by Shaker Anitanola
That was one of Stephen Fry's questions in a recent episode of the BBC's long running comedy show QI.* The answer, of course, is jail.
Five percent of the world's population is American; twenty-five percent of the world's prisoners are American. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any country in the history of the world.
The rate is three times that of Iran, six times that of China. More than one in a hundred adults in the United States is in prison. One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is in prison.
The QI researchers are no mere wiki-wanderers and I do not question their skills; indeed even a cursory google produces shocking information. For example, there has been an explosion of the prison population since 1980. The percentage of the adult population in the penal system—in prison, on parole or probation—is 3.2%. The Sentencing Project shows racial disparity in incarceration rates throughout the United States.
What followed makes me wonder about taking pride in things "Made in the USA." I know our society is not post-racial but I must now wonder if we are actually even post-slavery. QI's answer continued:
It is illegal to bring into the United States any goods produced by forced labor or by prisoners, yet American prisoners make 100% of the military helmets, ammunition belts, bulletproof vests, ID tags as well some other items used by the US military. Although a prisoner is not technically forced to work, solitary confinement is the punishment for refusal. They also make 93% of domestically produced paints, 36% of home appliances and 21% of office furniture.
Those are manufacturing jobs. We're told that it helps our economy to outsource many jobs, even if it feels painful to those workers who are affected, but I can't recall being told about penal labor in relation to our economy.
* Unfortunately, QI is not available on BBC America but you can search YouTube for QI Series G Episode 11 Gifts. See part 3.