Stephen Fry and Brit talk-show guests marvel at American prison system's brutality

In this clip from QI, the talk/quiz/comedy-show that Stephen Fry hosts, Fry asks the participants "where one percent of Americans can be found." The correct answer is prison, and the contests proceed to make a series of horrified remarks and jokes about this startling fact.

(via Sociological Images)


      1. It’s all good then. Lock more Americans up, makes plenty of taxpayer funded profit for the private prison corporations.

    1. Since the majority of people in jail are from non-violent drug crimes … then I’m not sure that’s such a big deal.

        1. (I saw your comment as soon as I made mine, and totally thought, “Great minds think alike!” so, apparently, our minds are super-duper great!)

    2. What’s wrong with living next to (most of) them once they are released?

      A huge percentage are in prison for drug offenses–not for dealing drugs, just for having them. Others are in for other relatively trivial offenses. How else could we have such a relatively huge percentage of our citizens in prison? These aren’t the kinds of callous, cold-blooded criminals we normally think of as appropriately locked away in prison.

      It’s blithe bigotry like yours that helps support such a heinous system, and encourages the recidivism that further swells prisons to overcapacity.

    3. I’d much rather live next to someone who was in Jail for drugs etc…, than live next to some scumbag white collar criminal who got away with some sort of financial crime against society. Of course there’s a damn good chance the white collar guy would also have a major coke habit, but will never end up going to jail in any for it. Cause, you, know, he KNOWS people. Your ” don’t hold drugs” notion is a weak argument.

    4. “Of course they’re ok with letting Americans out of prison, they don’t have to live next to them once they are released.”

       – No matter how long you lock people up for, no matter how many of them you lock up… you’re still going to have to let them out eventually, and then you’ll be living next to them. But if you lock up more of them, and keep them in longer, then you’re just going to have more neighbors that were mixing with murderers and rapists for longer.

    1. yes – clive anderson.

      as i sit here i’m wearing an pair of ‘prison blues’ jeans (made in a prison in oregon). there’s a shop in hastings old town (in england) that sells them. they’re hard as nails and i love them.

      i was going to buy a new pair, but now i’m having second thoughts…

    2. Drew Carey is the American Clive Anderson considering he was presenting it right back from it’s British radio days way back in ’88,

    1. I’ll tell you what’s barbaric: spelling “jail” G-A-O-L.

      (Also, the fact that most Americans seem to think our incarceration rates are acceptable.)

      1. The great thing about inventing a language is that you get to choose the spelling. Plus, it’s hard for Americans to complain about something like that while they go around spelling “politics” m-o-n-e-y.

        1. The great thing about inventing a language is that you get to choose the spelling.

          Aw, it was gust a goke. Sorry it faoled to amuse.

          1. I’ve read the whole of this thread and this is by far my favourite comment. It’s bloody lovely. 
            There are other comments on here which make me laugh, but I don’t think their authors had your intent.

  1. We do have the highest incarceration of any country; and of late executing some prisoners despite actual innocence or strong reasonable doubt.  Prison is designed for punishment AND rehabilitation.  
    As things are now, we are not addressing the issue of crime, but rather line the pockets of private contractors.

  2. That 1/100 statistic was a surprising statistic to me too, the first time I heard it. What is more amazing is how unequally that is distributed that is across society. 

  3. those facts were startling!!!  i know that the private prison lobby was huge, but i didn’t know that they were that successful in swaying public policy.  anyone know what this costs the US annually?

    1. It costs the US 1% of all its citizens. Though thankfully not annually. The fact that you would mention money is a little insulting, but in this economic climate I can hardly fault you for it…

      1. It costs the US 1% of all its citizens.

        Considerably more than 1%, in fact.

        Every person in prison costs over two additional persons in nonproductive guard labour – prison guards and other penal staff, lawyers, judges, various courtroom staff, police (the latter few categories could be considered perhaps 1/3 productive, in that they at least occasionally also produce good outcomes that don’t involve people being imprisoned – so let’s only count 2/3 of the total of everyone after penal staff). 

        Add to that the people in productive jobs (construction, road and building maintenance, auto mechanics etc. etc.) whose output is consumed by the infrastructure of imprisonment instead of things that make people’s lives better.

        Add to that some fractional amount of the remaining 2% of citizens who could be achieving so much more but for a criminal record.

        Add to that some fractional amount of the children of those imprisoned and with records, who could be achieving much more but for their parents’ struggles with imprisonment or finding jobs when burdened with a record.

        Add to that a fraction of the child support workers taking care of the children of the incarcerated, many of whom would have been just fine if their homes hadn’t been broken up by a parent’s imprisonment.

        So, really, I can’t imagine the total cost could possibly any less than 5% of the citizens.

  4. And the comments show that as usual the Americans don’t see any reason why the rest of the world is appalled, they only see some foreigner having a go at their blessed country and hit back. Any hope of reasonable debate is immediately gone as they rally to defend the US of A no matter how egregious the fact they’re given. I remember having a conversation in an American bar once where I mentioned Ronald Reagan. “Yeah, poor bastard had lost his marbles by the end of his last term in office, it was sad to watch, didn’t have a damn clue what was going on,” an American said. “Yeah it was a bit scary for the rest of the world too,” I replied, “to think this old man with a limited grip on reality had the potential to start a nuclear war…” At which point I realised my erstwhile drinking companion had gone bright red. “You. Will. NOT. Disrespect. The. President. Of. The. United. States. Of. America!” he fumed. The lesson being what? When America recognises its own problems that’s fine, but if anyone else points them out they’re the enemy and must be attacked. Jingoistic short-sightedness of the highest order and sadly endemic, particularly in the lower socio-economic demographics. Then again, what can you expect from a country where so few people hold a passport and are uninterested in travel. “Why would I go to France,” one morbidly obese Southerner asked me in Las Vegas, “We have the Eyefull Tower right here!” And no nasty foreigners who might ask awkward questions too.

    1. When America recognises its own problems that’s fine, but if anyone else points them out they’re the enemy and must be attacked.

       Simple reason there: I can call my mom fat, but if you do you’re libel to get a knock to the face.  
      The whole passport thing has been addressed but you seem to need a refresh.  Until very recently travel to Mexico and Canada didn’t require a passport, travel to most any other country is prohibitively expensive to most and with only two to three weeks of vacation allowance a year not terribly practical.  So why then, would a logical person who has neither the time or the money, pay the government $130 for a passport that will very likely expire before they ever have a chance to use it?

