American violence is higher than you think

From Christopher Glazek:

…the figures that suggest that violence has been disappearing in the United States contain a blind spot so large that to cite them uncritically, as the major papers do, is to collude in an epic con. Uncounted in the official tallies are the hundreds of thousands of crimes that take place in the country’s prison system, a vast and growing residential network whose forsaken tenants increasingly bear the brunt of America’s propensity for anger and violence.

Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.

From 1980 to 2007, the number of prisoners held in the United States quadrupled to 2.3 million, with an additional 5 million on probation or parole.

Here is one detail:

…the Justice Department finally released an estimate of the prevalence of sexual abuse in penitentiaries. The reliance on filed complaints appeared to understate the problem. For 2008, for example, the government had previously tallied 935 confirmed instances of sexual abuse. After asking around, and performing some calculations, the Justice Department came up with a new number: 216,000. That’s 216,000 victims, not instances. These victims are often assaulted multiple times over the course of the year. The Justice Department now seems to be saying that prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.

Here is more, via Eli Dourado.


Yet, in places with much less draconian imprisonment regimes, violence is declining.

Just another example of American exceptionalism - our violence being sponsored through tax money being spent on creating these conditions, as part of the process so many feel is the only thing keeping them safe.

See the DHS HQ move to Saint Elizabeths for just how this peculiar strain of insanity works.

Show me some stats.

Violent crime is on the rise across Europe.

I can't speak for all of Europe but this is definitely not true in Germany (, Britain ( and the European Union overall (

I can't speak for all of Europe but violent crime is declining in the Germany (, Britain ( and the European Union overall (

British crime statistics cannot be trusted. The BBC news cite to which you link says that the London district of Lewisham has the highest violent crime rate in Britain, yet it took me about three minutes on Google to show that's impossible: Pakistanis commit a monstrously disproportionate share of violent crime in Britain, yet account for less than one percent of Lewisham's population.

That is the most breathtaking display of racism and the fallacy of composition wrapped together it makes me wonder if it is just trolling.

This gets funnier if you look up the actual demographics of Lewisham.

As affenkopf points out, the facts are quite available. It isn't as if this information is not reported, after all - at least where I live.

But without that particular American spin - exemplified through explanation of a current style of typically numerically illiterate U.S. reporting -

'Despite the familiar media refrain that Chicago is the nation’s murder capital, the “windy city” does not even qualify as one of the nation’s top 25 most dangerous cities for homicide. Yes, in sheer numbers Chicago leads the nation’s cities in murders, but its per capita murder rate is lower than forty other cities with populations above 40,000 residents. In 2011, the last year where records have been tabulated to compare cities, according to FBI statistics, Chicago, with a per capita murder rate of 15.9/per 100,000 residents, ranked behind over three dozen other American cities.


Gun control opponents have often seized on Chicago as their example to “prove” that gun control is a total failure, by repeating the false claim that it has the nation’s highest murder rate. While Chicago is indeed a relatively violent city, the fact that it ranks behind a number of other cities with more relaxed gun laws, at least calls into question the logic of that argument. In addition, it should be noted that Chicago’s record year for homicides was 1974 when they had 970 murders, well above the total of 506 recorded last year.


In fact, the city’s police department reported that the first quarter of 2013, was the least deadly for homicide in fifty years. Chicago’s murder rate through the first quarter of 2013 was the lowest it has been since 1963.'

What do you make of the fact though that Chicago is really two big cities and not one? The north side of Chicago is VERY safe and affluent and in a lot of ways buffered both physically and in a way mentally from the rest of the city by a huge downtown area. It's also huge. Even the northwest side, which is more working class is still night and day from the south and west side of the city. How does this get taken into account in comparison to other cities across the US? Is it fair to lump both parts of the city into the equation? City boundaries just doesn't seem like the proper comparison. Telling someone in Englewood that Chicago isn't one of the 25 most dangerous cities in the country might seem a little ridiculous. That stat is based on what takes place in a world that the Englewood resident knows absolutely nothing about. You might as well be talking about China at that point.

