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“Americans have created the vast police state”: the second part of Mira Terada’s interview with Paul Wright, a prison expert from the USA

The second part of the interview of the director of the Foundation to Battle Injustice with Paul Wright, an American expert in the field of prison topics, who has been drawing public attention to systematic violations of the rights of prisoners in the United States jails for more than 30 years. Wright told the head of the Foundation why the media are afraid to cover the problems of the US penitentiary system, who benefits from worsening conditions in migration centers and for what reason Americans are not able to solve problems with human rights violations on their own.

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Paul Wright

Mira Terada: Let’s talk about migration centers. After my term in the United States expired, I was transferred to a migration center. Even in comparison with American prisons (and I was held in several prisons and jails), the situation in the migration center can only be described as a disaster. People had to live in their excrements, this is the most inhumane thing and is a true mockery of human dignity. In your opinion, why are the migration centers in the United States such horrible conditions?

Paul Wright: Again, I think this is the whole problem with detention facilities in the United States, whether its prisons or jails, or immigration detention. Basically, it’s the lack of concern for human rights permeates the entire American political structure. I can’t think of a single American politician that is saying we need to improve prison or jail conditions for anyone either Americans or immigrants and such. I think that immigration detention conditions are especially really bad with the goal because of many of the people that are held in immigration. Some people are held in Immigration detention, while they’re in the process of being removed or deported by the United States government, but many of the people that are being held in these immigration detention are fighting removal orders or seeking the stay in the United States. And my personal opinion, is that the government deliberately makes conditions in these immigration, detention centers, as miserable and horrific as possible to get people to drop their claims to stay in the United States and to avoid deportation. Because it’s one of those things yeah conditions are really bad, you’re being abused. But you know what? Just drop your petition for asylum or stop contesting your deportation and we’ll have you on a plane out of here in two days and you’ll be back in wherever and everything’s going to be fine. The abuse will stop, you’ll be out of here. And but I think that’s also, one of the reasons that jail conditions are so bad in the United States. Is it’s a deliberate effort by the government to get people to plead guilty to crimes without they committed them, but you have to plead guilty so they’ll get out of the jail. And I think that’s the same logic with the immigration detention facilities. The other thing is also worth noting is that the majority of immigration detention facilities in the United States are owned and operated by private for-profit companies. They’re not even operated by the government. The amounts of money that the federal government pays these companies, it ranges been 150 and 200 dollars a day per immigrant that’s being held in these detention facilities, which I mean, it’s a huge amount of money. You can stay in a nice mid-range hotel with room service for this kind of money. And yet as you know, the conditions in these immigration prisons range from bad and squalid to horrific and barbaric. So again, it’s not for lack of money. It’s not for lack of resources that conditions are bad. And I think that that’s one of the critical things is I mentioned earlier that I think really separates the United States from the rest of the world is United States spends a lot of money locking people up and deliberately tries to do so that conditions that are as bad as possible.

М.Т.: Unlike inmates in American prisons, migrants have not been convicted of crimes. Were there deaths in migration centers because of insufferable conditions of detention? Why is the situation of migrants so much worse than of convicted criminals? American laws do not protect lives and health of migrants and no one can be held accountable for their suffering? What’s going on?

P.W.: Part of the problem is very difficult to sue the federal government. And one of the things that’s happened is part of. This is also I think a legal problem is that at the United States Supreme Court has held that basically private prison companies that are operating according to federal law, which is what they’re doing when they hold immigration detainees, cannot be sued for money damages. So literally they can kill people with impunity and they cannot be sued and that’s been the reality for at least the last 15 years or so, and I think that’s one of the issues that I think leads to the situation. The other thing is extremely difficult. Even though these immigration prisons kill people, it’s very hard to hold them accountable and often, for example, in terms of filing lawsuits to seek money damages, or whatever, all too often the family members are not in the United States. There’s legal difficulty of holding these corporations accountable. And so legal situation, where if a private company holding state prisoners or municipal prisoners kill someone they can be sued. If they kill a federal prisoner including an immigration detainee, they cannot be sued. So they don’t really have even that incentive to literally try to keep people alive. So those are some of the problems. The other thing that’s also been a problem, I think that’s contributed to a lot of the conditions, I think are the transitory condition the transient population of detainees. Very few immigration detainees are held more than five or six months before they’re either released in the United States or they’re deported. So it’s a large population, from 40 000 – 45,000 prisoners being held in immigration detainee, but it’s a lot of churn where that those 45,000 prisoners are literally turning over every few months. There are exceptions. Some people are held in migration detention for years but that’s a small minority and I think that’s part of the problem that makes it difficult to do things. Yes, and one thing I’ll say to those that in recent years that we’ve seen there have been, there has been resistance by immigration detainees. They stage hunger strikes. They staged protests over their conditions and things like that, and the response of federal immigration officials is either retaliate and punish them, physically beat them and torture them as well as move them around or try to speed up their deportations. So that that’s what the federal government response.