      So yes, the US incarceration rate is higher than other countries, the three strikes rule is ridiculous, and we certainly have too many non-violent drug offenders incarcerated, but what is the correct incarceration rate?

      1. If you take personal offense to politicians being insulted, I’d like to know how you avoid fuming to the point of a heart attack every day.

        1. Oh, hmm.  Maybe I misinterpreted his comment.  It seemed like he was saying he once met a singular American in a bar that took offence when he started making disparaging remarks, however true, about Reagan and that he was astounded how it was okay for singular American guy to make these remarks but not him.  I was simply pointing out that that is not in any way a unique quality to Americans.  

          As for the passport comment, well, there is justifiable reason for the lower passport ownership of Americans to the average European.Interesting that you think there was personal offense in there.  I re-read my comment and I just don’t read that tone.  I must be biased :P

          1. Ah, I now see the disparity in our interpretations of comments.  When you said “you” in your original response to me you were speaking of “you” in a general sense, and specifically in reference to the person who was upset over Reagan being insulted.  You weren’t saying that you read in my comment that I was personally taking offense to a politician being insulted. 

            There does seem to be a tone issue though, just not the originally interpreted one.

      2. Don’ know what the “correct” rate would be, but they mention in the clip that the UK’s rate is the highest in Europe and they incarcerate 148 per 100,000 residents. That means the US incarcerates about 10 times as many people (per capita) as the UK.

        1. the UK’s rate is the highest in Europe and they incarcerate 148 per 100,000 residents. That means the US incarcerates about 10 times as many people (per capita) as the UK.That would be true if 7 and 10 were about the same.

          1. sorry, I had minimized the number of significant digits in my quick calculations and saw the comparison as “1/10 of 1 %” vs. “greater than 1%”. 6.8x worse is not any better than 10x worse.

      3. That’s another thing about you Americans, you’re overly fond of law suits – which possibly explains the confusion between libel and liable.

        1. That’s another thing about you Americans, you’re overly fond of law suits – which possibly explains the confusion between libel and liable.

          I agree that U.S. incarceration rates are nothing short of atrocious compared to England (or any other country), but we Americans have nothing on our friends across the pond when it comes to ridiculous libel laws.

          1. I (and many others) agree. There’s a strong libel reform movement and a libel reform bill was introduced in March this year and opened to public submissions in June. Hopefully this will end ‘libel tourism’ and stop the use of libel as a weapon to silence critics (British Chiropractic Association v Singh for example).

        2. Ha!  Good catch on the libel/ liable in my above comment.  Sometimes the words don’t get typed good.  /intentional bad grammar

      4. But he wasn’t calling your mother fat, he said that he and his friends feared for their lifes when she was driving drunk and swaying all over the road with her SUV.

        Being loyal too your own shouldn’t mean you reject the rest of the world and what they think, then it becomes at the very least unproductive and at worst, dangerous.

      5. Your point about moms is cute, but I doubt very much your mom can influnce, say, UN security council decisions. And those have a global effect, far beyond your mom’s weight issues or silly american nationalism.

      6. Actually, if I call your mon fat that would be a libel and I might be liable end up in a court action and liable to some legal sanction for my libel. 

      7. That’s easy. „Zero“ – not counting sociopaths.  The trick is to structure  society in a way that prevents criminal behaviour of otherwise sane people  and to design better corrective measures.

        And yes, I am quite aware, that this might be an unreachable goal.  

    2. I am not appalled at all – In fact it is actually hard to get into jail here.  Your British host cherry picked incidents such as the “9-videos and “cookies” making our system look both petty and sinister. The fact is the “Three Strikes” law significantly increases the prison sentences of persons convicted of felonies who have been previously convicted of a violent crime or serious felony. WHO KNEW? That pretentious British host didn’t; or pretended not to, and neither that did that snotty, smart-ass, Brit blowing his nose down upon us on his high-horse!

      As for the high number of inmates – we have a different culture here,  more “Darwinian” than Europe, and more desperate. We also have lots of guns.  No, let me re-phrase that – there are more guns than people! We are crazy and we do a lot of things wrong but we have contributed more than we have broken. 

      1. It’s hard to get into jail here?  Really?  Because I have three sisters, and two of them have been in jail several times — all for just holding drugs (pot, mostly).  My uncle has been in jail.  Also for pot.  I have numerous friends who were in jail as young adults who now have felony convictions — because they had some drugs on them.  Nothing violent.

        Sure, it may be anecdotal, but I can count almost a dozen people I know who have been to jail just for pot.  It wasn’t that hard for them to land in jail for a damn plant that harms no one. None of these people are harmful to society. They are responsible adults. Yet they’ve all been to jail for a plant.

        Additionally:  I’ve read that 1 in 31 U.S. Adults are Behind Bars, on Parole or Probation, and that 1 in 100 are currently incarcerated.  1 in 100 adults in the U.S. are incarcerated, yet you have the gall to say that it’s “actually hard to get into jail here”?

        1. I’ve always wondered about the number of living people here who were sentenced in our system at some point, on account of the stigma most of those convictions carry.

          1. A really great friend of mine had some troubles when she was 19.  Got a felony conviction (drugs, of course!) and, 10 years later, it’s still following her around.  She was able to graduate from college but now can’t find a job, even though she’s amazing.  Because she has a felony conviction.  It wasn’t pot, and she had a problem (meth), but a felony conviction certainly was not the answer.  Rehab or some other sort of rehabilitation should have been the answer.  Thankfully, she was able to get clean and, despite having issues because of her record, is doing fine.

            Having grown up in the middle of nowhere Arizona where there just isn’t a whole lot to do, these stories are not that uncommon.

        2. > It’s hard to get into jail here?  Really?  Because I have three sisters, and two of them have been in jail several times — all for just holding drugs (pot, mostly). 

          Then perhaps the teachable moment here is to not hold drugs.