BTW, four of the 25 most dangerous neighborhoods in the country are in Chicago.

What does that make Rogers Park, then?

Rogers Park and Uptown are Kiddy-Land compared to the west and south side.

"On the rise" in some places maybe (there's a financial crisis going on after all) but still 1/5 as serious as in the US.

It's like your whole house is on fire and your pointing and laughing at some other guy whose BBQ is burning!

Violent crime in Europe is higher than in the U.S., though...

I wonder what is the accuracy of the statistics.

Let us say that in country A, prosecutors derive their prestige from charging many people with many serious crimes. They may have great incentive to overcharge a trivial bar brawl into attempted homicide, etc. In such country, the statistics of violent crimes will be artificially inflated.

Let us say that in country B, the elected politicians are really afraid of publicly acknowlidging a rising crime problem. In such country, victims of violence may well be pressured by police officers into retracting their claims or settling for a lesser charge against the perpetrator, so that the overall crime statistics look better.

Let us say that in country C, the government has good reasons to falsify crime statistics, because the local economy is dependent on tourism, and many tourists would feel too frightened to come if the true state of things was publicly known. Given that not all cultures value honesty as much as Anglo-Saxons, the statistic books may be cooked outright to save both the face of the country in question and to mislead potential visitors.

I am not saying that either is the case of Britain or the USA.

This kind of intercultural differences makes it nevertheless very hard to compare crime stats, up to the level of complete uselessness.

I wonder how many people simply ignore this problem, and look at "hard numbers" of the official statistics in adoring trance.

In decades past, it was not uncommon in the US for a convict to spend three years in prison for aggravated assault. Now, many of those crimes are pled down to misdemeanor offenses.

The crime statistics are bent in the direction most favorable to government. In the past, high crime rates led to fat wallets in police departments. Lately, falling crime rates became politically advantageous
Whereas police used to inflate crime stats, now they whitewash them.

Does this purported fact about prison rape would diminish or assist feminist arguments about sexual assault?

Crime rates are no more derived from convictions. If that were true an unsolved murder would not count as a murder, which is absurd. This is the same fallacy as when people posit that unemployment rates only count people collecting UI benefits.

Good points by Eli Dourado. Since 1980, as can be seen here: the prison population has exploded, even accounting for population growth. What this means is that very bad, bad and not so bad people are mixed together. But, as the article says, that keeps crime off the streets and instead puts the crime (and criminals) into prisons. Not a bad thing if you ask me, though the drug offenders should probably be paroled.

that keeps crime off the streets and instead puts the crime (and criminals) into prisons. Not a bad thing if you ask me,

The magnitude of crime escalates. It's not like a shoplifter got moved from streets to prison; end of story.

It's more like, you took a shoplifter, put him in prison, got a spike in your rape / assault stats. and in the bargain probably created a new misanthropic potential abuser to be released on the same streets a few years later.

From what I've seen, the accounts of exploding prison populations are overstated, what we've seen over the long term is shifting people from mental health institutions to prisons.

The explosion of crime in the 70s and 80s is highly coincident with the reduction in overall institutionalization.

Isn't this strong evidence that the large increase in America's prison population is responsible for the large decrease in (non-prison) violent crime?

It depends.

Drastically reduce prison sentences, execute serial offenders in lieu of giving then long prison sentences.

That's pretty much what Glazek suggests, along with reducing gun control laws so that people can defend themselves from the now non-incarcerated criminals.

I should add that he does not claim that those are optimal policies -- or perhaps even good policies -- but he does claim they would be better than the current situation.

Murder rates in Prison are actually lower than those in society at large:

Additionally, the murder rate in prison has fallen dramatically in the past 30 years (see same source), and I saw nothing in the article in terms of actual statistical evidence that the crime rate inside of prison has increased.

The crime rate in prison doesn't have to increase to have the results that Glazek describes. Even if it stays the same, a quadrupling of the inmate population means a quadrupling of the number of crimes inside prisons (and a reduction, though of unknown size, in the crime rate outside of prisons).

