North Korea's Prison Camps -- and America's

by Michael Tennant
Mar. 21, 2013

After returning from a recent trip to North Korea, former NBA star Dennis Rodman sat for an interview on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopolous. After Rodman declared that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whom he had met on his trip, was "a great guy," Stephanopolous, apparently taken aback by the remark, said incredulously, "A great guy who puts 200,000 people in prison camps?"

Rodman replied that "it's amazing how we do the same thing here."

"We have prison camps here in the United States?" Stephanopolous inquired, at which point his guest backpedaled.

Rodman should have stood his ground. The United States maintains prison camps around the world, and it locks up far more of its own citizens than any other country.

America's most famous prison camp, of course, is the one at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which housed 167 people as of September 2012. The United States operates a prison camp next to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan; as of June 2011 it housed 1,700 prisoners. (America also has a second, secret prison at the same location, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.) After the U.S. military invaded Iraq, it operated a prison at Abu Ghraib in that country. In addition, in recent years the Central Intelligence Agency ran a network of secret "black site" prisons in various countries.

All of these prisons are notorious for their treatment of inmates. Prisoners have been humiliated, tortured, and even killed in them. Some inmates at the CIA black sites were rendered to brutal foreign regimes, where they were tortured until they told their captors what the CIA wanted to hear.

Despite the rhetoric from the Obama administration, none of this ended when George W. Bush left office. The Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command "operates a network of secret prisons, perhaps as many as 20 black sites in Afghanistan alone," according to Nick Turse; the CIA has a secret prison in Somalia; and Obama has not repudiated the practice of rendition. Also, according to a report from the Open Society Foundation, more than 20 CIA black-site inmates are still missing, even though Barack Obama issued an executive order shutting down those sites shortly after taking office. He also issued one closing down the Guantanamo Bay prison, but it remains open to this day.

Stephanopolous might argue that the United States's prison camps differ from those in North Korea because U.S. prisons aren't used to hold political prisoners. But how else can one describe the people being held there? Most are there because they dared to resist the invasion of their homelands by the U.S. military, or they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the invaders arrived. They are not, generally speaking, being held because they have committed genuine crimes.

The whole point of having such prisons, after all, is to lock up people Washington doesn't like without having to give them the benefit of due process of law. Indeed, reports the Associated Press, a group of Republican senators recently criticized the Obama administration for bringing one of Osama bin Laden's sons-in-law to trial in New York because such "suspects do not deserve the protection of U.S. courts." To the senators' way of thinking, once the government declares someone guilty, he should be whisked off to a prison camp and never be heard from again. Kim Jong-un would agree.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, America imprisons far more people than any other country in the world. "The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population," wrote the New York Times in 2008. "But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners."

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2011 about 1.6 million people, 0.5 percent of the population, were incarcerated in the United States; and about 7 million, 2.3 percent of the population, were either in prison, on parole, or on probation. North Korea is estimated to have 200,000 people, 0.85 percent of its population, in its prison camps. In a contest between the two nations to determine which one makes criminals out of more of its population, neither country comes out the clear winner.

Again, one might claim this is an unfair comparison because Americans aren't being held for political reasons. But more than one-fifth of America's prisoners -- and almost half of all federal prisoners -- are being held because they possessed, used, or sold substances that the political class has declared off-limits. Many others are behind bars for crossing borders drawn by politicians without obtaining their permission or for violating any one of hundreds of laws criminalizing behavior (such as "insider trading") that violate no one else's rights. In a sense, then, they are as much political prisoners as the people in Kim Jong-un's camps.

Stephanopolous and Rodman both demonstrated their ignorance in claiming that the United States does not unjustly imprison people as North Korea does. Rodman may be excused on the basis that he's just another celebrity in over his head; but Stephanopolous, a former White House official and current big-time journalist, has no excuse. He surely knows better, but his commitment to the bipartisan faith in "American exceptionalism" blinds him to the fact that the U.S. government can be just as brutal and unjust as any other.
Michael Tennant is a software developer and freelance writer. Read more of his writings at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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