We Are Not Nice People

We are not nice people.

And by “we,” I hope you do not erroneously come to the conclusion that I meant to exclude you. At least — or, more accurately, I should say “particularly”–  in the United States, you are not a nice person. 

Why do I say that? How can I say that? After all, you’re thinking, I don’t even know you.

To some extent, that’s true.

On the other hand, I do.

Nearly all of you — based on the statistical software that tells me where my readers come from — are from the United States of America, the country that imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world. More than China. More than Russia; the United States has more than four times as many prisons as Russia, which, when it comes to prisons, gets second place.

Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.1

Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.

But it happens. And it doesn’t just happen because you allow it. It happens because you insist upon it. As the subtitle of this story from The Economist — not exactly a liberal rag — puts it:

Never in the civilised [sic] world have so many been locked up for so little.

The Huffington Post puts this in perspective:

If sitting in a prison cell was a job, it would be one of the most common jobs in the United States. In 2012, there were some 1,570,000 inmates in state and federal prisons in the U.S., according to data from the Justice Department.

The United States has more prisoners than engineers. Way more prisoners than construction workers. More than twice as many prisoners as high school teachers!

It is possible — although no one knows for sure — that Cuba and North Korea might imprison a greater percentage of their population than the United States. But if you want to feel good about the U.S. because — percentage-wise — we’re not quite as bad as Cuba and North Korea, there’s more wrong with you than I first thought. And, by the way, even if the estimated numbers are right, we’re closer to those countries than we are to the next-runner-up to us. To make matters worse, if you count only adults, then one out of every one-hundred Americans is incarcerated.

And the nature of these lockups, despite the ignoramuses who talk about prisoners’ lavish lifestyles behind bars, is anything but pleasant. From that Economist article:

Justice is harsher in America than in any other rich country. Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. If those on parole or probation are included, one adult in 31 is under “correctional” supervision. As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. Overcrowding is the norm. Federal prisons house 60% more inmates than they were designed for. State lock-ups are only slightly less stuffed.

Yeah, yeah, overcrowding. *YAWN*


Prison takes offenders away from their families, marriages, jobs, friends, communities and churches and puts them in an extremely bad moral environment for years at a time. Social organization in prison revolves around vicious prison gangs, motivated by racism, hate, satanic influences and violence. Life among these mostly uneducated felons, including opposing gang members, the insane and the diseased, is generally unpleasant. Overcrowding makes it all worse in most prisons today. Many prisoners are beaten, raped, brutalized or live in fear. Deviant and forced sex increases because members of the opposite sex are unavailable. Guards can be unpleasant and brutal.

Absolute control is the name of the game, and prisoners are frequently treated in ways that Americans would never accept for animals.

"Group" therapy in prison.

“Group” therapy in prison.

Ha! Those guys have it easy! 

Plus they get three — uh, well, at least two! — square meals per day, right?

Prison Food

Prison “Cuisine” — Yum!

But I digress with this discussion of the exquisite prison cuisine.

The bigger problem lies in the fact that prison is a place which exists for one reason, and one reason only: to inflict pain. At this, it succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. In fact, it is so successful that by the time prison is done breaking down a person, that person is actually no longer likely fit to live in regular societies. We are, in effect, training people to prey upon others. We should not be surprised, then, that once released, they continue to do so.

The experience of being locked in a cage has a psychological impact upon everyone made to endure it. No one leaves unscarred. The experiences are hard to describe.2

As a result,

The experience “can create habits of thinking and acting that are extremely dysfunctional” and “permanently change those made to endure it.”3

The thing is, though, these habits of thinking and acting actually are not at all dysfunctional on the inside; they are necessary for survival. The system is so horribly primitive that it drives inmates insane. Given the cruelty to which prisoners are routinely exposed, not just by other prisoners, but by guards, the only real surprise is that we don’t have more problems than we do.

It is when they are released, as most inevitably must be, that the problem is brought home to the rest of us.

You want to feel safe? You want the world to be a better place? Rehabilitation starts with youReject sadism. Stop voting for longer and more degrading prison terms. Tell your legislators — your representatives, your agents in this inhumanity — that you want to see more rehabilitation and less punishment.

It’s not just about being nice. It’s about making the world a better place.


  1. Emphasis added. []
  2. Mika’ il DeVeaux, The Trauma of the Incarceration Experience, 48 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 257, 257 (2013). []
  3. Id. at 261 (emphasis added). []

About Rick

Rick Horowitz is a criminal defense attorney with an extreme dislike of the criminal "justice" system which routinely ignores the Constitution, the Law, and the lives it ruins.

In addition to this blog, Rick also owns Fresno Criminal Defense.


  1. I agree that people are likely to go in as a petty criminal and come up as a sophisticated criminal. What are they supposed to talk with each other when they are inside. They will discuss the tricks of their trades and ways of not getting caught the next time. “Us against them” is a well known survival method. They are suddenly comrades in crime. All the while, the authorities are just able to manage to keep them in the prison and have no time dealing with education and improvement of inmates.

    Also, I think it is important what action is taken for the first offenders. If they were sent to prison, there may not be any coming back from life of crime any more because they have been marked for life now. So, it is important to offer a chance for self correction after the first petty crime.

  2. Russell Pollard says:

    What a lucid exposition of the main problems arising from some of the central ideas that still prevail in the 21st century about incarceration.

