By Scott Christianson.

Northeastern University;
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Source: Economist, The (UK) Copyright: 1999

The Economist Newspaper Limited
Contact: letters@economist.com
Website: http://www.economist.com/

  FOR the land of the free, the United States puts an extraordinary number of its citizens behind bars. After Russia, it has the second-highest rate of imprisonment in the world. One in every 163 Americans is in jail or prison, a rate six times the average in Europe. America=92s zeal for imprisonment is usually attributed to a recent shift towards harsh law-enforcement policies, especially against drug users. To some degree, this is true. The number of people locked up has tripled since 1980. But this recent surge is anything but an anomaly. Bondage of one sort or another has played a central role in American history from the beginning. It is no exaggeration to say that prisoners did as much as free men and women to establish the United States as a nation. Most Americans will scoff at this idea. Australia accepts its history as a prison colony. But Americans, with the notable exception of blacks, still cherish the idea of a country founded by hardy individualists, who spurned the oppressions of a rigid European order to build a better society in the wilderness of the New World. In fact, as detailed in Scott Christianson's fascinating new book, a large proportion of white immigrants to early America arrived in chains as prisoners, indentured servants or bonded labourers. Their Atlantic crossing was almost as terrible as that of the black slaves being shipped at the same time from Africa. Between a third and a half of white immigrants died on some voyages. Once in America, their lot was often only marginally better than that of slaves. Their biggest advantage over slaves was that they could look forward to being free once their term of imprisonment or service was over. Many, of course, never lived to see that day. For any American brought up on the more benign view of American history taught in the nation=92s schools, Mr Christianson's work will be something of a shock. But the evidence he marshals is simply too massive to ignore. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain operated a system of severely punitive laws designed as much to provide cheap labour for its American colonies as to curb crime. In an age when there was no established police force, private agents called =93spirits=94=97many of them criminals themselves=97were paid to apprehend supposed lawbreakers. Large numbers of people=97including hordes of poor or abandoned children=97were simply kidnapped off the streets of London and other big cities, and then sold with the blessing of a magistrate as felons or bonded labourers to ship captains, who transported them to the American colonies where they were resold as labourers to the highest bidder. One purchaser of felons was George Washington. This practice continued right up to the American revolution, which caused a prison crisis in Britain when hostilities interrupted prisoner exports. Even those colonists who emigrated voluntarily exhibited a taste for imprisoning others. One of the first public buildings erected in Boston, in 1632 when the town consisted of only 40 dwellings, was a "house of correction". Over the next 250 years, as America was settled, jails and prisons were always among the first public facilities built. For people trying to make their way in a wild continent, this was strange. Prisons and jails are expensive. Other societies relied more on different, cheaper ways to maintain discipline. In fact, once jails were built, Americans spent little on prisoners. Life "inside" was usually horrific. Frequently prisoners were left in dark cells to starve or die in their own filth. When larger state prisons were built, reformers sought a more enlightened regime. Rehabilitation through penitence had a vogue--hence the term "penitentiary". But even the best of these places were grim, involving unbearably long stretches of solitary confinement. After visiting one such penitentiary, Charles Dickens, well acquainted with the unsavoury English prisons of the period, turned away appalled, denouncing extended solitary confinement as "cruel and wrong". Most other attempts at rehabilitation foundered on popular hostility or indifference, as they still do today. Whatever white Americans were suffering, it is a safe rule of thumb that black Americans suffered more. Mr Christianson's account of black slavery is revealing on two counts. Drawing on a crop of recent studies, he derides the curiously persistent belief that most black slaves in the South led lives of rural contentment, except for the occasional family break-up when someone was sold "downriver". Southern slavery was enforced with whips, chains, beatings, rape and legally sanctioned murder. Southern whites knew what they were doing, and reasonably lived in constant fear of a black uprising, which then prompted them to be even more brutal. Blacks were desperate to escape. Many took enormous risks to do so. Those caught often paid with their lives. Mr Christianson also makes clear why free blacks, throughout America's history, have supposedly committed a disproportionate number of crimes and suffered similarly disproportionate rates of imprisonment. It is not because they have been more disposed towards criminality but because, well into the 20th century, they were legally barred from doing almost anything to better themselves. In many states they were excluded from all but the most menial jobs. Until the Civil War, free blacks had almost no legal rights of any kind, even in the North. After the war, most were not much better off. Incredibly high rates of imprisonment continue to scar American blacks today. The incarceration rate for black men is eight times that for whites. Most inner-city black children grow up with a father, uncle or big brother in prison. The social costs of this are enormous. In his final chapter, Mr Christianson describes the burgeoning prison-industrial complex, based on prison labour, which has brought wealth to many smaller towns and cities where prisons are based. America seems to have come full circle--imprisonment is once again as much about profit as punishment. As this book makes clear, popular support for mass incarceration and ever longer prison sentences is not merely a by-product of the past two decades' war on crime, but a consistent and ugly side of American society which has remained unquestioned for far too long.