          1. Really?  That’s your answer?  I think the teachable moment here is that pot should not be legal, or at least be decriminalized until we can fully legalize it.  Drugs in general should be decriminalized in most cases.  Holding pot of all things shouldn’t be considered a crime.  And most importantly, those who have addictions shouldn’t be treated as criminals.  Being addicted isn’t a crime, yet addicts are treated like criminals every day.

            Are you really for putting non-violent drug offenders in jail?  Really?  Because that’s exactly why 1 out of 100 adults are in jail as we speak.  That’s somehow … okay with you?  Because your blase, overly-simple comment makes it seem that way.

            Though it seems you really like leaving overly-simple comments that don’t actually mean much in the end and add absolutely nothing of value to the discussion.

          2. It sounds to me as if you’re arguing that if a lot of people get punished for a certain illegal act, then that is evidence that the act shouldn’t be illegal.  Maybe using pot–or “holding it”, as you refer to the act of possession–should be legal or maybe it shouldn’t, but simply counting up the number of people punished for it, and noting how much that punishment costs, is not a very good way to make a case either way, in my opinion.

          3. I’m not arguing that.  It’s much more complicated than that.  I’ve mentioned addicts several times (though that seems to be continually ignored).  There are also social, cultural, and economical reasons. 

            My points:

            –There are too many people in jail for non-violent drug crimes.
            –Many of them got caught with pot, which should not be illegal (and I won’t list the reasons as this would just make an already long comment longer).
            –Many of them are addicts, and should not be treated as criminals.
            –People caught with the amount of drugs for use (not sale) should not be treated as criminals.
            –Using drugs does not make someone an automatic criminal. More people smoke the occasional joint than you might think.
            –Decriminalizing drugs would help people who would otherwise be unable to get help, to get help.  It would also help to erode the stigma of drug addiction and addiction in general.

            And in this case, the incarceration rate does matter.  Why are so many people getting thrown and jail and sometimes given outrageous (and uneven among cultural/class lines) sentences, for such minor things as holding a joint?  The War on Drugs, that’s why.  It has FAILED.  It has helped no one, and in fact has cost us billions and ruined millions of lives.

            And now there are a scary amount of people in jail because of it.

            So, yes, the fact that there is 1 in 100 people incarcerated and most of those are due to non-violent drug offenses is a quite important part of the discussion.

          4. Thanks marilove, those seem like sensible points.  I may disagree with some of the principles, but I’m not hard over.  I’m fortunate in that my drug of choice is legal (comes in bottles and cans in the store down the street.)  I have not used illegal drugs of any sort, but I did notice many years ago that the culture surrounding alcohol is very similar to the culture surrounding pot and some others, and this makes me somewhat sympathetic.

            Regarding addicts:  have you considered that addiction is one reason many drugs are illegal in the first place, and that an addict must have used that illegal drug at some point before he became an addict, thereby earning clemency in your book?

        1. You will have to do better than than dropping a three word insult. Here is how informed I am
          Effect in California – From NPR

          Violent crime, but especially homicide, has fallen precipitously in the Los Angeles area, as well as other areas of the southland—Los Angeles’s 2010 homicide count was 297, less than a third of the 1992 high of 1,000 slayings.[5]

          Hence, you will have to do better than that!

          1. Seriously though, you do realize that the article you just posted says not a single word about three strikes laws, right? Although it does says a lot of things along the lines of:

            “But Villaraigosa says things have improved because of former gang members- turned-interventionists “who immediately after a shooting make sure they are calming the waters in communities where otherwise there may have been a retaliation.”

            Take that, criminals!

          2. I forgot to link to WIKI, my bad! I live in California, I can’t speak for “third world states” like Kentucky or others, I know that those that go to jail for 3-strikes violations are pretty damn scary. California has been know to let child rapist and murderers back on the street so in my opinion, the Fry comments are much like a Sean Hannity over simplifying a complex problem use data that was cherry picked.

          3. It was a f*****g light entertainment panel/quiz show where random factoids are the entire raison d’etre, FFS!  Not a bloody news or current affairs documentary. Does Sean Hannity chair comedy panel shows or is he a political current affairs/talk show host who really OUGHT to get his facts right and not be selective.   Even the BBC with its famous “impartiality” requirements is not going to demand a fucking comedy show provides balanced statistics.  Again, FFS!

          4. I need to take off from work here in a bit, but I’ll read the link when I get home.  Still, I want to bring something up:  Is there a clear indication that the drop in crime is actually related to the 3-strikes law?  Or is it just an assumption?  Correlation does not imply causation and all that.

          5. Nope.

            This is what he was trying to post:

            Violent crime, but especially homicide, has fallen precipitously in the Los Angeles area, as well as other areas of the southland—Los Angeles’s 2010 homicide count was 297, less than a third of the 1992 high of 1,000 slayings.

            However, there is some evidence that criminals on their last strike are more desperate to escape from police and therefore more likely to attack police. This does not reveal whether or not the criminals in question were or were not more desperate and willing to kill prior to their last strike.

            The source for that section of the page is this NPR story. Three Strikes Laws are never mentioned in it. At all.

          6. And again it comes down to desperation. Remove desperation, and a whole lot of the problems that follow go away as well.

          7. Who knows really, it could be that credit card crime is easier to do and banks don’t even chase you. I live in California and you cannot believe how dangerous some parts of Los Angeles are. Do people hear gunshots late at night in London, and helicopters flying just above the treetops like you were living in Vietnam circa 1964?

            When we do read about a child murder or a vicious beating like was witnessed at Dodger stadium, it’s always someone on parole or someone who should not have been let out obviously due to three strikes law. Next, our judges here in the state are forcing California to let inmates out due to over-crowding. Another factoid Fry missed.

          8. I’m still trying to find some definition of “hard to get into jail” that can easily coexist with the being the world’s largest jailer.  Are you just suggesting that our criminals try harder?

          9. I live in “Lost” Angeles, We have 261-crimes per-square-mile! – We have a 1-in-142 chance of being involved in a violent crime. (Would you get on a plane that had a 1-in-142 chance of landing?) )

            I live in a suburb on 1/2-acre of land in a town that has 11,542 people per mile;(I am very lucky), A very dense area indeed especially for California. Here is a link to sentencing guidelines, I look at them as hard to get into jail, your mileage may very.

            Now tell me these are not unreasonable sentences?