    There are often valid reasons for removing people from a community, or from restraining those likely to cause harm to others. But not only do we we need to think of more sophisticated and better ways to do this, we need to make certain we understand what we are condemning people to when we incarcerate or restrain them, and we really should have a very clear idea about what exactly we can reasonably expect to happen as a consequence of what we are doing. It should probably be appended to every sentence that is handed out so that we can start to account for how far short of the mark we actually are.

    If custodial sentences are handed out and we have no idea of their expected outcomes, or if we are too dishonest to state those expectations, then we need to get a whole lot clearer about the whole business. It is akin to enrolling in a course, or going into a hospital, or buying yourself a set of power tools and then having no idea about what any of it will lead to when the time is up or the tools have been switched on. It is an absurdity but it is an almost universal one.

    In Australia the average expenditure for a year in prison is just on Aus$100,000 . Most of us have no idea what this amounts to across the entire system, nor of what else it would buy. In the non-prison world the money spent on keeping one person in the slammer for a period of ten years would buy a house, a job, and chance to live a debt free and productive life, a fresh start, even some ongoing coaching, mentoring or appropriate counselling.

    To be sure, prisons provide some of us with jobs as warders, cleaners, electricians, builders etc. And they provide some of us with a degree of respite from nasty characters who would harm us, but one then lives with the very real fear that after having served time the person may be even more dangerous, a whole lot fitter and far better connected should they ever need to dispose of a body.

    So what is this madness? To be honest I am unsure. I suspect that in part boils down to the fact that we do not call to account those who insist on maintaining this expensive behemoth of a system. We’re so relieved that they are keeping the trash off our streets that we just leave them to it. We wouldn’t allow that sort of annual individual expenditure on our tertiary students studying critical skills that will benefit us all. Whatever we are doing we are throwing good money after bad with an uncritical abandon that would be mind-boggling in many other circumstances.

    Whether they be the spectacularly short sighted crusaders who carry on about being hard on crime or those who insist that every adult thing they themselves don’t do needs to be criminalized, and equated with a gaol term, or simply the politicians and so called community leaders who are too lazy to think through the logical consequences of what we do to people in these places . . . and what else we might do, we need to hold them all to account for the parlous situation we are all in because of this expanding and largely failing system.

    Instead of having laws that equate all crimes with a number of months or years behind bars, we need to stop being so lazy and start examining the evidence from the countries, states, and systems, with the lowest recidivism rates and greater success at rehabilitation. We need to seek out new ideas and develop pilot programs which allow the court system itself to exercise greater choice in the consequences it metes out to those who step outside, or just find themselves, outside the law.

    Prisons are an immensely lucrative business. They should never be allowed to be used as a cash cow for any corporation, as a means of making handsome profits from the crimes and mistakes of others. If there was less money spent on prisons and more on mentoring programs for young people, on job training and work creation programs, on intensive individual and appropriate group counseling, on counseling about how to manage debt and to keep your head above water once you have reached financial rock bottom, even on “outward bound” programs that teach a greater degree of self worth and respect for others, then there might well be less prisons and more people engaged in these other service enterprises. Even programs that teach people ways of dealing with compulsive and impulsive behaviors, so that people can find and be supported in finding their way out of their gambling addictions or their propensity to lose their cool, so many things could be achieved if there was less emphasis on punitive notions of justice. I know it’s not simple.
    I know there are scary, bad people. I also know that there are good people, brothers, sisters, children, parents, people like ourselves whose lives are utterly ruined because they run, albeit briefly, afoul of the legal system.

    Maybe their actions have “ruined” the lives of other people who may then want them locked up. If it were only that simple. In any case, revenge aside, some bastard who commits some heinous crime needs to have more than a prison sentence. He or she needs to be stopped, and turned around. They may be stopped from their criminal behavior in the broader community, but they also need to not behave that way while in the prison system.

    The progression from time limited sentences that don’t seem to work does not logically move on to a life sentences without the possibility of ever getting out, nor to capital punishment. We need to be finding ways to ensure that for their crimes, they will be made to take some measure of appropriate responsibility. We need to find ways to assure victims of crime and the general community, that something is being done about it that amounts to more than temporarily taking people off the streets until they can return tougher and sneakier and more criminally connected.

    The situation is so bad that it undermines our courts. How can any judge in good moral conscience throw men and women into the prisons scrap heap where they will be groomed for further crime? Judges currently have little choice and we need to give them choices. And those judges who are too lazy to work with new ideas, well, we need to be looking at the results of what all judges do, of the outcomes of the sentences they have imposed. And if prisons sentences are doing the right thing we need to start seeing some evidence for it, for what has made it work, and we need to start collecting evidence about other pathways taken by progressive courts working with progressive “correctional” services.

    Where I live we are about to abandon the idea of giving people suspended sentences for minor crimes or crimes that are basically victimless, with no real thought to what the alternative, generally seen as some form of community corrections order, will actually achieve for anyone involved. It’s a response to the asinine idea that courts should have very little discretion and that the law is the law and everything and everyone can be made to fit.

    I almost despair . . . and then I read articles such as yours and I know there are voices afoot that are reasoned and, as we like to think of justice, balanced.

    Thank you for the article. Once my website blog is up and running I will point people to you eminently sensible remarks.

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