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  Saturday  April 6  2002    09: 51 AM


A Review of Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation

The statistics are staggering. The United States incarcerates more people for more offenses than any other country in the free world-- five to eight times more citizens per capita than Western European countries. The American prison population increased 500 percent between 1970 and 2000, doubling in the last decade of the century. More than 2 million men and women are locked up in the U.S. today.

What accounts for this unique and shameful social problem? The answer is partly explained by Sasha Abramsky in Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation - a well-researched and reported narrative of the recent history that lengthened sentences, built prisons, and resulted in mass incarceration.

This fact comes as no surprise to criminologists and statisticians. Only 10 percent of crimes are violent offenses against persons. The remaining 90 percent consists of property and drug offenses. People like Ochoa, a heroin addict who burgled and defrauded to support his habit, not psychopathic rapists and killers, fill the supermax prisons built in California, Texas, and Virginia to prepare for the age of incarceration.

Abramsky traces Ochoa's pitiful story up to and including his ultimate Three Strikes sentence. Ochoa was never convicted of a violent crime as an adult. (He was convicted of kidnapping as a juvenile, but the offense, though potentially frightening for the victim, was not as serious as the charge implies. Rather than taking a girl home from a party directly, Ochoa took her on a joy ride on the freeways instead).

Nevertheless, Ochoa was sentenced, at the age of 53, to 326 years in prison for committing $2,100 of welfare fraud to support his drug habit. He will spend the rest of his life in a supermax prison - where prisoners are confined to tiny cells for 23 hours a day, and never have any human contact unless chained and shackled - at a cost to taxpayers of over $20,000 a year. The Alice-in-Wonderland logic that makes petty theft a felony also turns someone sentenced under Three Strikes into an escape risk deserving of the harshest deprivations penal experts can devise. (The head of Virginia's Department of Corrections, Ronald Angelone, has boasted that the goal of a supermax is to "make life hell" for the inmate.)
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