          10. I know you’re getting a lot of flak because you’re the “other side” of the debate.  I don’t live in LA but I hear you on the fact that in LA ( and in many other American cities ) crime is a problem.  I think, though, if crime is that bad – then the three strikes laws and long prison sentences isn’t cutting it.
            Education to help lift people out of poverty, decriminalization of drugs, strong jobs programs, and an emphasis on rehabilitation rather than simply punishment all seem like they’d be good steps that America has yet to take.

          11. That’s a fine point.   When you lock up violent criminals, but you don’t fix the root cause, you just open a path for a new gen of violent criminals.   I needed to be reminded of that so thanks.  We really do have to fix the root causes, that’s what matters.  Until we adopt this approach the violent crime will remain.

          12. SCAQTony,

            You’re becoming repetitive, which is a violation of our Comment Policy.  Maybe you should call it a day.

      2. As for the high number of inmates – we have a different culture here,  more “Darwinian” than Europe, and more desperate.

        Our crime rates aren’t really all that different than other industrialized nations, and certainly nowhere near a disparity that would account for our incarceration rates. The main difference is our approach to dealing with crime. You are correct that there is an important cultural difference, but it’s not the culture of the criminals. It’s the “tough on crime, let ’em rot or give ’em the needle” mindset of an American public that values punishment over results-oriented policy.

        1. Are you implying that our genetic make-up hasn’t changed sufficiently in four centuries to make Americans and Brits different subspecies?  That’s mad.

        2. I accept that and what you say is perfectly well stated but Fry’s arrogant, “we are so better than you,” attitude truly annoyed me.

          1. Then you’ve never seen Fry’s series of TV programmes where he toured USA pointing out the fabulous and, etc…..

            Perhaps he was being, you know, ironic? For, like, comedic effect? To be entertaining? (The point of a comedy show.)

            You certainly know less about Stephen Fry than he does about USA.

      3. Your British host cherry picked incidents such as the “9-videos and “cookies” making our system look both petty and sinister. The fact is the “Three Strikes” law significantly increases the prison sentences of persons convicted of felonies who have been previously convicted of a violent crime or serious felony.

        No, in fact that’s not the reason for the three-strikes laws at all. In fact, it’s the exact opposite!

        Judges already have the leeway to increase the penalties and sentences of repeat offenders, and repeat violent offenders almost always get longer sentences. The three strikes laws, on the other hand, are there specifically to turn misdemeanors like petty shoplifting into crimes that can get you put away for years.

        As for the high number of inmates – we have a different culture here,  more “Darwinian” than Europe, and more desperate.

        What, precisely, do you mean by that? Because whenever I hear people say stuff like that, it’s often followed by “oh, you know, innercity kids” or some other shit. So… what exactly do you mean?

      4. “Your British host cherry picked incidents such as the “9-videos and “cookies” making our system look both petty and sinister… ….That pretentious British host didn’t; or pretended not to, and neither that did that snotty, smart-ass, Brit blowing his nose down upon us on his high-horse!”

        Yes, the show did pick some particularly extreme examples, but only to highlight that there are some astonishing cases as a result of the three-strike system. Obviously, we all realise that a good number of people do go to prison for serious crimes. Your comment on increasing the sentences of violent felons may or may not be true, I don’t know enough about the topic to pass comment, but this is hardly the type of show to explore the topic in detail. The whole point of this show, QI, is to provide remarkable facts on a variety of topics that people wouldn’t expect, and present them in an entertaining fashion; which I believe is illustrated in the clip. If you feel that your country has been vicitimised, I can assure you that QI frequently ridicules Britain as well. Nobody’s perfect, after all.

        It’s rather unnecessary to be rude about the panel, though. Stephen Fry, the host, is widely regarded as a pleasant and very knowledgeable man – he happens to be well-spoken. That doesn’t make him pretentious.
        Jimmy Carr, who I assume you are referring to when you say ‘snotty, smart-ass, Brit’, is a comedian known for this deadpan style and dark humour, and he’ll mock absolutely anybody. I’ll grant you that his brand of humour is not to everyone’s taste, though.

        1. Thank you, that was well mannered, very polite and somewhat convincing. As for Jamie Carr, I want to beat him up with “wet noodle” but I fear I would kill him.

          1. The irony in this statement is delicious, re. your comment on how dangerous California is and how violent the prison population is..

      5. “we have contributed more than we have broken.”

        That’s kind of like saying ‘I won the Nobel Peace Prize, abolished poverty and brought an end to world hunger… So guess it’s alright if I kill these 100 innocent people then ya?’
        It seems to me that the US is ‘Darwinian’ in the same way that eugenics is ‘Darwinian’. You have implemented a system which specifically targets certain unwanted sections of society more harshly.

      6. I totally agree with you. It is hard to get into jail here… if you’re white.

        1 in 15 black adults is incarcerated & 1 in 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is incarcerated. I’d say those odds are actually pretty good.

    3. That’s one impressive generalization from what looks like three comments. Are you just angry because of my Uncle Sam costume and the six-shooters on my belt? It’s how we all dress, seriously.

    4. Any hope of reasonable debate is immediately gone as they rally to defend the US of A no matter how egregious the fact they’re given.

      Nobody’s perfect.  They may put somebody in prison for life for stealing a pizza, but don’t forget, we all have bad teeth.

    5. I was in London at a bar and was chatting it up with a young couple a few years back. They were only mildly antagonistic to me personally, but they were absolutely outraged by what a reactionary group of fist-pumping jingoistic flag waivers Americans were to elect George W. to a second term.

      After a little back and forth, I realized that their assumption was that I had voted for George. W. as did most everyone else in the U.S.

      I informed them that not only did I not vote for him, but the majority of Americans didn’t vote for him either. They were genuinely shocked by the idea that an entire half of the country might find W.’s policy repellent.

      I know other Brits that harbor the same sort of animosity towards the U.S. But I’d be no better than the young couple I met (or you) if I resorted to calling all Brits self-satisfied fingerpointers who don’t have the backbone or the humanity to inform their opinion before vilifying and caricaturizing the better part of 300,000,000 people.

      That said, I may not agree with all the points made on the show, but who can deny that our prison system is a horror show?

