But nor do I care.

    Sukrit’s comments seem like a fairly standard complaint made by many american libertarians. I would be surprised if he actually hated american (whatever that means). It’s more likely that he opposes the direction of the american government’s policies.

  18. John; I’ll have you know I think very deeply about my America-worship, my point is that neither the WP nor “The Human Rights Record of the United States” are terribly objective as sources. The Washington Post in fact tells us to be sceptical of the Chinese figures, so the article is speculative at best.

    Prisoner abuse occurs in prisons outside the US, it is a worldwide phenomenon, and while reprehensible is not an indictment of the US, as a whole.

    The Constitution of the US is the benchmark for world liberty especially the Bill of Rights, and while the nation has essentially failed in some aspects to live up to the standards set therein accusing them of having a lower standard of freedom than China is a bit rich.

    America is not libertarian but is one of the few countries whose constitution and the philosophy behind it would allow them to be so. I am not in fact engaging in America worship as you call it nor do I believe the other commentators here are, but I believe in being fair even if as a nation they don’t pass the libertarian purity test.

  19. Seb- I didn’t say that China has a better human rights record than the US.

    David- The US has historically been very interventionist. In brief: it annexed Texas, New Mexico, and a bunch of other states during the war with Mexico. Phillipines was a colony. Other small islands are territories (e.g. Guam). Even disregarding the history, it currently has the most interventionist foreign policy in the world. No other nation can boast 700 bases in 130 countries.

    Others- The numbers are relevant because the US has a smaller population than China (300 million compared to 1.3 billion). Even if China and other oppressive countries are fudging figures, the US would still likely be the #1 for prison incarceration among democracies. How embarassing.

  20. Anti-Americanism is not about which aspects we like or dislike. I’m not aware of anyone, Americans included, who are uncritically in favour of everything American. Nor am I aware of normal people, which obviously excludes Islamic fanatics and the French, who are unquestioningly hostile to everything American.

    Anti-Americanism is manifested by the application of different standards to America than the rest of the world, where it leads to a negative conclusion. Such as comparing imprisonment numbers in China, or linking foreign policy to human rights.

    I suspect most libertarians who exhibit anti-Americanism do so out of disappointment, like criticising an athlete for only winning a silver medal in the Olympics. They have unachievable expectations and lack a sense of proportion.

  21. Let me know if I’ve got this wrong. Basically, if I criticise the US government for things like leading the charge into Iraq, passing the PATRIOT act, or having a horrible incarceration rate (according to a non-partisan think-tank), then I am anti-American?

    What if I was an American citizen…does that mean I’m anti-Sukrit? Anti-myself? How does that work?

    Anti-Americanism is manifested by the application of different standards to America than the rest of the world, where it leads to a negative conclusion.

    Aren’t you the one applying double standards here? Whether its the chinese or americans that kill innocent civilians makes no difference to me. Neither does good intentions. I call it as I see it.

    And I see that the US puts lots of people in prison for no good public policy reason (a huge amount of non-violent drug offenders). That is an infringement of human rights. They also execute people for drug traffiking. Infringment of human rights. And since foreign policy came up, I also see the US has contributed to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians in a war whose fundamental justifications have all proven false. That’s an infringment of human rights.

    I don’t post on China because it’s more important to reveal that good intentions in American foreign & domestic policy have led to horrific results. Everyone already assumes that China is evil. I want to show that democratically elected governments produce evil results too.

  22. Pingback: OK, I admit it: I’m anti-American. « Thoughts on Freedom

  23. The WaPo article is based on a Pew Trusts report which itself seems to be an update of a report they put out last year. This year’s report says:

    …for the first time, more than one in every 100 adults is now confined in an American jail or prison. According to figures gathered and analyzed by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project, the number of people behind bars in the United States continued to climb in 2007, saddling cash-strapped states with soaring costs they can ill afford and failing to have a clear impact either on recidivism or overall crime.

    See also this piece I wrote about last year’s report. The reasons given for the high and increasing rate of incarceration:

    * movement from indeterminate to determinate sentencing
    * abolition of parole and adoption of truth-in-sentencing requirements
    * lower parole grant rates
    * passage of “three-strikes” laws
    * establishment of sentencing guidelines (judges have little flexibility in sentencing)

    A large portion of our prisoners are nonviolent offenders, many of those for drug violations. Spending $27,000+/person/year to keep them locked up is stupid on its face.

    The percentage of the population imprisoned continues to rise. How insane is that?

  24. “What if I was an American citizen…does that mean I’m anti-Sukrit? Anti-myself? How does that work?”

    Then you would be a typical self-loathing lefty 😉

  25. Three strikes laws are paticularly bad, if not well intentioned. There is the incentive to murder any witnesses of the last crime.

    Truth in sentencing and stiffer penalties for violent offenders would otherwise end the “need” for such a law.

  26. I really don’t see what is anti-American about criticizing an aspect of American society. Moreover I don’t see why someone shouldn’t be allowed to be anti-American in the first place. Some of the comments here remind me of the bashing Orwell copped from the British Left after he published Animal Farm.

    The substance of the piece is: do the Yanks lock to many people up for too long.

    A: Yes.

  27. “They [the US] also execute people for drug traffiking.”
    Sukrit, can you cite that?
    It seems hard to believe in 21st century America someone should receive the death penalty for a crime where there is no identifiable victim.

