imprisonment in the USSR and the USA

According to a scholarly article cited here,

there were between 2 million and 2.5 million people in Soviet prisons

and camps every year between 1938 and 1953. The current population

in US jails plus prisons also exceeds 2 million (Bureau

of Justice Statistics). This comparison has not escaped people’s

notice, as a Google search of "Gulag" and "prison population"

will reveal.

Of course, there are differences between prisons in the US and in

Stalin’s Soviet Union. First, the vast majority of incarcerated people

in America have committed crimes, and they have received due process,

albeit flawed in some cases. Second, conditions in US prisons are

better than conditions in Siberian work camps. Third, our incarceration

rate is lower as a percentage of our population, although it may be

higher in some inner-city neighborhoods today than it was in the USSR

circa 1950. Fourth, the modern rationale for mass incarceration (reducing

crime) is better than Stalin’s reason (terrorizing people into submission

to him personally). Above all, the Soviet terror involved mass killing

as well as imprisonment.

Nevertheless, at the very least, the incarceration of 2 million Americans—with

collateral damage to their victims, and to their families and communities—represents

a social failure that’s unique in today’s world and comparable to

the disasters under Stalin.

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