      1. Not quite sure about the british system, but for other places in the world to have a person get elected when a majority did not vote for him would reek of election fraud on the level of a banana republic…

    6. No different then friend being able to be derogatory about each other, but a outsider is a killing offense…

    7. I got pretty much the same reaction in London once when I confused Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.  Turns out, drunk people can get angry about a lot of stuff.

    8. My half-sister (raised in the USA, I live in Australia) gets snippy whenever I post something on FB that’s unflattering of the USA, she actually changed her status to “America is like your mother, you don’t get to criticise her unless you’re from her.” She’s college-educated and quite liberal on the whole…

      Perhaps it’s because they Don’t actually agree with everything their country does, but aren’t able to draw a distinction between blindy attacking someone/something and having a serious conversation with a good friend about a mistake they’re making which is seriously affecting other people.

  5. …Because I have three sisters, and two of them have been in jail several times — all for just holding drugs (pot, mostly).  My uncle has been in jail.  Also for pot.  I have numerous friends who were in jail as young adults who now have felony convictions — because they had some drugs on them.  Nothing violent.

    That’s part of what I meant by ‘unequally distributed’. I can’t think of anyone I know who has been arrested, let alone sent to prison, and I figure I sample a big chunk of people. That’s why the stats were so surprising when I first heard them a few years ago! Meanwhile, there are clearly bunches of people being arrested somewhere and sent to prison in large numbers. And when I see the demographics, I can understand the outrage. Either the judicial system is fair but society isn’t, society is fair but the judicial system isn’t, or both are messed up.

      1. Both are messed up.  You can’t really separate society from the justice system, you know?

        I guess that’s true. I like to think the law is separate from and above human beings, but that isn’t true. It so isn’t true. I should know better — even if I don’t know of anyone who has been arrested, I did serve in a jury once. 

  6. Without meaning to in any way minimize the overall thrust of the statistics-fest, I would note that:

    “There are more 17-year-old black people in jail than in college” is hardly surprising, since most American 17-year-olds (of any race) are still in high school.  

    Most Americans  don’t start college until they’re 18.

    Which makes me wonder: Is that only true of black Americans, or might it be true of all Americans?

    1. “”There are more 17-year-old black people in jail than in college” is hardly surprising, since most American 17-year-olds (of any race) are still in high school.

      Most Americans don’t start college until they’re 18.”

      What I’m going to suggest is hugely unlikely, as in the UK we’ve had enough US media shown to us to know this disparity, but it could be that Fry is changing the terminology to reflect the British school system, where ‘College’ is the bit you do between 16 and 18, after leaving High School and before starting University.

    2. In the UK, college means high school.  So he meant “there are more black seventeen year olds in jail than in

      1. Re: Did Stephen Fry mean there are more black men in jail than in high school or college?

        He meant college. Otherwise he would have been incorrect.

        41% of black men in the US graduate from high school: [1] (so at least 41% of 17 year olds must still be in school).

        11% of black men aged 20-39 are in jail: [2]

        Now unless there’s some huge drop in the number of incarcerated black men after the age of 17, which I’m not seeing anywhere, I think we can dismiss this, and say that Fry was reciting the fact that there are more black men in jail total than in college total.

  7. You know what has always bothered me about putting non-violent “criminals” in jail?  You are putting them in jail with actual, violent criminals.  This can’t be good, especially if these non-violent “criminals” are young.  Suddenly, they are in an environment with people they normally wouldn’t associate with.  THEN, you add on the fact that they now have a record which will haunt them for the rest of their lives, making it difficult for them to find decent jobs (and therefore decent friendships/relationships).  And people think this is a great way to stop crime?!  The only thing it does is make sure that someone who probably wasn’t any harm to society is now seen as a criminal in society.  It’s like that self-fulfilling prophecy thing, except society is doing the fulfilling for the person (creating criminals).

    1. I agree 100% with what you say. It would be useful to have a discussion of what the function of the judicial system is as opposed to what it should be. I would argue that the function of any public institution should be to “improve” the society in which it operates, and that the current focus of the judicial system on lifelong punishment does not accomplish that. Violent criminals should absolutely be locked up for the good of society at large, but for non-violent crimes wouldn’t society at large be better served by taking steps that don’t dump individuals who have little chance of finding decent (legal) employment, and whose most recent social contacts are all criminals, onto the streets? The re-incarceration rates for recent parolees is very high, and the system effectively destroys many who get caught up in it. If the goal is primarily the best possible long term result for society and not revenge against the offender surely there are better options than incarceration.

  8. America doesn’t recognise it’s own problems because it knows no different. I was glad to be out of there, and I’m sure you’re all glad to see me out too – Land of the free.

  9. I guess the Brits forgot all about the whole debtors’ penal colony deal with Australia they had in the 18th and 19th century.

    1. Comparing the UK’s prison system of the 18th century with the US prison system of the 21st is not a winning point.

    2. You’re sassing the Brits as a whole for a penal system they had over a century ago and have now abandoned. You do this because you’ve taken offense at a Brit for sassing America over its sentencing of people for things they did in the past, not their current crime. Let’s all just think about that a moment.

      1. No. I’m sassing them because they’re taking on airs like their shit don’t stink. I never thought my comment would cause this much of an uproar. I was just pointing out that the emperor has no clothes (and his empire was far from unbloody). The system’s brutality? Sure. I think Michael Moore and others have beat that horse plenty dead. The question is how can we change. Not point at it in shock and awe like some strange creature in the zoo.

        1. Have you not seen your television programs lately? You _are_ the strange creature in the zoo. It might be unfair, but this is how your corporations and news media portray you.. 

        2. I think Michael Moore and others have beat that horse plenty dead.

          And yet, it’s still lying in the middle of the road.

    3. No. They haven’t forgotten. But they aren’t doing it now. Unless you get a time machine there’s not much they can do about that. Maybe go talk to CERN and see how their neutrinos are doing.

      But the American prison system is happening now. It is something that we can help fix. What Britain did in the past or what any other country did in the past isn’t a reason to ignore serious systemic problems in the US. 

      As a citizen of the United States, things like this appall me. And how many of our citizens don’t care or think this is a good thing are even more appalling. And to argue that because another country once did something bad they can’t point out when we’re doing something awful? That’s just juvenile and disgusting. 