It's not surprising that murders in prisons are relatively rare. And the Slate article fails to address sexual assault and other violent crime. Glazek's article has few statistics as well (probably because reliable data are lacking) but suggests that the prison rate is far higher for violent crimes, certainly for rape.

So these are violent people who do violence on the outside and continue to do violence on the inside, but it's *America's* propensity for violence? Sorry, but if Glazek's not going to frame the problem honestly, why should I read him?

The prisoners are (mostly) Americans too. I don't think countries have a propensity for violence; individual people do; but if you're going to compile crime statistics you certainly should include prisoners.

Just horrible.

Some excerpts of that article are annoying. e.g.

"Rodney Hulin, a boy from Amarillo, Texas, [...] had been arrested as a 15-year-old after throwing a Molotov cocktail into a pile of garbage. The trash burned, causing about $500 worth of damage to the exterior of an adjacent house. Hulin’s prank was unimpressive. [...] He was a small guy—just five feet tall and 125 pounds—but he got a big sentence: [...]."

Unimpressive, eh? Really? The average teen goes around lobbing Molotov cocktails? Also, since when does a guy's size start figuring into the severity of the sentence he ought to receive? Is arson committed by a five footer any less culpable than that by a six footer?

I might agree with the larger points of the article but the gratuitous trivialization of Hulin's crime is annoying. Hulin may be a victim of the bigger story, but he sure wasn't a victim in the arson.

Sentences for arson should be proportional to the height of the offender.

The American public these days seems to be so fascinated by draconian punitive sentences, that it does not seem to be able to see its own cruelty.

8 years in adult prison for a stupid prank which caused minor damage and no injuries??? Do you think that 8 years of young life are a just sentence for this kind of nuisance? Some Nazi defendants at Nuremberg got away with 10 years for war crimes, for Christ's sake.

Moreover, what about the age of the guy? A 15-year old teenager is deemed by law to be so mentally underdeveloped that he can't consent to sex or drink beer. Yet, somehow, he should be mentally competent enough to serve 8 years in adult prison?

You are misreading my comment. I'm not saying 8 years in an adult prison was the right outcome: All I'm saying is, throwing a Molotov next in a residential area is not an innocent rite of passage of a normal growing teen. Nor is the outcome as innocuous as it was in this case. It does deserve serious punishment, punitive & reformatory. The article is being too cavalier about what Hulin did do. This isn't shoplifting candy.

PS. What do you think is the appropriate sentence for lobbing a Molotov Cocktail close to a house?

As to your other arguments, I'd rather allow them sex & beer rather assume away some artificial version of a blameless innocent mind free to wreck havoc with a rap on the knuckles till something magical happens at 18.

Perhaps his point was that if you're a short and gangly kid and you get locked up with a bunch of tall, strapping blokes you are an easy target for sexually frustrated psychopaths.

Abolishing prisons may not be the finest of ideas but I am sure there is a case for arguing that certain crimes should carry different punishments. Partly because of the awfulness of this one but also because if you've, say, possessed drugs or committed petty theft and spend the next year(s) avoiding or enduring rape by prison gangs it would seem probable that you'd emerge as a far more unstable, dejected and dangerous human being. It's horrible.

You find a 15 year-old kid, that set a trash pile on fire, threating?!?

Thank God I grew up in the '70s, otherwise there's a very good chance I'd be in prison instead of founding, running and selling 8 successful businesses.

Only 8? Shame on you!

Eventually his trash burning proclivities got him in trouble......

And all without the ability to spell "threatening"!

You never did anything stupid as a teenager? I agree that the height thing is silly but giving him more than 6 months in juvenile (which, by the way, would REALLY SUCK!!) is the true crime here.

I'm sure I'll be called callous for this, but I think most people, myself included, would proclaim shifting violence from the street, where many innocents will become victims, to prison, where most of the victims are guilty of something, is an enormous success.

On the other hand, even more reason not to put non-violent criminals, even Bernie Madoff, into the same prisons with violent offenders.

Most people _not_ in prison are also guilty of something.

