Imprisonment and Unequal Societies

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On Thinking Allowed today, Nils Christie, Professor of Criminology at Oslo University startled me with a simple fact. Talking about imprisonment he mentioned that, at 141 per 100,000 of population, the UK has the highest rate in Western Europe. This figure is much higher than the rate in Scandinavian countries which is around 60 per 100,000. That wasn’t what startled me.

What startled me was the comparison to the US which has almost 800 people in prison per 100,000. Not only is this rate astonishing but so was the automatic connection Christie made between the high prison population and the drive for economic success in the US.

It reminded me of the idea, put forward by Richard Wilkinson in his book ‘Unhealthy Societies‘, that mental illness is related to the gap between the rich and the poor. Those countries which have the largest gaps tend to have the highest rates of mental illness. In Wilkinson’s new book (reviewed in The Guardian) this thesis is extended to include the same connection between unequal societies and higher crime rates.

Not only is the American Dream more likely to put you in jail, it is more likely to drive you crazy.

Thinking Allowed from 8th March 2006

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Published: 8 March 2006

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