      This will change. It will either be dealt with peacefully or things will collapse. It isn’t sustainable. In forty or fifty years this will be over one way or another. The question one must ask is when your grandchildren ask you what you did, will you say “yeah, I spent my time arguing that those criticizing the US should shutup because they had done similar things a hundred years before?” If you don’t want to lie to your grandchildren and you don’t want to have to say that to them, then don’t make such claims now.

      1. You missed the joke took a flying leap down the logic chain and landed on a soapbox. Good luck with that.
        Zelinsky’s time machine? Didn’t you have a relative who made a shrinking machine? Imaginative family you have.

    4. “I guess the Brits forgot all about the whole debtors’ penal colony deal
      with Australia they had in the 18th and 19th century. ”

      Yes. “18th and 19th century” I think is the key phrase.

  10. It’s extremely stupid to be arguing about nationalities and who can and cannot say stuff about other countries in an Internet forum. 

    Data packages know few boundaries, and like the salmon they go upstream sometimes. 

  11. With three neoliberal parties to choose from, all apparently more concerned with attacking indigent single mothers and feckless “welfare cheats” than a rentier class of metropolitan elite capitalist scumbags, it’s highly likely we’ll extending our lead as the prison capital of Europe. As the NHS moves ever-closer to privatisation and with the increase of tuition fees to £9000 per annum, we’re frankly indistinguishable from the USA and her “hollow government” of services outsourced to Lockhead Martin. The riots of this summer saw the imposition of some astonishingly draconian sentences handed down, so whilst I am sure the American system undoubtedly stinks, we in Britain are really in no position to run around with our dresses over our heads.

  12. I hear from the above listed officials, as well as others in our organization, frustration with minimum sentencing guidelines voted in by the  populace.  Why, especially in a time of waning violent crime and finances, would we be voting for stricter punishments and longer prison terms?  Those operating our prisons aren’t for them and the judges and prosecuting attorneys in general don’t support them.  It seems the issue lies with politicians who try to curry votes with a public safety platform and groups such as MADD who operate on an emotional basis in a vacuum of the implications of their hyperbolic screams.

    How do we then, as general citizens, put a stop to all these ridiculous minimum sentencing guidelines that are a large contributor to the high incarceration rates?  First, show up public meetings and voice your opinion.  Every politician will flip and flop to receive the most votes.  The second would be to stop having our media sensationalize every crime, resulting in a population who think crime rates are out of control, leading them to vote for these nonsense referendums.  How to achieve that I’m at a total loss.  Maybe we need to start bringing out our torches and pitchforks for different reasons.

    Edited to add: It would also be helpful if we required that a tax adjustment be included on all of these minimum sentence referendums. E.g., if you want to make the minimum DUII offense be 30 days in jail that will add an additional cost of X dollars on average to the prison budgets, and so taxes must increase by X dollars in order to offset. People respond well when there are direct consequences to their decisions.

    1. We have a lot of people in jail for DUI?  That at least has the property of being somewhat more likely to harm others, unlike smoking dope.

  13. Since America has the most laws it stands to reason that America would have the most law breakers.  A person who was innocent yesterday becomes a criminal tomorrow because of a new law passed today banning their behavior.  

  14. 13th Amendment:
    Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

    We got rid of slavery and replaced it with the prison industrial complex…

    1. Hmm, i wonder how hard it is to get a plantation re-defined as a prison. Some fences, guards and tents perhaps?

      1. Sounds like Angola:,_USA 

        Angola Africa –> Angola, LA the plantation –> Angola, LA the prison

  15. > Holding pot of all things shouldn’t be considered a crime. 

    Right, but just because you believe something shouldn’t be against the law doesn’t mean that it isn’t against the law. Lots of people think that they should pay lower taxes. If they decide to stop paying income taxes the IRS will likely audit them and put them in a world of hurt, as will state authorities if they fail to pay property taxes, etc.

    If you want legalize or decriminalize drug possession you have a legal right to petition the government to do so. This doesn’t mean you have a right to break the law just because you disagree with it.

    1. If you want legalize or decriminalize drug possession you have a legal right to petition the government to do so. This doesn’t mean you have a right to break the law just because you disagree with it.

      By your reasoning, the Underground Railroad should not have been set up, since they were breaking the law by smuggling plantation owners’ property to places where the law couldn’t get them back.

      Fighting unjust laws is the duty of a free citizen. Otherwise we’d still be part of the British Commonwealth.

    2. First of all, Doing Exactly As the Government Tells You To Do, isn’t necessarily the best way to make change, and I’m sure if you read a few history books, you’d remember that. Secondly, police offers, judges, etc., all have the ability to be subjective, and not arrest or pursue certain “crimes”. They do it all the time. Driving over the speed limit is technically illegal, but I bet you do it even if only occasionally, and not all cops give out tickets if you speed.

      Additionally, I notice that you glossed over many of my points, and just stuck with, “Don’t hold drugs, man!  Just don’t hold ’em!  It’s as simple as that!”

      What about addicts?  Should an addict be thrown in jail because they were holding drugs?  I used to be a detention officer. I can tell you right now that jail isn’t the best place to get clean, or promote rehabilitation.

      “Just don’t hold the drugs, man!  That’s the answer!” doesn’t take into any consideration of why someone might be caught with drugs.  And that isn’t even half of what’s wrong with such a comment.

      It’s ridiculously over-simplified and, once again, doesn’t add anything to the discussion.

    3. Additionally:  1 out of 100 people are incarcerated, and a good majority of them are in jail for non-violent drug offenses.  

      Most drugs are illegal and have been been illegal for decades upon decades.  But still, 1 in 100 people are still in jail incarcerated.  There is a reason for this, and it’s seriously not as simple as “just don’t hold the drugs, man!”

      If it were that simple, don’t you think making them illegal and incarcerating them in the first place would have, I dunno, helped some?  But it hasn’t.  And most people do not want to go to jail, yet they continue to use and get caught with drugs and there are now 1 out of 100 people incarcerated for minor drug offenses.

      Such simplistic views of how human society functions is why 1 out of 100 people are currently incarcerated. Just look at the War on Drugs! The entire message is, “Just don’t do it! If you’re even caught thinking about doing drugs, you will go to jail! You will die!” No real look into why Americans might be doing drugs, or whether or not prohibition across the board is practical in any way — just don’t do it, man, because the government says so, is basically the entire message of the War on Drugs.