Are you aware about the book "Three felonies a day"? You are almost certainly also "guilty of something".

In these days, not even the federal government itself is capable of ENUMERATING all the federal crimes that are on books. Its best guess is about 3000, as if it was estimating number of stars in a faraway galaxy or so.

Moreover, more and more crimes require no mens rea. Some people have been sentenced for many years into prison for such heinous activities as accidentally driving into a national park without permit (in a snowstorm) or possessing a lobster under certain size (even if they bought it in a store, thinking naively that it must be OK).

If that kind of hammer one day swings on you, will you go happily to a prison rape experience, knowing that you're guilty of *something*?

And how often does someone really get incarcerated from one of your anecdotal examples? Would I go happily to prison if that happened to me? Of course not. What a stupid rhetorical question. Would you happily submit to a crime committed by a convicted criminal released from prison under the terms described in the article? I doubt it. I know which scenario I consider more likely.

The obvious solution: Just legalize rape.

The criminality goes away, and huge fun for everyone! And the 99% of ugly people get their fair share of sex from the 1% beautiful people!

So American prisons are very violent places.

An oddly roundabout and deceptive post to make that simple point.

Why are they so violent ?

After all, the prison population is finely classified & segregated across the nation into a vast gulag. Local, county, state, and Federal jails immediately sort inmates by gender, violent/non-violent, low-risk/hi-risk, etc. And (supposedly) the inmates are intensely monitored & controlled by an expert, professional, heavily-unionized guard/police forces. Taxpayers spend huge amounts on this system; $168K/year per prisoner is the average cost at New York City's Riker's Island prison -- a lower tier in the gulag. What could go wrong in this system ?

Perhaps the cure is worse than the disease, especially for non-violent offenders and those condemned for victimless-crimes. And 'managing-prisons' might well be another item on the long list of tasks at which the government is incompetent.

There's wide variation in the competence of prison management with some much better than others. And some private prison corporations are very incompetent. This suggests the need to ask "Why? What's the difference? " And the need of intelligent people to better understand the politics and administration of justice in this country rather than to blithely dismiss the question with the pat answer "government is incompetent."

Who's idea was it to give prisoners freedom? If you tried to implement any system that restricted prisoners' "rights," the ACLU and other groups will find a federal judge to shut it down.

Once you put people in prison, against their will, you become responsible for their safety. U.S. prison authorities cannot evade their responsibility to the incarcerated, nor can the politicians who appointed them, nor the people who elected the politicians. The violence that prisoners suffer inside U.S. jails -- often more serious than the crimes that got them *into* those jails -- amounts to a shadow "correctional" system, whose random and non-proportionate nature calls into serious question the morality of the society that produced it.

Also, should depleted uranium shells count as chemical weapons?

Agree with most but DU is just as toxic as most any other metal in the right dosage. Radiation danger is minor at worst. Acute toxicity from incendiary rounds byproduct of solulable uranium salts is a great way to destroy kidneys but in the long run by that logic shouldn't metals like lead be chemical weapons.

To me true chemical weapons don't damage the body directly but mimic actual chemicals to hijack our bodies natural systems for the purposes of killing people.

I don't think Glazek will get very far with his proposal to eliminate prisons. The objective function of the majority of the voting public is not to maximize the welfare of the entire population, it is to maximize the welfare of the subset of the population that they care about. Most people are mostly law abiding, and don't care very much about what happens to law breakers.

Threatening men with sexual violence and humiliation is an effective method of controlling all kinds of crime, from murder and robbery to financial fraud. The USA has institutionalized and perfected this technique. The methods now come so naturally to Americans that they are also used as tactics in war, as we learned from leaked evidence from Abu Ghraib.

If we were to even give his "abolish prisons" idea any serious thought, so what do we do with people who, say, steal?

I fancy if the old-fashioned transportation wasn't a better way. After a few generations, both Australia and Siberia seem to be populated by decent people.

There aren't any good places left, though. Maybe Greenland or Svalbard. If you need to build a survival hut in Svalbard, you will probably have no energy left to continue stealing.

