The flip side of the American dream—jail—depicted in all its pathos, tragedy, and grim ironies.
More pervasive than the Chinese gulags, as dreadful as its Siberian counterparts, able to incarcerate two million souls in the blink of an eye, the US prison system is grotesquely out of control, says freelance journalist Abramsky. Nearly one percent of the nation is now behind bars, half of them for nonviolent, victimless crimes, and the political system that spawned the jail explosion bears much of the blame. Though not ground-breaking, Abramsky's investigation ties together a wealth of strands that contributed to the burgeoning prison population and the current emphasis on punishment rather than treatment or rehabilitation. He examines the whole topic of crime and how it came to be manipulated for electoral gain by politicians from Nixon to Giuliani, who gathered votes as they rode a wave of fear generated as much by media spin-meisters as by criminals. Abramsky details the evolving national anti-crime, anti-welfare, anti-immigration sentiments, the ways in which the justice system maintains racial hierarchies, the divorcing of the drug question from considerations of poverty and unemployment. He raises some simple, discomfiting questions: why, for example, if jailing is deemed so effective, is the crime rate the same now as it was when the move to incarcerate began? Bringing the critique home, Abramsky uses two individuals as examples of how the system works. The failure is Billy Ochoa, a doper and pathetic small-time career thief now doing 300-plus years for welfare fraud. The success is former California governor Pete Wilson, whose sleazy opportunism on the crime topic won him political office and a presidential bid.
Though the author sometimes makes it sound as if no one had ever before leveled these criticisms, his striking portrayal of Ochoa and the kind of political zealotry that conceived the three-strike law provides valuable ammunition for reformers.