      And we’ve seen how well that has worked.

  16. By the way, it’s not true, as Fry claims, that, under three-strikes laws, a third strike can be any crime, no matter how trivial.  

    In most states with three-strikes laws, all three ‘strikes’ must be violent felonies.  The most notable exception is California, source of most of the ‘poster-child’ cases.  

    In California, the first two strikes must be “violent or serious” felonies, while the third can be any crime chargeable as a felony, violent or not.

    Oh, and the “25 years for stealing chocolate chip cookies” guy?  That would be Kevin Weber, a six-time parole violator, previously convicted of felony burglary and assault with a firearm, whose third strike was a burglary conviction for breaking into a restaurant, intending to rob its safe of the large cash haul generated by the preceding Mothers’ Day weekend.

    But before he could breach the safe, he triggered the establishment’s burglar alarm, and fled with nothing to show for his crime but the cookies he’d pocketed.

    I don’t know if that will make any difference to anyone – but I do notice that most of the three-strikes reformers who use him as a  cause célèbre don’t bother to mention the context or details of his crime and his prior convictions; only the chocolate chip cookies.

    Should we cut people a break on third-strike burglary convictions because a burglar alarm scared them off before they’d had a chance to rifle the safe?  Or is it the intent, rather than the actual result, that should count?

    1. Convicted of a crime I didn’t even commit. Hah! Attempted murder? Now honestly, what is that? Do they give a Nobel prize for attempted chemistry? Do they?

      1. Heh. :-)

        (Of course, I would be okay with the penalty for attempted murder being the same as the penalty for actual murder – but only if a real, genuine attempt at murder actually occurred.  I think trying to kill people is just as bad as succeeding at killing them.) 

        (And of course, either of those would still qualify as a ‘strike’.)

  17. Anyone who doubts the US criminal justice system is broken is being willfully ignorant. 

     We should not be locking up so many people for non-violent drug crimes.    Locking non-violent offenders with violent ones is also just insane.   

    With the economy the way it is someone with a record of any kind has slim chance of finding a job.  How many of these people turn to crime to pay the bills?   Sell drugs = Pay rent

  18. You know what else people outside the US are mostly unaware of? The pledge of allegiance, and how kids are pressured into reciting it every day in school, from a young age. We just all assume it’s something you do on national holidays.

    It explains a lot.

  19. This whole thread reminds me of  having a friend with an out of control problem; how do you let them know without humiliating them?
    Umm… America you know we love you right? Mate, this prison population thing is way out of control, it’s not good.

    England’s not perfect anyway, a country where you need a license to own a television has all sorts of problems.

    1. “Umm… America you know we love you right?”

      Was that you I saw with the “Death to Amedica” t-shirt?

  20. I looked up some statistics on wikipedia, the GAO, and DoJ websites to try and find out what the duration of these folks prison stays were and how many of the prisoners in the USA are actually Americans.  The incarceration rate in Federal and state prisons in 2008 was 0.5%.  If the 1% figure is correct this means that half the prison population is in county or municipal jails.  I’m thinking these prisoners are either serving short term sentences, are awaiting trial, or are in jail because they owe money to someone–usually child support.  Of those in Federal prision in 2010 27% were aliens.  There are no statistics available on the alien population of state and local prisions but a lower bound is the number of aliens in state and local prison for whose incarceration the Federal government is picking up the tab.  In 2002 there were 255,959 of these prisioners which is around 0.1% of the US population at that time.

  21. Here’s something for those of you who are trying to downplay the numbers:

    Between 1980 and 2000 the US’s prison population quadrupled while its population increased by only 25% and its overall crime rate and especially violent crime actually decreased in the same time period (even in absolute numbers!).

    Riddle me that.

  22. Actually, you know what scares me about the UK, and what I’d marvel (and scoff) at with my sympathetic guests if I had my own tv show?   KNIFE CRIME.  I do believe I would rather be shot than stabbed.  What’s with all the crazy Brits running around stabbing people?

  23. We’ve all been laughing at how few US citizens own a passport for a long time. But now that most of Europe is covered by the Schengen agreement, a passport is becoming less important here too. You can travel a long way without actually leaving the US or Europe. Of course, there is a whole wide world outside the US/Europe, but a lot of Europeans have previously needed their passports to travel much shorter distances.

  24. So people in the comments here seem very offended about the fact that they take some shots at the 1% stat and the near-slavery conditions of prison-labor, but come on… this is a comedy show where the guests and presenter make jokes about everything. They take one, fair, shot at the US and everybody’s up in arms. Don’t get me wrong, but US comedy regularly makes fun of European countries for al sorts of shit (don’t get me started on how often I’ve seen an almost racist stereotypical Dutch person in American comedy speaking german), so you really shouldn’t get so upset if you get a few pokes back.

    P.s. I like QI, it’s a very funny show and Stephen Fry is one of the best comedians on the planet. Also, I don’t mind the German (or Swedish) speaking Dutch people who usually get dressed up in classic Danish clothes in American comedy. It’s just to make the point that we all take shots at each other as we should.

  25. To paraphrase Richard Pryor…

    “So I spent some time filming a movie in the penitentiary [STIR CRAZY].   And I got to talk to the inmates, got to spend some time with the inmates.

    …Man, I’m glad we got penitentiaries!”

  26. Can I just say to America readers of this post that Stephen Fry (and his celeb cronies) DO NOT represent – as much as they would like to – the general feeling of the average Brit. Yes, I know the liberal Brits and those wierdos who think that British culture is the epitomy of gentile taste think that Stephen Fry is god and everything that comes out of his mouth is the very mark of high civilization – but the rest of us (and forgive the common British euphemism) think he can be a nob. This was one of those occassions —- I thought you guys fought a war of independance so you didn’t have to listen to upper class English twits like him dictating to you how you should run your nation?

    1. Well-educated is not ‘upper class’.  I hardly think a comic comment on a comedy show is “dictating to you how you should run your nation”
      The average Brit I know, however, DOES have the same feelings about 1% of a population being locked up.

      On another tack – I think the US should pursue logical conclusions. 1% locked up = good profits for private prisons. So let’s lock up 2%? 50%? 100%?  Yep – 100% must be the goal, so your prison companies would be able to make LOTS of money, the inmates could be paid slave wages to produce goods, and

      Oh wait … who would the prison guards be, who would pay the taxes?

