Duke speaker: U.S. prisons are ‘disaster’

By Hunter Lewis, The Herald-Sun 
April 16, 2003   11:54 pm 

DURHAM -- The man best known for uncovering the dark side of Big Mac culture was at Duke University Wednesday night to take on a different topic, the U.S. prison system. 

"Show me your prisons, and I’ll show you the state of your civilization," said Eric Schlosser, reciting a Fyodor Dostoevsky quote to a packed Love Auditorium. 

To Schlosser, the more than 2 million people in the U.S. prison system -- what he called a "cruel and pointlesss self-perpetuating system" -- are an omen of the nation’s future. 

"For $40 billion a year, we’ve really built a Kafka-esque revolving door where our people go into prison, come out and go right back in," Schlosser argued. "And the American taxpayer is paying for each revolution of this door." 

Schlosser’s first book, the unsettling bestseller, "Fast Food Nation," traced the birth of the fast-food industry in Southern California 50 years ago to its global reach today. 

Once his next book, "Reefer Madness, and Other Tales From the American Underground," hits bookstores in a few weeks, Schlosser will focus his energy on a book about the prison system, an extension of an essay he wrote four years ago for The Atlantic Monthly. 

The journalist was in town at the request of Duke Medical Students for Social Justice. About 10 female medical students comprise the group, which teaches healthy-living skills to a class of inmates in the N.C. Correction Institute for Women. 

Schlosser opened his talk by cautioning the audience not to live their lives in the "beautiful bubble" that is a college campus. There are other sorts of institutions near Duke and UNC, he said, including Central Prison, Polk Youth Institution and the Durham County Jail. 

But why care? Why get involved? 

"At these institutions, there is teaching and learning taking place every day," he said. "Most middle-class people won’t ever see it or experience it, but they’re connected to it intimately." 

Everyone is affected Schlosser argued, because prison creates a violent subculture: one that perpetuates and fosters the gangs and one that lets out the average inmate after two and a half years behind bars. 

The statistic was one of a litany that Schlosser tossed out to the crowd. Others included: 

-- California and Texas have more people behind bars than the entire European Union. 

-- The United States has more prisoners [2.1 million] than Communist China [500,0000]. 

-- The average inmate represents about $25,000 a year in operating costs for each prison. 

-- Three-quarters of U.S. inmates are substance abusers, a majority earned less than $10,000 and 300,000 are mentally ill. 

-- Two-thirds of the prison population are people of color. 

"This is a disaster!" Schlosser said. 

And because the strong rule the weak in prison, he said inmates learn a very strong lesson in delinquency and have little chance for rehabilitation. 

Schlosser blamed the problems of the prison system not on liberals or conservatives, but on "a beautiful barbwire system of denial." 

To reinforce his point, he said more people went to prison under Bill Clinton’s eight years than under any other president. 


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