American Prisons versus the World Population

The United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With 716 people in prison for every 100,000, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, that is a higher percentage of total population than any other country. Furthermore, based on a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), A Living Death: Sentence to Die Behind Bars for What?, there are more than 3,000 Americans serving life without parole for non-violent offenses. For some the offense that earned them life in prison was stealing tools from a shed or being the middleman in a $10 marijuana sale. The ACLU estimates that nationwide 65% are Black; while, in Louisiana, with its infamous Angola Prison, the number rises to 91%, a quantified testament to serious unresolved racism in the country. These numbers are appalling in their own terms but when they are compared to the prison populations of other countries, the ‘land of the free’ becomes an even more frustratingly antiquated trope for the United States.

Adam Liptak, Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times, offers a simple explanation:

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.

The United States incarcerates 716 people out of every 100,000 citizens. Liptak noted in 2008 that if only adults were factored into the count then the United States incarcerates 1 out of every 100 citizens. Following the United States in incarceration rates as a percentage of the national population is St. Kitts and Nevis with 649. Rwanda incarcerates 527 out of every 100,000 people, followed by Cuba with 510 and Russia with 490. Belarus holds 438 and Azerbaijan 407. Not a particularly glowing list of human rights respecting countries. While China incarcerates far less than the United States, 121 people for every 100,000, the country does boast the highest number of prisoner executions in the world, based on estimated figures in light of China’s refusal to make these numbers transparent.

How do these figures compare with other democratic, advanced nations? Mexico holds 210 citizens per 100,000, and they are in the middle of a protracted civil war induced by the US led War on Drugs. Turkey holds 179 and the Czech Republic 154, while Argentina, Spain, and Scotland are tied at 147 per 100,000. The Netherlands and Switzerland both 82. Sweden incarcerates 67, while India only puts 30 out of every 100,000 people in prison.

Sweden recently announced that it is closing four prisons and many remand centers in response to a drastic decline in the number of inmates, the result, many analysts are saying, of a robust emphasis on rehabilitation and lenient sentencing, a stark refutation of the deterrent argument lobbied by many in the United States in favor of the prison industrial complex. The estimated additional cost to US taxpayers, says the ACLU, for current life without parole incarceration levels is around 1.8 billion dollars, a sizable earning for the nation’s many privatized prisons.

General social and political ideology, economic development, and quality of life in many European countries no doubt have played a role in decreasing levels of crime and prison populations compared to the USA. The differences between most of Europe and the United States when it comes to crime and incarceration are drastic, particularly with respect to prosecuting and sentencing non-violent offenders. In many ways the increase in life sentencing is a product of stalled death penalty reform, but a mandatory life sentence for violent and especially for non-violent offenses merely approaches capital punishment from an oblique and superficial understanding of why it is wrong and not from the perspective of fundamental human rights. The ACLU report’s author Jennifer Turner notes:

…today, the US is “virtually alone in its willingness to sentence non-violent offenders to die behind bars.” Life without parole for non-violent sentences has been ruled a violation of human rights by the European Court of Human Rights. The UK is one of only two countries in Europe that still metes out the penalty at all, and even then only in 49 cases of murder.

The Huffington Post reported that the advance 2012 statistics by the Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that the prison population in the United States for the previous year was 1,571,013, which marks a decline for the third consecutive year. However, when local and city jails are included, the article continues, the population exceeds 2 million, 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The same ACLU report noted above puts the incarcerated population at around 2.3 million people. That number is difficult to fathom outside of abstractions that either gloss over or do not register the severity. This number does not reflect the millions others, family members and loved ones, whose lives are irrevocably changed or shattered by a belligerent and flawed criminal justice system. Recent studies such as the one by the ACLU should engender a serious national discussion on prison reform in the United States. But the narrative continues to be dominated by politicized interests and the manipulated discourses of fear and otherness.

In an effort to lend more gravity to the discussion, below is a list of countries with entire national populations less than the US prison population. The following list has been composed using country population figures available through wikicommons.

Prison population of the United States… around 2,300,000.