      The objective of a civil society should be to have no need to lock anyone up at all, and to seek ways to reduce the numbers that are. Passing more draconian laws (3 strikes, pot, etc) is clearly not the way to achieve that. But who said America was a civil society? (That was an ironic rhetorical question, for comic effect. Please don’t rise to my bait.)  ;-)

  27. What the USA is very good at is making people into criminals.  It’s a tried and true way to control populations.  You take something popular, convince people that it’s immoral and make it illegal.  Then when people inevitably do it anyway, you have them afraid and able to be controlled.  Most of the time the offense is something that doesn’t actually hurt anyone, like the vast majority of drug charges (simple possession).

  28. it really buffles me that socioeconomic and political criteria are SERIOUSLY downplayed.
    Almost noone has mentioned the extreme inequality the U.S. has. The lack of opportunities young people have (especially now that the economy is in a global meltdown), which leads to both drugs and criminal activity. 
    And when i say opportunities, i mean to education (what is the quality of state schools compared to private ones etc, as well as the context of education in the U.S.), to healthcare etc.
    It also upsets me that the american ideology of “looking after your own self” rather than fighting for the collective well-being is deeply rooted, from employement legislation (almost no cover to union action and collective bargains) to just about anything really.
    You folks need to rediscover values, seriously undermined by the neoliberal policies followed by your govenments since WWII. And it might have been that it kind of worked in times of capitalist growth (what with the U.S. holding the hegemony of the western capitalist complex and all), but, and i’m sorry to say, you are soon to find out what that will mean as the economy starts crippling. And it will, because this is a historic crisis of the system, unseen since the 1929 one, and anyone thinking things will get better, you should wake up and realise that they wont. And you will need to fight, whilst rediscovering forms of collective struggle, which will be a tough thing since you’ve all but scrapped them.
    So, in all, this discussion seems to be out of context really. At least one commented on how the UK is becoming a lot more like the U.S. in its inequity, and that the recent riots is just a taste of things to come, as more and more people see themselves as outcasts of this society.

  29. That’s such a stupid claim and impossible when you consider how YOUNG a country the US is and how much OLDER other countries are as in hundreds of yrs. I don’t agree with our system, I don’t believe in the death penalty but I have lived  and been to many countries where prison is hella worse!….. ? It’s a no brainer and to claim such a thing makes you seem really dumb!

    1. So, a country like Canada, even officially younger than the USA, should have greater incarceration rates than the USA?  (At least for now, unless Harper gets a second majority.)

      I wonder how much cheaper it would be to have welfare, medicare, and unemployment insurance than prisons.  Jeepers, you might even be able to walk on the streets of your town…

  30. Lets skip the usual brit/american rhetoric shall we? 
    They are correct, Ive been preaching this for years.
    5% of the entire worlds population are Americans
    25% of the entire worlds PRISON population are AMERICANS.

    Ive been through the system, long gone is a time when you could avoid jail simply by not doing anything illegal.  You are CLEARLY guilty until proven innocent and treated as such regardless of actual guilt.  Furthermore prisons have increased 3000% since they were privatized.  Meaning PEOPLE MAKE MONEY FOR SHAREHOLDERS OF PRISONS BY FIGURING OUT HOW TO FILL THEM!  Coming to an area near you, A bright shiny prison, creates jobs!  Enslaves your children with properly paid judges motivated to fill them.  

    If it hasnt touched you it will.  There are no “warnings” anymore, only fines.  They are broke.

  31. I am amazed how people are defending this, thought boingboing readers might be more enlightened then the usually lot.     If you cant see the glaring relationship between draconian idiotic drug laws and the prison industrial complex you are f’in blind.  One feeds the other.  This country sucks more everyday.

    1. The number of commenters at BoingBoing seems to have increased greatly since we have the new Disqus system (don’t know if that’s correlation or causation), and there are now many more people without the stereotypically outlook that I used to associate with BB commenters.

      I guess it’s a good thing, not being in an echo chamber, but I do sometimes miss not having the now-regular political arguments.

      (Sure, there was always someone who’d say that, for instance, so-and-so wouldn’t have gotten beaten up by the cops if they didn’t deserve it, but never that kind of sustained argument repeated by many.)

  32. A vast percentage of incarcerated Americans are behind bars for sales or use of marijuana.  It’s a Schedule 1 controlled substance.  The Gov’t/DEA will not allow it to be removed from Schedule 1 since as pointed out in the video it supplies slaves for the new model Corporate Prison System.  To label pot Schedule 1 is the epitome of bureaucratic ignorance.   But it keeps the big houses full.

    I have no issue with locking up every violent or dangerous criminal for as long as it takes to keep our streets safe.  That’s just common sense.  

  33. I think it’s a shame that so many Americans respond to criticism by sharing their ‘opinions’ on the country of origin of the source of it.  That dodges the issue about whether the criticism is warranted or not.  To go way back in the thread to the point about calling your mom fat that may not be allowed if your mom ISN’T fat – but if she clearly IS then all I’m doing is expressing genuine concern about her well being and the deep-rooted psychological reasons for her prodigious overeating given the obvious detrimental effects on her health and the quality of life for both her and her immediate family.

    And, to extend the metaphor a bit, let’s face it your mom is a salad dodger of legendary proportions.  She’s immense.  Massive.  Enormous.  Huge.  Colossal.  Gigantic.  Elephantine.  I mean the last time she tried to get on a train she had to travel freight.  She’s been running a scam stealing food stamps from the poor and underprivileged and selling them back to big business for half the cost they get from the government to honour them and she’s still cramming her gullet with deep-fried butter sticks every chance she gets.

    Please, for love of all that’s holy, get her that gastric by-pass soon before she bursts and covers seven states in an inch thick layer of lard.

    1. I think it’s a shame that so many Americans respond to criticism by sharing their ‘opinions’ on the country of origin of the source of it.

      You’re correct of course, but that’s hardly a phenomenon unique to Americans.

  34. Well yes, that’s true; but it is a characteristic displayed by many Americans here and that’s all I intended to say it was.

  35. Some people think that the yanks don’t use sarcasm.  Not true says I, after all, they do call themselves the ‘land of the free’ ;)

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