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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

America Behind Bars - by Neal Peirce

Has America become a "prison nation"?
Check our culture.
We wink an eye as our youth are exposed to such films or television offerings as "Slam," "Prison Break," HBO's "Oz" and "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." Or such highly violent video games as "Grand Theft Auto." The constant message: If you're angry, strike out violently; if you're crossed, seek revenge.
Prison images are spreading across society. Example: baggy trousers. The "fashion" started in prisons, where belts are forbidden because they can be used as weapons. Result? Trousers fall. Now the dropping-pants, underwear-exposing trend can be seen on almost any street, in almost any mall.
Go to schools and ask youngsters for a show of hands whether they have a father, mother, brother, uncle or anyone close to them in prison. In many cities and suburbs, most kids' hands go up. And small wonder: More than 2 million Americans are behind bars, the most — in absolute numbers, and share of the population — of any nation on Earth.
Or ask school kids: "What's a sentence?" Ideally, they'd reply it's a group of words with a subject and predicate. But no, in many schools the reply is quite different: "Five to 10 years."
Our dilemma: America seems to have concluded that the way to deal with misconduct and violent expression of anger is imprisonment. Our drive to be "tough on crime" is exposing vast numbers of people to prison life, triggering more crime in the process. Psychologists understand the dynamics of aggression and which behaviors will lower it. But we focus on the tail end — incarceration — rather than the logical front end — prevention.


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