List of the 100 Countries with a national population less than the US prison population:

1. Namibia… 2,113,007. 2. Lesotho… 2,074,000. 3. Slovenia… 2,061,349. 4. Macedonia… 2,062,294. 5. Qatar… 2,035,106. 6. Botswana… 2,024,904. 7. Latvia… 2,014,000. 8. Gambia… 1,849,000. 9. Guinea-Bissau… 1,704,000. 10. Gabon… 1,672,000. 11. Equatorial Guinea… 1,622,000. 12. Trinidad and Tobago… 1,328,019. 13. Estonia… 1,286,540. 14. Mauritius… 1,257,900. 15. Swaziland… 1,250,000. 16. Bahrain… 1,234,571. 17. Timor-Leste… 1,066,409. 18. Djibouti… 864,618. 19. Cyprus… 862,000. 20. Fiji… 858,038. 21. Reunion (France)… 821,136. 22. Guyana… 784,894. 23. Bhutan… 740,740. 24. Comoros… 724,300. 25. Montenegro… 620,029. 26. Macau (China)… 582,000. 27. Western Sahara… 567,000. 28. Solomon Islands… 561,000. 29. Luxembourg… 537,000. 30. Suriname… 534,189. 31. Cape Verde… 491,875. 32. Malta… 416,055. 33. Guadeloupe (France)… 403,355. 34. Martinique (France)… 394,173. 35. Brunei… 393,162. 36. Bahamas… 351,461. 37. Iceland… 325,010. 38. Maldives… 317,280. 39. Belize… 312,971. 40. Barbados… 274,200. 41. French Polynesia (France)… 268,270. 42. Vanuatu… 264,652. 43. New Caledonia (France)… 258,958. 44. French Guiana (France)… 229,040. 45. Mayotte (France)… 212,600. 46. Samoa… 187,820. 47. Sao Tome and Principe… 187,356. 48. Saint Lucia… 166,526. 49. Guam (USA)… 159,358. 50. Curacao (Netherlands)… 150,563. 51. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines… 109,000. 52. Kiribati… 106,461. 53. United States Virgin Islands (USA)… 106,405. 54. Grenada… 103,328. 55. Tonga… 103,036. 56. Aruba (Netherlands)… 101,484. 57. Federated States of Micronesia… 101,351. 58. Jersey (UK)… 97,857. 59. Seychelles… 90,945. 60. Antigua and Barbuda… 86,295. 61. Isle of Man (UK)… 84,497. 62. Andorra… 76,246. 63. Dominica… 71,293. 64. Bermuda (UK)… 64,237. 65. Guernsey (UK)… 62,431. 66. Greenland (Denmark)… 56,370. 67. Marshall Islands… 56,086. 68. American Samoa (USA)… 55,519. 69. Cayman Islands (UK)… 55,456. 70. Saint Kitts and Nevis… 54,000. 71. Northern Mariana Islands (USA)… 53,883. 72. Faroe Islands (Denmark)… 48,509. 73. Sint Maarten (Netherlands)… 37,429. 74. Saint Martin (France)… 36,979. 75. Liechtenstein… 36,842, 76. Monaco… 36,136. 77. San Marino… 32,509. 78. Turks and Caicos Islands (UK)… 31,458. 79. Gibraltar (UK)… 29,752. 80. British Virgin Islands (UK)… 29,537. 81. Aland Islands (Finland)… 28,502. 82. Caribbean Netherlands (Netherlands)… 21,133. 83. Palau… 20,901. 84. Cook Islands (NZ)… 14,974. 85. Anguila (UK)… 13,452. 86. Wallis and Futuna (France)… 13,135. 87. Tuvalu… 11,323. 88. Nauru… 9,945. 89. Saint Barthelemy (France)… 8,938. 90. Saint Pierre and Miquelon (France)… 6,081. 91. Montserrat (UK)… 4,922. 92. Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha (UK)… 4,000. 93. Svaldbard and Jan Mayen (Norway)… 2,655. 94. Falkland Islands (UK)… 2,563. 95. Norfolk Island (Australia)… 2,302. 96. Christmas Island (Australia)… 2,072. 97. Niue (NZ)… 1,411. 98. Vatican City… 800. 99. Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Australia)… 550. 100. Pitcairn Islands (UK)… 56.

