Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Propaganda, Politics & Policy (2)

In the second post in this series, I offer another image I came across at the British Library’s excellent summer exhibition, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. Unlike the previous image, however, I think this one could easily be interpreted with contemporary relevance. Specifically, with regards to the ongoing debate in the United States about incarceration and prison reform.


This image, “Freedom American-Style” by B. Prorokov, jumped out at me immediately. The piece was produced during the Cold War (1971), and offers a Russian interpretation of the United States as a prison state. From the British Library’s page on the poster:

“In this Soviet poster, New York’s famous Statue of Liberty is parodied as a look-out tower for the American police to observe its people, mocking the idea that it is a symbol of freedom. The poster attacks and subverts American propaganda that promoted the idea of the democratic freedom of the West.”

I must admit that I do not know as much about this subject as I perhaps should, but anyone who is even peripherally observant of American news must have had some exposure to reportage on the subject. Here, therefore, are a handful of quotations and links for further reading.

Prorokov’s impression of the United States as incarceration-happy is borne out by statistics – both of the time and also contemporary. For example, despite a decline of 1.7% in the American prison population [New York Times], the Sentencing Project reports that,

“The United States is the world's leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation's prisons or jails – a 500% increase over the past thirty years.” [Emphasis mine.]

The same New York Times article that reported the measly decline in prison population offers a very different statistic, stating that the number of incarcerated people in the US is closer to 1.6 million. It’s possible the NYT article does not include people in local and county “jails”, who have yet to be tried (for more on that, see this May 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics report). The Times article continued:

“Imprisonment rates in the United States have been on an upward march since the early 1970s. From 1978, when there were 307,276 inmates in state and federal prisons, the population increased annually, reaching a peak of 1,615,487 inmates in 2009.”

Another New York Times article, by Andrew Liptak, put things in even starker language:

“The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners.”

The 1.6 million figure is supported by the Washington Post, who at the same time worry that the decline may not continue. The WaPo article does offer some interesting analysis: for example, while the overall prison population is declining (perhaps mostly due to a reduction in drug offenders being sent away), facilities at the federal level actually increased by almost twice as much as the overall decline (3.4%).

“Will the incarceration drop last? That’s the big question. At the moment, a huge portion of the decline is being driven by California, where the state legislature had to be prodded by the courts to do something about its overstuffed prisons. Other states are moving much more slowly. And as a recent report from the Urban Institute explained, federal prisons will keep ballooning unless Congress changes its sentencing guidelines.”

Lisa Bloom at CNN offered some similar analysis:

“The United States leads the world in the rate of incarcerating its own citizens. We imprison more of our own people than any other country on earth, including China which has four times our population, or in human history. And now, a new Pew report announces that we are keeping even nonviolent inmates behind bars for increasingly longer terms.”

It would appear, then, that the Russian artist’s impression of the United States was somewhat justified, and sadly the situation has only become worse (minor improvements notwithstanding). With Congress’s apparent lack of interest in properly pursuing prison reform, the artist’s impression could remain sharp for some time to come…

For more on issues of incarceration in America, I would strongly recommend much of the reporting from The Nation, which has produced a great many great pieces and analyses (some of which were written while I was a Nation intern, at the end of 2012).

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