Published on Tuesday, October 14, 2003 by the Inter Press Service
'Fast Food Nation' Author Turns Critical Eye on Prisons
by Gabriel Packard
NEW YORK - Why is author Eric Schlosser hanging around Swedish prisons? Well, drugs, black market labor, pornography, and fast food can all be ruled out. He's already written about those subjects.
In fact, he's researching a book on the American prison system -- his third book in a self-declared trilogy. The first two were the worldwide best seller ”Fast Food Nation” and his collection of investigative essays ”Reefer Madness”.
”The three books are linked in many ways. And without sounding too pretentious, I view them as a trilogy. The United States has undergone some fundamental changes in my lifetime,” says Schlosser, who is 44. ”I'm trying to offer an alternative history of the last 30 years.”
Speaking in New York last week, Schlosser said that he'd been waiting since before ”Fast Food Nation” was published for a chance to write about the faults of the prison system, which frequently shocked him in visits he made while researching the book.
For a start, the prison population in the United States has exploded over the past 30 years, from about 250,000 in the late 1970s to the current figure of 2.1 million. That is more than any other country.
And not just any country in the world -- it's more than any country in the history of the world.
Of these prisoners, about 450,000 at most have committed violent crimes.
The other 1.6 million? ”You'll have to look at the 'war on drugs' for that answer,” he says.
People convicted of first-time, non-violent marijuana offences are frequently given longer sentences than murderers. Schlosser talks about a ”hippie biker” who was given 12 years for his first, non-violent marijuana-related crime. It is not uncommon for a murderer to get 10 years.
”It's an elaborate revolving door,” he says. ”People with drug problems go from an environment where they're exposed to drugs into prison, where they can continue to use drugs freely, and then back into an environment where they're exposed to drugs. Then if they fail one drugs test, they violate their probation order and they're thrown back in prison.”
Young black men and young white men use drugs at a similar rate, he says. But young blacks are five times more likely to be arrested, and five times more likely to be poor. ”If you can't afford rehab and a good lawyer, you'll probably go to prison.”
Three-quarters of all prisoners are African American or Latino.
There are also about 300,000 mentally ill people locked up and often poorly medicated.
Although he has never been sent to prison himself, Schlosser visited a range of them while researching the book.
”Having gone into these prisons for my reporting, I never, ever, ever want to be sent to prison for any reason, ever,” he says. ”But if I have to, I'd like it to be in Sweden.”
In one Swedish maximum security prison he visited (”the toughest of the tough”), there hadn't been a rape as long as anyone could remember.
In U.S. prisons, by comparison, one in every four prisoners is sexually assaulted each year.
Schlosser says he found in U.S. prisons a culture of sexual abuse, violence, brutality, gang and neo-Nazi recruitment.
He thinks the prison system is ineffective, misguided, over-extended and a waste of money. Alternative systems, such as drug rehab and restorative punishments, are a more effective and cheaper way to deal with many crimes.
The reason no other country in history has imprisoned more people than the modern-day United States, says Schlosser, is ”largely because no other country has been rich enough to do so.”
Each prisoner costs 18,000 to 75,000 dollars per year to keep behind bars. Altogether, the system costs U.S. taxpayers 40 billion dollars per year. ”That's more than we spend on our universities,” he adds.
In California alone, there are more prisoners than there are in France, Great Britain, Germany, Singapore and the Netherlands combined. And the prisoners are overwhelmingly poor, mentally ill, drug abusers, or non-whites.
Schlosser brought out some well-chosen, if well-worn, statistics on race in U.S. prisons. One in every four young black men is in prison, jail, on parole or on probation, he said. In Washington DC, that number is one in two.
One in eight black men in the United States have lost the right to vote because of a conviction or being in prison. ”There is no question,” says Schlosser, in an aside, ”that if they could vote, we wouldn't have this president [George W. Bush].”
The book, as yet untitled, will be published in fall 2004 or spring 2005, says a spokesman from his publisher, Houghton Mifflin. Meanwhile, high-profile black activist Angela Davis has also written a book on American prisons titled ”Are Prisons Obsolete?”
The answer to this question, as far as Schlosser is concerned, is yes.
Schlosser -- whose father Herbert Schlosser was the chairman of the NBC television network -- became famous for his book ”Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.”
The book was a worldwide best seller and spent more than a year on the New York Times best seller list. It continues to cause controversy: Schlosser says he's awaiting a subpoena which has been issued, but not yet served, by one of the companies he mentioned in the book.
© Copyright 2003 Inter Press Service