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The accused killers are three unrelated blacks who call themselves the Soledad Brothers. They include George Jackson (see page 54), one of the angriest black men. In one of his many despairing letters to Angela Davis, the black Communist, Jackson wrote: "They've created in me one irate, resentful nigger—and it's building."
The idea that imprisonment "corrects" criminals is a U.S. invention. Before the 18th century, prisons mainly detained debtors and the accused. Punishment itself was swift and to the point. Europeans castrated rapists and cut off thieves' hands; the Puritans put crooks in stocks and whipped blasphemers —then forgave them.
In 1790, Philadelphia's Quakers started a humane alternative to corporal punishment: they locked errants in solitary cells until death or penitence (source of penitentiary). Soon the U.S. was dotted with huge, costly, isolated cages that deepened public fear of those inside and reinforced a U.S. spirit of vengeance against prison inmates.
Caging has crippled the entire system. Burdened with vast forts that refuse to crumble (25 prisons are more than 100 years old), wardens cope with as many as 4,000 inmates, compared with the 100 that many penologists recommend. Archaic buildings make it difficult to separate tractable from intractable men, a key step toward rehabilitation. The big numbers pit a minority against a majority, the guards against the prisoners. Obsessed with "control," guards try to keep inmates divided, often by using the strong to cow the weak. The result is an inmate culture, enforced by fist or knife, that spurs passivity and destroys character.
Even though two-thirds of all offenders are on parole or probation, they get the least attention: 80% of the U.S. correctional budget goes to jails and prisons; most of the nation's 121,000 correctional employees simply guard inmates and worry about security. Only 20% of the country's correctors work at rehabilitation and only 2% of all inmates are exposed to any innovative treatment.
Federal prisons lead most of the U.S. in job training; yet few released federal inmates find jobs related to their prison work. With notable exceptions, like California, most states provide no usable training, partly because unions and business have lobbied for laws blocking competition by prison industries. At least one-third of all inmates simply keep the prison clean or do nothing. Most of them need psychiatric help. Despite this, there are only 50 full-time psychiatrists for all American prisons, 15 of them in federal institutions, which hold only 4% of all prisoners.
The failure of American prisons, humane or inhumane, to change criminal behavior is hardly their fault alone. The entire American criminal justice system shares the blame. It is perfectly human, if somewhat bizarre, for a criminal to see himself as a victim. The U.S. reinforces that defense: most crimes are committed for economic reasons by the poor, the blacks and other have-nots of a society that stresses material gain. In fact, only 20% of reported U.S. crimes are solved; half the crimes are