М.Т.: Major American media try to avoid publishing official statistics on deaths, violence, suicides in prisons or temporary detention centers for migrants. Only a few specialized journals publish important statistics. Does it seem that they are trying to hide the real situation in prisons and migration centers from the public? And are the American media paid for silence, or is it government policy to cover up the facts?

P.W.: Well, I would say that for the number of people being held in immigration detention, I think that media coverage of immigration detention is a lot higher than it is a state and federal prisons, for example, holding convicted prisoners or pretrial detainees. And I think that there has been a lot more attention given to immigration detention then there are to state prisons, but overall the coverage is lower than it should be for all of it: for immigration detention, local jails, as well as state prisons. And I think there’s a couple of reasons for that one of which is the lack of transparency. It’s not easy to cover prisons and jails for example, communication is difficult. Virtually all prisons and jails do not allow journalists to access the facilities. The vast majority of them do not media or journalistic interview prisoners in them. And this is a recent phenomenon. Prior to run in the middle of the 1990s journalists routinely interviewed prisoners, and one of the problems is that because so much media is visual these days. If you tell journalists that they can’t bring a camera to record or take pictures of the interviews that they’re doing, they are not going to, they can’t. Because, and I have a lot of friends of mine in media and I’ll reach out to some of them sometimes. And I’ll say “Hey, this is a really interesting story. I think, you know, your, your audience would want to hear about it”. The first thing that all, my friends TV producers and television reporters and journalists ask me “Is there a video?” And it’s like “No, we don’t have video” and it’s like “Oh, no, I can’t do anything”. And that’s just the reality of the visual media. And then you have print journalists like myself and a lot of my other colleagues and we do our best with words, but that’s the staple. And that’s so journalism’s operated for 500 years, but I think that there’s limitations to it. I think that one of the things that a stoped public outrage and anger at police brutality in this country are the videos taken by bystanders, the police shooting and killing unarmed innocent people. I think it’s critical to note, these are videos that are going through social media. They’re not going through Gatekeepers and the Legacy Media. But people see this endless stream of police shootings and police killings. That’s what’s outraging people. But conversely, we’re not seeing that from prisons and jails. That’s not a lot of prisoners have contraband cellphone. So yes, we do see some video, but nothing like what seen in what we see with regards to police interactions. So I think that’s one of the things that’s influencing the narrative but yes, the government goes to extraordinary lengths to cover up, bad conditions in prisons and jails and continue brutalizing people with impunity.

М.Т.: Have international public and political institutions tried to influence the situation of the mass incarceration in the United States? And if so, have international human rights defenders succeeded in changing anything for the better?

P.W.: No, the United States is pretty much impervious to any type of outside influence. The closest thing a couple years ago, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture sought to access American prisons to investigate conditions of solitary confinement, which as I mentioned, earlier, are widely viewed as constituting a human rights abuse. And I’m not aware of a single American prisons that allow the United Nations special rapporteur on torture to enter any of the American prisons.

United States uses the cudgel of human rights to beat other countries over the head when there’s no shortage of human rights abuses on a wide scale in American detention facilities yet. The United States isn’t allowing anyone to enter its facilities to either view them or much less criticize them.

So I think these are pretty critical differences. But for its part the United States the rest of the world isn’t really paying much attention to Human Rights abuses in the United States. And I think this is very bad. I think that to the extent that for example, civil rights for black Americans improved in the United States in the 1950s and the 1960s significantly improved. I think that one of the reasons that it happened was because the Soviet Union existed and was able to criticize these massive human rights abuses of the United States. And American politicians said, so at the time John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, they said that one of the reasons for improving civil rights and human rights for black people in America, was because it made America look bad internationally, because the Soviet Union was criticizing it. And unfortunately today we don’t have any other countries really criticizing United States over its human rights abuses.
So, I think that one of the things that maybe would conceivably change of international forums, whether of the United Nations or anywhere else as soon as United States starts talking about human rights anywhere else, the response was just “You know, what, when you clean up your act and when United States respects, human rights for its citizens, then we might listen to what you have to say about the rest of the world. But if you can’t even have, if you can’t even respect human rights and your own country, why are you telling anyone else in the world about theirs?”