  28. Phillip

    This is a lie which Sukrit has repeated even after I corrected him on this at Catallaxy.

    37. Jason Soon | March 2nd, 2008 at 10:28 pm
    What utter rubbish btw comparing the fact that a few US states have capital punishment for drug trafficking on the books vs a country that actually executes drug traffickers just to put on a show

    In practice, no one has been executed for a crime other than murder or conspiracy to murder since 1964, when James Coburn was executed for robbery in Alabama on September 4.[13

  29. It is the War On Freedom against your reactionary ideas and lower middle prole idealism as well as your dope smoking hippies and minorities. It is an act of violence perpetrated by the ruling classes against the normal classes of your nation. Do not worry, now my country does the same.

  30. Sukrit

    Your idea of human rights belongs to an era when my mother used to wear mini-skirts and my father had a Merv-like ‘tache. Drug traffickers do not have a human right not to be jailed, neither do users. I don’t personally believe users should be jailed, but since when did it become their ‘right’. It is a goal that a civilised society should strive for, not a ‘right’.

    And stop obsessing what the Cato Institute thinks. You need to start forming your own thoughts on issues.

  31. I don’t have a problem with the claim that drug taking is a human right. If advocating an Islamic theocracy without suffering government persecution is a human right then surely smoking weed without government persecution is a human right. The later is certainly a lesser evil. Surely. How can being free to smoking weed be worse than being free to promote oppression and intolerance?

    Clearly moral rights and legal rights are not a good thing and when the law violates our human rights it is best if at least due process is followed. However it does not change the basic moral propersition.

    Pommy I admire your relentless defence of free speech rights. It is core to open society. However I have trouble with the notion that promoting intolerance, hatred, oppression, death and destruction is a human right but inhaling chemicals for private and personal pleasure isn’t. The latter seems far more benign.

  32. Terje – there is a difference between the ‘right’ to speak rubbish and the ‘right’ to mainline heroin. i don’t see any similarities. for a start, there is a cost to society of the latter – theft, violence, medical care etc

  33. Well, that’s rubbish… There is no more cost to society of allowing someone to mainline heroin as there is to allowing them free speach. Legal heroin would stop the theft and the violence and pretty much the medical care. The cost to society comes from blocking the right to mainline heroin.

  34. People don’t have a right not to be gaoled?!?!? That’s like libertarianism without the liberty? Sort of an arianism?
    And you take offence at Sukrit’s little bit of anti-americanism? I’m sure you had a sudden rush of blood to the brain and had no idea what you were typing, right?

    (you may be able to tell I’m reading these posts from the bottom up…)

  35. In my second paragraph at #33 I meant to say “Clearly moral rights and legal rights are not the same thing …”

    Pommy – use of clean heroin has no notable medical implications unless you overdose. Promoting intolerance and hatred is a far more despicable pass time. I’m surprised that you are seriously taking such a position.

  36. Pommy,

    If you want to ban the use of drugs on your property and expend your resources on convincing people that drugs are bad, mmmkay, then that is your business. The government should not be involved in how people use their own bodies.

    I’m with Terje, I’m surprised to hear this ban drugs malarchy from you.

  37. Pommy — heroin has never robbed anybody. Without human use, it just sits there. The argument that it leads people to do naughty things is the exact same argument used against free speech. But ultimately, we must blame humans for their actions, and not blame words or drugs or guns. That’s the meaning of responsibility.

    And just like free speech, the argument in favour of legalisation is that free people should be able to do whatever they like with their own property so long as it’s voluntary and peaceful.

  38. The problem i have with drugs, and especially alcohol, is that it does impact on others’ lives. Heavy users of drugs are not the gentle weed-smoking caricatures that are portrayed in Hollywood. Heroin, for example, utterly destroys the body as ever increasing amounts are needed to gain the same high.

    Heavy alcohol use causes men to become aggressive – to fight each other and abuse women.

    I had a very close friend who was a habitual cocaine user – supposedly a ‘mild’ drug. He ended up taking so much to maintain the highs , that it changed his personality beyond recognition. He ended up beating his wife unconscious.

    To say that drug taking is a private matter with no implications for others is nonsense.

  39. “Haevy alcohol…”

    Bullshit. I like to drink, I don’t pick fights and I don’t abuse women.

    I’ve got no doubt cocaine and meth are bad, and they might really mess you up.

    The fact is the laws aren’t worth the cost, and most of the time, it remains a private matter.

  40. Pommy – please cite something to support the claim that heroin destroys the body. I’ve posted details that suggests a possible increase in kidney damage in the “Heroin” thread but even that is questionable. I think you’re propogating something of a myth however I’m willing to see evidence that suggests otherwise.

    Would you accept that we should ban hate speech if I can cite data showing a link to hate crimes?

    If we question all wife beaters and examine why they did it I’m sure we can find a long list of things that should be banned. Female insubordination would no doubt make the list. Should we ban female insubordination? I’m sure sexual frustration probably rates a mention. Not sure if you can ban that one.

    I agree with your accessment of alcohol. However prohibition makes things worse.

  41. I am pretty confident that habitual IV drug use destroys your veins etc.

    Needle drugs carry a whole new level of nastiness I just can’t be tolerant in my attitude towards.

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