The past millenium and a half has arguably witnessed a general improvement in the cultural level of society, in particular many countries having preserved and extended their intolerance of sports that brutally exploit the disadvantaged. Today even cock fighting and pitting canines against each other are illegal in most industrialized nations.
Remnants of gladitorial combat nevertheless persist, notably at two prison rodeos in Angola, La., and McAlester, Okla., where Americans buy tickets to watch inmates wrestle bulls and participate in crowd favorites like "Convict Poker." Also called "Mexican Sweat," the poker game consists of four prisoners who sit expectantly around a red card table. A 1,500-pound bull is unleashed, and the last convict to remain sitting wins. Especially thrilling for the audience is the chaotic finale "Money the Hard Way" in which more than a dozen inmates scramble to snatch a poker chip dangling from the horns of another raging bull.
Unlike prisoners of ancient Rome, convicts at the annual Angola and Oklahoma State rodeos aren't physically forced to compete in the games, or even executed after their performance. Instead, they're paid handsomely -- upwards of $200 for winning "Convict Poker," or $100 for successfully grabbing the chip in "Money the Hard Way." A tour guide clarifies the basic economics: "Since $100 is worth about four months' pay to these hardened criminals, be ready for one hell of a scrap for that c-note."
There are of course some ethical concerns. When "someone raises a question about the propriety of the rodeo," a Washington Post article explains, the focus remains on the abuse of bulls and broncos, like the pleas of the animal rights group PETA to cancel the rodeo on animal cruelty grounds. An official from In Defense of Animals writes elsewhere that the event provides inmates with "the right to torment and abuse frightened animals in front of a cheering audience." Moral questions don't arise about the propriety of cheering while bulls pummel convicts.
Prison rodeos may be rare, but it shouldn't be surprising that the mainstream toleration they receive stems from the willingness of the United States to incarcerate 2.2 million of its people. While less than one out of every 20 humans lives in the United States, almost one quarter of the world's prisoners sit in American jails. The U.S. criminal justice system has no parallel in the contemporary world. History, however, reveals the origins of the system's scope, in addition to the national obsession of denying criminal offenders the decency and rights normally afforded to other humans.
More Americans in prison
In the international race to incarcerate, the United States dominates, with few rivals and no rich countries within shouting distance. Incarceration rates across countries are best measured as shares of national populations. Last year, for every 100,000 people in the United States, 738 were in prison. Second-place Russia, whom the United States succeeded in 2000, currently boasts a rate of 603, but the only other OECD country with a rate above 200 is Poland at 229. The U.K. incarceration rate of 145 is the highest of any Western European country. Although African-Americans suffer the greatest relative burden of U.S. imprisonment, the incarceration rate for whites in the United States is still more than three times the OECD average.
To its credit, the United States hasn't always imprisoned such a large share of its population. Incarceration rates were steady, sometimes falling, and always below 200 throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. The prison population rate rose sharply from 1973 to 1980, and then skyrocketed, more than tripling…