Astra Zoldnere
Zoldnere is a Latvian film director, curator and publicist. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

Marc Morjé Howard’s book provides a shocking picture of America’s treatment of convicts through a detailed comparison of the European and American Prison systems.

Marc Morjé Howard’s Unusually Cruel is a detailed comparison between American and European prison systems. With a step-by-step analysis of the conviction process, prison circumstances, rehabilitation and re-entry into society, the book provides a shocking picture of the structural cruelty that American prisoners are subjected to. It also reveals a system that is not designed to reduce crime.

Welcome to Hell

The statistics say it all. There are many more people behind bars in the United States than in any other country in the world. While the US is home to five per cent of the world’s population, it houses nearly twenty-five per cent of its prisoners – seven to ten times more than European countries. The cause: that Americans have replaced courts with plea bargains – within this system the accused frequently claim to be guilty out of fear of getting even longer prison terms. Also, people are more likely to be sentenced to much longer prison terms than in Europe.

«The book reveals a system that is not designed to reduce crime.»

The Black Lives Matter movement has already illuminated the brutality of the heavily armed US police force, which shoots many more people than that of any other Western democracy. Howard’s description of prison conditions resembles the harsh images from American blockbusters: overcrowded, unsanitary places that are ruled by brutal convicts. In order to survive one needs to be ready to fight. The inmates are constantly facing sexual violence and rape risks, and the ones who can’t stand up for themselves need to pair up with the stronger ones – in exchange for protection they pay with sexual services.

A high rate of recidivism

Such an environment is highly traumatic and can cause psychological damage. After getting out of this hell people have very limited room for movement. In most cases they are not eligible for social housing. Neither landlords nor companies want people with a record – especially if they have black skin. As American prisons usually provide no education or other rehabilitation possibilities, many prisoners return to society with very little skills to offer in a free job market. Accordingly, the very high rate of recidivism makes perfect sense.

Marc Howard’s “Prison Reform Project” class that brought together students from Georgetown University and the Jessup Correctional Institution was featured as the cover story in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine in September 2016.

A question arises – why have Americans made such an ineffective system? The populist «tough on crime» movement started in the mid-70s – a time when crime was increasing. And even though the criminal situation has improved since the 90s, both Republicans and Democrats keep supporting an eye-for-an-eye approach. Howard explains it with four factors: race, religion, politics, and business.

«African Americans have never been given the opportunity to heal their cultural trauma.»

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