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The Buddhist King and Modern Politics

The following is an excerpt from In Quest of Democracy, an essay written by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The original essay was written before Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in July 1989 and had been planned as part of an anthology of essays on democracy and human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi, after years of tumultuous house arrest and suffering, was released on 13 November 2010. Since her release she has continued to campaign for deeper democratic transitions in Burma as the leader, and founder, of the National League for Democracy. Around the same time as her release, the decades long military dictatorship began to initiate political liberalizations that permitted independent parties an unprecedented degree of freedom. Despite easily agreed upon positive steps toward Democracy Burma faces many obstacles and complex challenges to its ongoing democratization, particularly in terms of reconciling complicated group and individual identity politics. While this essay was originally written over twenty years ago, it presents a vision of a moral leader, a vision inspired by Buddhist legends and parables, with considerable transferability to not only guiding Burma’s democratic transition but in pointing to desirable qualities in all democratically elected figures and offers insight into discussions on resisting authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. It begins…

Opponents of the movement for democracy in Burma have sought to undermine it by on the one hand casting aspersions on the competence of the people to judge what was best for the nation and on the other condemning the basic tenets of democracy as un-Burmese. There is nothing new in Third World governments seeking to justify and perpetuate authoritarian rule by denouncing liberal democratic principles as alien. By implication they claim for themselves the official and sole right to decide what does or does not conform to indigenous cultural norms.

This excerpt was taken from a version of the essay appearing in Freedom From Fear: And Other Writing (2010) p. 170-173.

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“The Buddhist view of world history tells that when society fell from its original state of purity into moral and social chaos a king was elected to restore peace and justice. The ruler was known by three titles: Mahasammata, ‘because he is named ruler by the unanimous consent of the people’; Khattiya; ‘because he has dominion over agricultural land’; and Raja, ‘because he wins the people to affection through observance of the dhamma (virtue, justice, the law)’…

The Buddhist view of kingship does not invest the ruler with the divine right to govern the realm as he pleases. He is expected to observe the Ten Duties of Kings, the Seven Safeguards against Decline, the Four Assistances to the People, and to be guided by numerous other codes of conduct such as the Twelve Practices of Rulers, the Six Attributes of Leaders, the Eight Virtues of Kings and the Four Ways to Overcome Peril. There is logic to a tradition which includes the king among the five enemies or perils and which subscribes to many sets of moral instructions for the edification of those in positions of authority. The people of Burma have had much experience of despotic rule and possess a great awareness of the unhappy gap that can exist between the theory and practice of government.

The Ten Duties of Kings are widely known and generally accepted as a yardstick which could be applied just as well to modern government as to the first monarch of the world. The duties are: liberality, morality, self-sacrifice, integrity, kindness, austerity, non-anger, non-violence, forbearance and non-opposition (to the will of the people).

The first duty of liberality (dana) which demands that a ruler should contribute generously towards the welfare of the people makes the tacit assumption that a government should have the competence to provide adequately for its citizens. In the context of modern politics, one of the prime duties of a responsible administration would be to ensure the economic security of the state.

Morality (sila) in traditional Buddhist terms is based on the observance of the five precepts, which entails refraining from destruction of life, theft, adultery, falsehood and indulgence in intoxicants. The ruler must bear a high moral character to win the respect and trust of the people, to ensure their happiness and prosperity and to provide a proper example. When the king does not observe the dhamma, state functionaries become corrupt, and when state functionaries are corrupt the people are caused much suffering. It is further believed that an unrighteous king brings down calamity on the land. The root of a nation’s misfortunes has to be sought in the moral failings of the government.

