The US gulag

First published: 22 May 2006

One of the most frequent intellectual tricks of apologists for imperialism is to attempt to confine the study of the human and political rights record of the imperialist countries to the situation only within their own borders. By their nature, many of the greatest crimes of imperialism were carried outside the borders of the individual imperialist states themselves – the extermination of the every original inhabitant of the Caribbean following the Spanish conquest, the transportation of 12 million people in the slave trade and the deaths of many millions in it, the death of at least 20 million people in famines in British-ruled India while grain continued to be exported by the British authorities, a million deaths in the Great Famine in Ireland after 1846 while food imports were kept out by British imposed tariffs, the death of every single original inhabitant of Tasmania, systematically genocidal policies against native Americans in various US states, the killing by the US of 3 million people in Vietnam, the killing of up to 100,000 people by US and British forces in Iraq, etc.

Such purely internal examination of the record of the countries is imperialist and racist in itself – the killing or infringement of political rights of Americans or British must be looked at in detail, and is appalling, but the killing of Indians, Irish, Vietnamese or Iraqis does not need to be similarly examined.

Consider the example of the ‘democratic traditions’ of Britain. The British state ruled the largest empire the world has ever seen without democracy ever existing for the original population of the countries within its colonies. Given that India alone had several times the population of Britain, it may rather be said that the dominant historical tradition of Britain was lack of democracy. Nevertheless it is also worth examining the record of the imperialist countries within their own borders. One subject of considerable interest in this field is the large scale gulag known as the US prison system.

A striking fact may be taken by making a comparison of the US gulag to the human rights record of China. You might think from the media that China had far more people in prison than the US. In fact, in relation to the size of their populations, the proportion of the population in prison is six times greater in the US than in China. According to the authoritative Kings College London International Centre for Prison Studies (, there are 714 prisoners per 100,000 of the population in the US compared to 118 per 100,000 of the population in China. The proportion of people imprisoned in the US is by far the highest number in the world – a third higher per head of the population than any other country. The US also contains the largest absolute number of prisoners in the world – 2.1 million.

It may be said ‘but of course these are just criminals’ in the US. Apart from the fact that it is absurd to believe that the US has six times more criminals warranting imprisonment than China, and higher than any other country in the world, the statistics show this is pure rubbish. A study by the US Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice for example shows that five per cent of the adult population of Texas is either in prison, jail, on probation or on parole. However an African-American in Texas is seven times as likely to be imprisoned as a white person and and nearly one in three young African-American men in Texas are under some form of criminal justice control ( The idea that such racial disparities are produced by people being imprisoned on objective criteria of criminality is ludicrous. What in fact exists in the US is a large-scale gulag which specifically hits black people and people of colour. That is, the US possesses not only a massive gulag, but specifically a massive racist gulag.