Another friend, Eli Lehrer, has an excellent review of a new book by Yale's James Q. Whitman. Whitman has a thesis for why Europeans and Americans treat their prisoners differently:
Over time, Whitman believes, status-conscious France and Germany began to treat nearly all criminals in the dignified manner once reserved for members of the nobility and political prisoners. America, disdainful of such status distinctions since the Revolution, came to treat everyone in the low-status manner befitting peasants and common criminals. The United States, he argues, moved to one-size-fits-all vengeance while Europe moved towards individualized, nurturing justice. American justice thus "tends not to treat offenders with respect"--which puts the nation at peril through its indifference to suffering.
A nice theory, Eli suggests, but what about reality? Eli, who is a genuine expert in these matters, takes a look at comparative crime rates and other useful indicators. He then looks at the practice in prisons today.
Whitman has visited German prisons and read German guard-training manuals, but he doesn't appear to have done the same in the United States--and so he makes much out of European training-manual provisions and legal precedents requiring respectful treatment of prisoners, but he seems unaware that similar provisions also exist in the United States. French prisons, as Whitman concedes, are in some ways worse than their American counterparts. While he makes much of policies allowing French prisoners to wear their own clothes and have other petty comforts, he really doesn't make a convincing case that Europeans as a whole are much nicer to prisoners than Americans overall. They simply let them out of prison more quickly and suffer higher crime rates as a result. More disturbingly, Whitman's book has a strangely anti-democratic subtext. Whitman has many kind words for unelected European bureaucrats who run prison systems and, in one absurd passage, compares America's long prison sentences to Nazi torch-light rallies because both "lend themselves naturally to mobilizing mass support."
My first prison study for Civitas, available in PDF form via their website, takes a look at current approaches to the rehabilitation of offenders in the US. I'd venture to suggest that the best American programs put anything tried in Europe in the shade.