The third duty, paricagga, is sometimes translated as generosity  and sometime as self-sacrifice. The former would constitute  a duplication of the first duty, dana, so self-sacrifice as the ultimate generosity which gives up all for the sake of the people would appear the more satisfactory interpretation. The concept of selfless public service is sometimes illustrated by the story of the hermit Sumedha who took the vow of Buddhahood. In so doing he who could have realized the supreme liberation of nirvana in a single lifetime committed himself to countless incarnations that he might help other beings free themselves from suffering. Equally popular is the story of the lord of monkeys who sacrificed his life to save his subjects, including one who had always wished him harm and who was the eventual cause of his death. The good ruler sublimates his needs as an individual to the service of the nation.

Integrity (ajjava) implies incorruptibility in the discharge of public duties as well as honesty and sincerity in personal relations. There is a Burmese saying: ‘With rulers, truth, with (ordinary) men, vows’. While a private individual may be bound only by the formal vows that he makes, those who govern should be wholly bound by the truth in thought, word and deed. Truth is the very essence of the teachings of the Buddha, who referred to himself as the Tathagata or ‘one who has come to the truth’. The Buddhist king must therefore live and rule by truth, which is the perfect uniformity between nomenclature and nature. To deceive or to mislead the people in any way would be an occupational failing as well as a moral offence. ‘As an arrow, intrinsically straight, without warp or distortion, when one word is spoken, it does not err into two.’

Kindness (maddava) in a ruler is in a sense the courage to feel concern for the people. It is undeniably easier to ignore the hardships of those who are too weak to demand their rights than to respond sensitively to their needs. To care is to accept responsibility, to dare to act in accordance with the dictum that the ruler is the strength of the helpless. In Wizaya, a well-known nineteenth-century drama based on the Mahavamsa story of Prince Vijaya, a king sends away into exile his own son, whose wild ways had caused the people much distress: ‘In the matter of love, to make no distinction between citizen and son, to give equally of loving kindness, that is the righteousness of kings.’

The duty of austerity (tapa) enjoins the king to adopt simple habits, to develop self-control and to practise spiritual discipline. The self-indulgent ruler who enjoys an extravagant lifestyle and ignores the spiritual need for austerity was no more acceptable at the time of the Mahasammata than he would be in Burma today.

The seventh, eighth and ninth duties — non-anger (akkodha), non-violence (avihamsa) and forbearance (khanti) — could be said to be related. Because the displeasure of the powerful could have unhappy and far-reaching consequences, kings must not allow personal feelings of enmity and ill will to erupt into destructive  anger and violence. It is incumbent on a ruler to develop the true forbearance which moves him to deal wisely and generously with the shortcomings and provocations of even those whom he could crush with impunity. Violence is totally contrary to the teachings of Buddhism. The good ruler vanquishes ill will with loving kindness, wickedness with virtue, parsimony with liberality, and falsehood with truth. The Emperor Ashoka who ruled his realm in accordance with the principles of non-violence and compassion is always held up as an ideal Buddhist king. A government should not attempt to enjoin submission through harshness and immoral force but should aim at dhamma-vijaya, a conquest by righteousness.

The tenth duty of kings, non-opposition to the will of the people (avirodha), tends to be singled out as a Buddhist endorsement of democracy, supported by well-known stories from the Jakatas. Pawridasa, a monarch who acquired an unfortunate taste for human flesh, was forced to leave his kingdom because he would not heed the people’s demand that he should abandon his cannibalistic habits. A very different kind of ruler was the Buddha’s penultimate incarnation on earth, the pious King Vessantara. But he too was sent into exile when in the course of his strivings for the perfection of liberality he gave away the white elephant of the state without the consent of the people. The royal duty of non-opposition is a reminder that the legitimacy of government is founded on the consent of the people, who may withdraw their mandate at any time if they lose confidence in the ability of the ruler to serve their best interests.

By invoking the Ten Duties of Kings the Burmese are not so much indulging in wishful thinking as drawing on time-honoured values to reinforce the validity of the political reforms they consider necessary. It is a strong argument for democracy that governments regulated by principles of accountability, respect for public opinion and the supremacy of just laws are more likely than an all-powerful ruler or ruling class, uninhibited by the need to honour the will of the people, to observe the traditional duties of Buddhist kingship. Traditional values serve both to justify and to decipher popular expectations of democratic government.”