CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Our America is a prison-building dynamo. It has always been just that.
In the country's earliest years, houses of punishment went up alongside houses of worship. About every colonial settlement used imprisonment as appropriate and necessary means of address for its miscreants. Boston had barely 40 places of residence when it built its first house of detention.
We came by our colonial Calvinism by way of England, our puritanical parent. Criminal chastisement imprinted on the colonial psyche, a lawyer-over-grace mindset that shaped legal systems from Massachusetts to Georgia. We have a proclivity to keep erecting prisons -- and filling them.
Today we construct prisons for economic reasons and political encroachment. We now warehouse more inmates than anybody else on the planet.
Do the math. The shocking government statistics translate to about 1 in 32 persons who are directly involved with the nation's corrections systems.
Many factors contributed to the spike in imprisonment -- people raised in want, deinstitutionalization, failed drug policies and racial biases in sentencing, for example.
We can argue the finer points of how America rose and remains atop the world's penitentiary realms, but not the resulting overload on federal and state prisons, particularly those intended to house the long-term, highest-risk prisoners.
The search for more-efficient management of prisons gives rise to these super maximum-security -- "supermax" -- facilities designed to segregate inmates deemed the highest risk. The supermax prison is a kind of postmodern Alcatraz in which prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for 22 hours of the day. It is a divide-and-conquer world where visitors arrive by video. The anti-solitary confinement protest is not what it once was.
For the most part, prisons of today are improved. Quality fluctuates, however. Alternative practices are doing a greater job. Strangely, most federal prisons are the most up to date. Money and programs are superior to the lower facilities and should be worked with.
In recent years, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, of Illinois, has been holding congressional committee meetings on prisons. Legislators ought to gain inspection privileges to learn what can be done to enhance our prison programs.
Holliday, of Fayetteville, is a former state senator from Fayette County who has spent years visiting and inspecting prisons in several states.