One of America's favorite ways to justify escalating hostilities with another country is to breathlessly decry the awfulness of said country. The media will regularly report on human rights abuses in China or food lines on Soviet Russia or, most recently, the inhumane prison camps in North Korea:
As North Korea continues its provocative missile tests, the State Department is highlighting the nation's infamous prison camps and their atrocious living conditions."
Induced starvation is common among prisoners, who are driven to catch and eat rodents, frogs, and snakes," says a State Department document, in reference to one of the camps.
The fact sheet outlines instances of guards beating prisoners, who they are taught not to view as humans, to death. Death is also rampant from malnutrition: a former camp guard says he saw 1,500 to 2,000 prisoners die yearly because of no access to food. In the document, prisoners are described as "walking skeletons," "dwarfs" and "cripples." Work consists of intensive labor including coal mining and cement making.
And just to add a little dash of fearmongering, Trump's State Department shared "unconfirmed reports" (read as: "fabricated") that prisoners are working on nuclear test sites.
The idea behind these reports is to inflame our sense of superiority. Of course we're in the right! Look at how sick and depraved they are! Why, they'll greet us as liberators and throw virgins at our feet when the Marines march through their Capitol!
The problem is that America's prison industrial complex is an order of magnitude worse than North Korea's. NK imprisons about 150,000-200,000 people. The United States has a prison population of over two million, the largest such population in the world. The next closest country is China but with a population of over 1.3 billion people, their prison population of 1.5 million is actually not out of line with other industrialized nations.
We tut tut at how inhumane North Korea's prisons are but in the United States, we regularly kill our prisoners "by accident." These "accidents" include starvation, dehydration, denial of routine medications, and being beaten to death by the guards.
We throw tens of thousands of children in jail, often with adults, and then wonder why they don't become productive members of society. Assuming they survive the experience. We put police officers in schools to arrest (mostly minority) children for something as routine as a fight in the schoolyard. We even have a name for it now: the School to Prison Pipeline.
We've privatized many of our prisons, leaving inmates at the mercy of accountants whose only concern is cutting as many corners as possible. Substandard food, lack of medical care, and corruption are rampant. One private prison literally let the gangs take control so they wouldn't have to hire as many guards. Unsurprisingly, inmate deaths are a regular occurance. So what's worse, a system deliberately designed to kill inmates or one that produces the same results while pretending to be moral and humane?
Trump pardoning (possibly unconstitutionally) ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose list of abusive practices would make North Korean jailers nod in approval, removes the last fig leaf of respectability from America's system of incarceration. After decades of murder, torture, humiliation and what Arpaio himself not-so-jokingly referred to as "concentration camps", Arpaio has been given a free pass, sending a signal to American law enforcement that violence against prisoners is acceptable.
While that was going on, Immigration Customs Enforcement announced that they want to destroy records of the widespread human rights abuses they've engaged in for years. Documentation of sexual assault, beatings and more "accidental" deaths will be lost and that's just fine with ICE. Accountability is unwanted.
Does this mean North Korea's prison system is acceptable? Don't be ridiculous, it's still monstrous. But that doesn't give us the right to use it as a rationalization for aggression. It may make us feel better as we play nuclear chicken but it's the worst kind of hypocrisy. Before we get on our high horse, we should move it off the collective neck of America's prison population.
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