М.Т.: This question is about death penalty. European countries and Russia have abolished death penalty long time ago. The United States still carry out over a dozen executions every year. Is death penalty still acceptable in a modern society? Why doesn’t the US follow the example of Europe and Russia?

P.W.:

The United States has a bizarre sick affair with the death penalty. It’s interesting because the American public is increasingly turning against the death penalty as a result of so many exonerations when we’ve had for death sentence prisoners since the 1970s. I believe it’s around 120 or 150 prisoners, that have been sentenced to death have been found factually innocent. They did not commit the crime, they were sentenced to death for.
There’s very compelling evidence that a number of prisoners have been executed for crimes they were factually innocent of. But it’s interesting that as here we are in 2021, soon will be 2022, and the people that are still enamored of the death penalty seem to be judges, and politicians. And again, this is one of the things sets the United States apart.

One of the things that also sets the United States apart from a human rights framework for conception in Europe including Russia. The concept is there are things that government cannot do to its citizens, including kill them. The American view is the government could do anything it wants to its citizen, as long as it gives them process.

So the result is the American government is all for killing its own citizens, as long as they’re giving due process, which one is closely examined. We see as not is very minimal. One of the jokes in the death penalty community here in the United States is that all the death penalty does is find out, who’s got the better lawyer. Because that’s also one of the things is that generally defendants accused of capital offenses with competent aggressive counselor very rarely if ever sentenced to death. We see it’s a very sad and almost sickening commentary about the fact that United States there’s entire bodies of law about whether or not defendants sentenced to death had a fair trial but their lawyers fell asleep during the trial and then there’s the body of law about whether the defendant sets the death had a fair trial, the judge fell asleep during the trial. And I mean this this is bizarre. I mean anywhere else in the world. You say you ask people. And again, I don’t think you need to be a legal scholar but asking people on the street you thinking giving fair trial when judges asleep, or do you think that a defendant gets a fair trial if their lawyer is asleep. These are things that. I speak a lot internationally. I do a lot with also with college students and I do a fair amount of public speaking and we stand when you tell people like this that are not familiar with the American legal system. They think it’s bizarre. It’s like, how can this be. The fact that these aren’t isolated instances, but it happens often enough that there’s entire bodies of case law on at what point does the sleeping judge deprive the defendant of a fair trial at what point does the sleeping lawyer do private defendant of a fair trial.

М.Т.: In your opinion, is there any chance that a petty criminal, after being imprisoned in an American prison, will take the path of a correction, and not join a prison gang and will not commit a larger offence? Is there statistics on repetition of crimes in the USA?

P.W.: Do you mean crimes committed in prison or after prisoners are released at the prisoners are released?

М.Т.: After prisoners are released.

P.W.: The United States has a hard time actually, defining, what recidivism is, It’s interesting for surveillance police state, the tracks everything and everyone. The statistics are actually kind of blurry. A lot of states have recidivism rates where they only track preserves up to three years after their release from prison.

Lot of states have anywhere from 30 to 70 percent recidivism rates.

It’s also important to note that the recidivism rates aren’t always some new crimes that are being committed so much as these are prisoners to bring re imprisoned for violating the conditions of their release, which all too often are not criminal offenses for example, leaving the county without their parole officers permission, getting married without permission, changing jobs without permission and things like that. So on the one hand, we have very barbaric conditions, very high recidivism rates. But again, the the government doesn’t really track those recidivism rates. And to be honest, I’m really surprised every citizen rates are much higher than whatever they are. Because I think that this is really unrealistic to expect that you take people, lock them up for years, deprive them of family contact, social contact all too often educational opportunities, mental health care, medical care and then release them from prison and somehow expect a positive outcome. But if it does happen, it happens a lot actually. And again, I would say that to the extent that it does it’s very much in spite of the government and not because of it.

М.Т.: It’s based on my personal experience. It’s more up to you what kind of person you gonna come out of prison and not because the government or prison system actually correct the prisoners, I believe more that the prison system, the current prison system is breaking people.

P.W.: Yeah, I totally agree. The American prison system is designed to destroy people. And it’s one of those things that’s interesting is, we’ve also done advocacy around helping former prisoners get jobs. I was talking to one person. He owned a restaurant, and he was telling me that his own son had been in prison and he said that raised his awareness of the issues so he wanted to give jobs to people coming out of prisons and made the comment. He says, it’s really hard hiring people that have been imprisoned to do customer service jobs, because for whatever reason, they won’t look people in the face, they look down.

American prison system is more about destroying people and destroying individuals than it is to build people up or help people.

М.Т.: Yeah, I remind you guys, the business owners, if you hire the ex-con, ex-prisoner the company gets like a tax pay discount or something like this.