Svalbard also has great internet access because they can piggyback off the massive overcapacity put in place as the primary satellite ground station for every major civilian government agency for the northern hemisphere. (It is the only place on earth developed to reach every polar orbit)

Shock collars and sheet music is all it takes to turn even the most violent thugs into a choir of angels. We just need to get over our obsession with "rights" and focus more on results. Like so many of our institutions, it really is a horribly antiquated system practically screaming for an extreme makeover. You can easily imagine how a combination of drugs, shock therapy, a little positive reinforcement, some incentive alignment (gasp!) -- just good old fashioned ingenuity could transform these brutalist crime camps into veritable resorts where demeanors are actually corrected and scallywags are taught to serve society, showing proper respect for themselves and for the god that made them.

Perhaps it could be offshored where the results could be demonstrated and then brought back to the mainland after a time. Indeed, programs like these could be seamlessly integrated with the general population, former thugs with tattooed faces living right alongside naturally peaceful and productive citizens.

Definitely a topic that deserves greater attention from supposed economists.

Paging Dr. Ludovico...(I'm betting your post was satire though)

Forget the criminals, we need the space for political dissidents!

"William Milliken, an embattled moderate Republican from the state’s desolate north, signed the 650-lifer law, a Rockefeller-inspired provision mandating life sentences for anyone caught in possession of 650 or more grams of cocaine or heroin. 85 percent of those sentenced under the provision had no prior criminal record."

That was surprising: Does someone with no criminal record start off with moving a kilo of heroin? Or did they just never get caught before?

One would suspect the people getting caught in these scenarios are mostly couriers, rather than dealers. Someone without a prior record would be much less likely to get pulled over for random profiling and the sort.

It doesn't mention the actual number of sentences, so it might be just two or three guys with a record. Also it's probably better to use someone with a clean slate as a drug mule. And of course, this is the product that always finds a buyer; no matter the implied scariness of bullshit numbers, 650 g of coke might be just to supply few biggest clubs in the city for two weekends, especially if they're still (back?) in the eighties.

They may be small things but, 'embattled'? He was the state's longest serving governor, and 'desolate'? The Traverse City area is Michigan's main tourism/recreation hot spot. A couple of small howlers lead one to wonder how many other 'facts' he's made up to make the story sound better.

What a strange, gratuitous reference to the financial crisis:

"Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells."

Not only is the analogy lacking, but could he have found a demonization of the financial crisis that was further from the truth than this one? It was about conniving to transfer risk to the homebuyers? Huh?

The whole thing gives the impression of a potentially important topic, treated polemically.

Agreed. I stopped reading at 'hyperhell'. There's an awful lot of hand-waving going on here.

Quick quiz question:

Where would you go if you wanted to be victimized?

Second quiz question:

Has the prison population dramatically increased or decreased?

Final question: Given the answers to your questions above, what is wrong with the statement: Prison Crime Has Increased.

I flunk this test unless you're seriously implying that millions of Americans seek out prison out of a desire to be victimised. If you had to take account of every possible explanation for something, no matter how ludicrous, you wouldn't be able to say anything at all.

Robert, I am simply pointing out that if you increase prison populations, even with a constant rate of internal victimization, prison crime increases. I would have liked to have seen statistics on victimization as percent of incarcerated population over time instead of a total number.

Rape? Shock collars? No, just make prisoners read everything ever published in Nplusone, over and over. That's what I call a deterrent.

The constant joking references at the end of detective shows to the bad guys getting prison raped are shameful.


Maybe we should pay the prison guards more.

The US incarceration rate is an atrocity, but this article does it no good service. There are no citations, only allusions. There may be a story there about crime being transferred into prison, but this doesn't provide it.

Why is it an 'atrocity'? Do you have evidence that innocent people are being systematically railroaded? About 60% of all defendants avoid state penitentiaries and the mean time served for those incarcerated there is around 2.5 years. That is an 'atrocity'?

For one, you'd have to justify if US citizens are so much more criminal minded than the rest of the western world to account for the huge disparity in incarceration rates.

