Watchdog Blog

Morton Mintz: Different Approaches to Common Problems

Posted at 2:20 pm, March 26th, 2009
Morton Mintz Mug

A Swedish man “convicted in the 1999 hate murder of a trade union worker…  was paroled after serving 6 1/2 years of an 11-year sentence,” the New York Times reported the other day. That was “a typical penalty for murder in Sweden.” Eleven years for murder? Surely a reasonably curious reader would want to know more. How many of those paroled murderers murder again? And is it possible that Sweden’s system protects and serves society better than does our own terribly expensive lock-’em-up-for-life system?

I bring this up because it’s yet another strong reminder of a long-standing general failure of journalism to compare differing approaches to common problems taken by other nations. It’s a failure I’ve been publicly lamenting, without visible effect, starting nearly 35 years ago.

On the same day the Times story appeared, I read “HELLHOLE / The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?” It is indeed torture, and it generates huge amounts of prison violence, as Atul Gawande documents in the article, which appeared in the The New Yorker issue of March 30. And it is also counter-productive, as he demonstrates when he turns to the British experience with “hundreds of Irish Republican Army prisoners committed to violent resistance.”

In the mid-seventies, the authorities resorted frequently to solitary confinement. “but the violence in prisons remained unchanged, the costs were phenomenal (in the United States, they reach more than $50,000 a year per inmate), and the public outcry became intolerable.”

Starting in the next decade, the authorities “focussed on preventing prison violence rather than on delivering an ever more brutal series of punishments for it.” The result was that “[t]he use of long–term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England there are now fewer prisoners in ‘extreme custody’ than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.”

Wouldn’t we Americans have been better off hearing about the British experience in the mainstream press in the Eighties instead of having to wait for Gawande’s fine New Yorker piece in 2009?
On March 29, just three days after I posted my plea for more comparative journalism, newspaper readers all over the country were confronted with a truly stunning example of it: “What’s Wrong With Our Prisons?” Virginia Senator Jim Webb’s cover story in Parade magazine.

“The United States has by far the world’s highest incarceration rate,” Webb wrote. “With 5% of the world’s population, our country now houses nearly 25% of the world’s reported prisoners. We currently incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the average worldwide of 158 for every 100,000.”

One Response to “Different Approaches to Common Problems”

  1. David Jewell says:

    Dear Mort: This is a voice from your past, Dave Jewell. You make a great point about the failure of U.S. newsies to compare our prison systems to those in other countries. Alas, we appear these days to be not much given to comparing anything in the U.S. to other countries. I sometimes think that doing so would be helpful. The health delivery system comes to mind. With newspapers constantly cutting back on operations of all sorts there appears to be little hope that things will change in this regard. Hope all goes well with you. Cheers–DAVE

    David A. Jewell
    Philadelphia, PA

Comments are closed.

The website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.