P.W.: Yes. It’s small, like 3 thousand dollars a year or something like that. It gets a tax deduction and most business owners are aware of it. But but yes, that’s one of the things, but course that only applies to for-profit businesses.

М.Т.: Alright, let’s move on to the next question. How serious is the problem of expanding the network of private prisons in the United States? Can prison system in America be called a corporate community with lobbyists and interests that differ from interests of the majority of Americans?

P.W.: The private prison industry currently holds around 120 000 – 130 000 prisoners on any given day and that numbers been pretty stable for the last for around the last decade. And it’s not really expanding that said is profit margins are expanding, but that’s because they’re getting more money to house the prisoners they do. The other thing that also expands our profit margins has been, they’ve been been very skilled at negotiating contracts with the government that have a full full occupancy of contracts were for example, they get paid for prisons at 95 % occupancy, regardless of how many prisoners they have in them. So, I mean, the analogy here is someone runs a hotel and they get paid as the hotel’s 95% full even if it’s empty. So that’s been a lot of their their skills.
So I was saying that the private prison industry. It’s largely stagnant in terms of increasing its share of prisoners. It’s financially successful, especially to the extent that the government continue to contract with it. That’s sad. They have serious economic problems. They’ve been economically mismanage for most of their existence, except for bailouts by, for example, Bill Clinton in 2000 and recently, Donald Trump they would have probably collapsed years ago.
I think that it’s interesting because the United States had private prisons for centuries. And pretty much the practice ended in the 1920s as the public grew disgusted by the brutality and the abuses in private prisons. And I thought like a lot of bad ideas in American history that one was gone for good and then it got resurrected in. In the 1980s.
I think it’s interesting to note though that the only countries, the private prisons have gained anything of a foothold is the United States, England, Australia, and South Africa. And, and it’s no coincidence that these are all former English colonies or England itself. And the big thing is that everywhere else in the world the private prisons have tried to gain a foothold. They literally get laughed out of the room, not as a human rights violation. What is a labor issue? Because the nothing about the private prison company is they don’t use unionized employees. That’s how they keep their costs down. 80% of the costs involved in running a prison are the labor costs. So by having a non-union work force, they cut their labor costs and increase their profit margins and everywhere else in the world civil service, or the civil service organizations that represent and the labor unions, represent government employees. Pretty much stop the discussion about private prisons.
And when we talk about private prisons here in the United States virtually all of them are in southern states in the United States where the union movement is weakest. Very few of them are in these states with strong union movements or strong labor unions.
One of the things that’s important to note, I think that private prisons are the symptom and mass incarceration is the disease. If we hadn’t a mass incarceration, we wouldn’t have private prisons. Not the other way around.

М.Т.: In my opinion, the US prison crisis should be a subject of international discussion and the United Nations should be involved in it. This is a global problem, not just an American one. Do you agree with this point of view or you have a different opinion on this issue?

P.W.: I agree.

The reality is that the human rights situation in the United States is so abysmal. And more importantly, I think that Americans have shown that we’re in capable of fixing it on our own.

And I think that this has happened in other in other things. I mean the oppression of black people in the United States, Jim Crow laws after the end of the Civil War persisted for a hundred years. If it hadn’t been for pressure from the international community led by the Soviet Union and China, I’m not sure that it would have changed. And I also think that one of the things that we see increasingly with human rights issues here in the United States is: if more people globally were aware of this, people would correctly demand more and demand better from the United States than what we’re seeing now.
One of the problems that we are also seeing is the lack of any international structure that has any control over the United States.

United States has opted out of the International Criminal Court, for example, anything that would hold the United States accountable for human rights abuses.

М.Т.: As you know, in Russia several decades ago there was a tragic period when many people were imprisoned and had to go through hell. This experience is reflected in many literary works – fiction and documentary. The most famous is the “GULAG Archipelago”. It looks like the United States is facing similar situation now. However, there is not a single world bestseller about terrible life in American prisons. Why are terrible conditions in prisons are not reflected in popular culture?

P.W.: I think it has been reflected in popular culture. And I think that one of the things too in comparison with the GULAG Archipelago

United States incarcerates and imprisons more people than the Soviet Union ever did in its Heyday, both in raw numbers and especially in terms of its population.

If we use the example of parole and probation as internal exile, as adding the term was used in the Soviet Union, in the 1930s and 40s and literally parolees and probationers, their movement is restricted. They’re usually forbidden from leaving the city or the county in which they reside without government permission. So this is a huge population.
And in many respects Hollywood has done a good job of almost sanitizing the American prison experience. So there are movies about it. But I think people think: “Well, that’s a movie”. “That’s not real life”.