Why? We constitute 40% of the 'Western World'. Why should we be taking our cues from Sweden?

Again, the incarceration figures are a consequence of the operation of thousands of local superior courts. What are they doing that is systematically illegitimate?

Your assumption is that most criminals are (culturally speaking) from the "western world." But the United States exhibits tremendous cultural variance (see, for example, those cool "who watches what" graphs from the NY Times, using Netflix data), and incarceration rates in some ways parallel that cultural variance.

You can interpret this two different ways. In interpretation #1, some cultures within the U.S. are more violent than others, and incarceration rates reflect this. Alternatively, in interpretation #2, some cultures are more persecuted than others, and incarceration rates reflect this.

Either way, comparing criminal-mindedness to "the rest of the western world" is misleading.

Sounds like a resounding success from the article. Good decent Americans safe in their homes while those horrible criminals get what they deserve.

I don't see the non-criminal Americans, who are the voters and tax payers, voting to change this system. Wouldn't that be pretty stupid of them to vote against their own direct self-interest?

Lost me at Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers. Ugh.

I'm not okay with torture, but I'm okay with prison rape. Forced sex is a nice way to pass the time in prison.

Of course, in return, criminals should have the legal right to rape whomever they want once they get out.

There's been a fair amount of coverage recently of various efforts to have police officers wear head-mounted cameras while on duty. They claim to find beneficial effects on the behavior of both police officers and suspects, and a reduction in violence.

I wonder if a similar effort could be even more beneficial inside prisons. If all prisoners and guards had to wear a head-mounted camera and microphone, then suddenly there would be a wealth of evidence that would document the assaults and such taking place, and hopefully deter the great majority of them. Prisoners could even designate an outside party such as a prison reform nonprofit to receive a copy of their streamed video footage. We previously wouldn't have been able to feasibly implement this kind of project, but the technical aspects at least are now within our reach. It would be crucial for this to be mandatory, since otherwise prisoners using it would be persecuted as snitches.

The problem is that prisons lie paradoxically outside the reach of the law. They're locked into a Hobbesian state of pervasive violence, and tribal coalitions of gangs and guards rule the day. If there were a country or a city in the same situation, everyone would recognize that the biggest need was for the rule of law to be upheld. With the right changes, maybe we can do the same for our prisons.

I guess I'm just ignorant on the scale of the problem, if prisons are generally an escape from NY environment I think my move would just to be to isolate everyone from each other, before I'd worry about cameras. Just give everyone their own cell with a kennel run behind. I'm sure that's logistically vastly more space, but Mr. Mason above is absolutely correct about our responsibility and our morality here. If we can make prisons where men are not raped, we are obligated to do so. If we can't, maybe we should consider a return to the old mindset -- execution, amputation, castration, all that. I'm not sure how cutting off a theif's hand and sending him home is unthnkable but putting him in prison to be raped several times is just business as usual.

The truth is America uses prisoners attacking other prisoners as part of the deterrence of a prison sentence. Cameras won't work because we want people to be afraid of going to prison, so anything that makes prison less scary is not going to fly. It's not an accident prisons are horrible places, the prisoners attacking other prisoners are unpaid employees of the system.

Meanwhile, people argue that solitary confinement is "torture." Don't think that would work.

Yes, it's true. I don't know how to deal with a world in which people would find it an abuse of human rights to put a convicted criminal in a comfortable, clean, safe room and feed him well, give him outside time and plenty to read, phone access, whatever, but who turn a blind eye to forcing human beings to live in a building with and interact with a number of active rapists. The cognitive dissonance is bigger than I can grasp.

Prison should be the very last resort.

1. legalize all drugs both selling and using.
2. More cops on the street to prevent crime rather than to prosecute it.
3. More use of tracking anklets to keep more people out of prison
4. More payment of restitution for property crime rather than prison.
5. Even corporal punishment is better that prison.

But politics is so corrupting and fear can be used to manipulate rationally ignorant voters.

Comments for this post are closed