It’s not real life. Looking at a cowboy movie and you think that “Well did cowboys really run around shooting each other” as opposed to take care of the cows and getting them to the market.
I think that’s part of the problem, but someone has been doing this for 30 years. I think there’s greater awareness now around abuses and prisons and jails than any time I’ve seen the last 30 years. And whether or not it amounts to anything, I don’t know. Because, you know, the levels of impunity that American prison officials have is incredible, certainly compared to the rest of the world.

Here in the United States major newspapers can report prisoners being burn to death, starve to death, frozen to death and just beats with a shrug and no one loses their job. No one goes to jail and it’s business as usual.

I think it is rising and put in popular consciousness and awareness whether or not it will have an effect, I don’t know. But I think that we’re starting to see this, this is part of the reason we had the George Floyd protests last year. We saw hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans taking to the streets to protest police state violence. People are aware of this, their outrage or disgusted, and they know that they’re not getting justice anywhere else. And I think that’s why American cities were burning last year. I mean that’s just my opinion and but I think that people get fed up. I mean, there’s the say that as the French say man can live without justice, but he can’t live without hope. And here in America people have been seeing for too long. You just see the steady stream of police, killing innocent people, gunning them down, shooting them, killing them, beating them, and nothing happens to the police. They keep their jobs. They keep going, and nothing happens.

М.Т.: Do you have a solution for fixing American prison system? Can we attract attention of international community to this issue on our own?

P.W.:

Fixing American prison conditions, I think, Yeah, it just requires, it’s not the amount of the resources. The resources are there. It just requires the will to do it. And I think that if it was just one of those things of changing the mindset of that prison should be about brutalizing dehumanizing people and things like that.
I think that significant changes could happen. I think that one of the biggest things though is simply reducing the prison population. I think that’s a critical critical thing. Just the fact that the United States has way too many prisoners and I think this is also one of the things too. And I think that one of the saddest commentaries about the American police state is, when we look at the fact that the United States has 5% of the world’s population, 25% of the world’s prisoners. It makes me ask. Okay. So what’s wrong with Americans? Are we bigger criminals or we more lawless or we are crueler or more prone to crime then the people at any other country in the world? The fact that China is a country that has what 45 times more people than United States and they have like 10 % of the number of prisoners that the United States has.
And again, what does this say about American society? Either Americans are just a nation of criminals or do we live in a police state that likes locking up its people as a tool of social control? And I think that’s kind of one of the bigger questions.

American ruling class has opted for a police state solution of social control.

I think Western Europe for example, is opted for more of a social welfare state of social control, but on the other hand, I also think that all countries that have very high incidence of social inequality for the countries, like the United States, Brazil, El Salvador, South Africa, countries like that have very high levels of violence at very high levels of incarceration and extrajudicial police violence. And I think the United States is in that category. It’s not even a matter of it’s a rich countries or a poor country, but I think the critical issue is social inequality.

М.Т.: Thank you. Mr. Wright. It was such a pleasure talking to you. It’s such an honor meeting you and this has been really great and informative conversation. I greatly appreciate the time that you devoted to us and we stay in touch and I’m hoping together we will be able to attract enough attention to this issue. And personally I refuse to believe that United States is the nation of criminals.

P.W.: I don’t think so neither. I don’t think America is a nation of criminals. So I it’s it’s one of those things when I see the things that American people are being imprisoned for it’s beyond bizarre. It is almost like Les Miserables. So if you read that story in French literature where the man steals a loaf of bread and is hounded by the police for the rest of his life. That that’s almost like America today. And unfortunately, I think that part of the problem is that Americans have created the vast police state, where you have millions of people whose jobs depend on caging and keeping caged millions of their fellow citizens and when their paycheck depends on that, it’s hard to tell people “We don’t need you for this job. You need to go do something else”. And I think that creates its own barrier to change when you have a lot of people invested in the status quo, that this is how they earned their living and don’t stops the question is my living, the way I’m earning. My living as a prison guard or whatever. Is this really a good way to do things.
The state of Michigan is one example, where 30 years ago, the Department of Corrections had 1.5% of all government employees in the state. Today they employ 25%. It’s the biggest state agency. They employed one out of every four, government employees in Michigan is employed by the Department of Corrections.

М.Т.: I do strongly believe that there’s the attention we can attract together. We will at least get the government make sure that the human rights are not violated. And then step by step we will get to the butter world.

P.W.: Well, you know, I said, we’ve being doing this for 30 years and I’m not giving up any time soon. And it’s like the African proverb “How do you eat an elephant? one bite at a time.”.