THE CONTINUING CRIME OF BLACK IMPRISONMENT
by The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown
The least controversial observation that one can make
about American criminal justice today is that it is remarkably
ineffective, absurdly expensive, grossly inhumane, and
riddled with discrimination. The beating of Rodney King
was a reminder of the ruthlessness and racism that
characterize many big city police departments. But the
other aspects of the justice system, especially sentencing
practices and prison conditions, are every bit as harsh and
The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML) was founded in 1985 to fight
against the brutality of the United States Penitentiary at Marion. In 1987,
we wrote that by the year 2000 the U.S. might have 1,000,000 people in
prison. At that time U.S. prisons held 561,000 people, and most of our
friends thought the notion of 1,000,000 prisoners was foolish.
In the Fall of 1994, the U.S. announced that it sent its millionth human
being to prison in June,(2) more than five years sooner than the projection
that was considered foolish just a few years ago. What we would like to do
in this paper is examine the growth of imprisonment in the U.S. We will
then analyze the nature of crime, and then the relationship between crime
and imprisonment. Since crime and imprisonment are in fact not closely
related, we will conclude the article by discussing why the U.S. is sending
so many people to prison.
In addition to a million people in prison there are those in jails (about
500,000), those on parole (about 600,000), those on probation (about
3,000,000) and those in juvenile facilities (about 100,000).(3) It is
difficult to grasp the enormity of these numbers. For example, the number
of people in prison would comprise the 9th largest city in the U.S. The
number of people who are incarcerated in jails and prisons is greater than
the number of people who live in 13 states.(4) The number of people under
the control of the "criminal" "justice" system is almost two times larger
than the number of people who live in Nicaragua, or Chicago. The number of
people in the U.S. who were arrested last year (14,000,000) is much larger
than the population of Cuba.
Placing a million human beings in prison is an extraordinary landmark, the
number of prisoners today being about five times larger than it was 20 years
ago. This growth has more than kept up with the population. Between 1925
(when official imprisonment statistics were first organized) and 1971, the
imprisonment rate remained on the order of about 100 per 100,000. Then, in
1972, the imprisonment rate began to soar and is still soaring. Figure 1
shows this trend. Today the imprisonment rate is 373 (per 100,000
population), almost four times higher than it was in 1972.(5)
In 1991 the Sentencing Project, an independent organization based in
Washington D.C., issued a report authored by Marc Mauer, its assistant
director, entitled "Americans Behind Bars: A Comparison of International
Rates of Incarceration." (6) The report, which used data from 1989 and
1990, found that the U.S. had the highest incarceration rate in the world
(426) compared to a distant second South Africa (333) and third, the Soviet
Incredibly, when the report was revised using data from one year later, the
gap had widened,(8) and was wider still one year later.(9) In 1992 the U.S.
had an incarceration rate of 519 compared to South Africa's rate of 368.
Furthermore, in 1990 the incarceration rate for Black men in the U.S. was
3,109 compared to 729 for Black men in South Africa. In 1992 this
differential had increased: the rates were, respectively, 3,822 and 851.
Thus, in 1990 the incarceration rate for Black men in the U.S. was 4.3
times greater than the rate for Black men in South Africa. Two years later
that ratio had increased to 4.5.
Table 1 provides some of the incarceration rates assembled by Mauer. Among
other observations, it is interesting to note that the competition between
Washington, D.C. and Moscow continues as the newly formed country of Russia
has just overtaken the U.S. as the country with the highest imprisonment
rate in the world.
Table 1. Incarceration Rates (Number of People in Prisons and Jails, per
100,000 Population) for Selected Countries, 1992-1993 (10)
Country Rate of Incarceration
Australia 91 Mexico 97
Belgium 71 Netherlands 49
Brazil 84 Portugal 93
Canada 116 Russia 558
Denmark 66 South Africa 368
England/Wales 93 Sweden 69
France 84 Switzerland 85
Germany 80 United States 519
Italy 80 Thailand 159
U.S. PRISONS -- IN BLACK AND WHITE
Consider the racial nature of imprisonment in the U.S.. Using U.S. Census
and other estimates derived from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, we have
calculated imprisonment rates (we are now using only people in prison for
these calculations) as of June,1994. These are shown in Table 2.
Table 2. Imprisonment Rates in the United States, 1994
Group Rate Compared to White Rate
Total 373 2.1
White People 176 1.0
Hispanic People 686 3.9
Black People 1489 8.5
We can see from the table that Black people are 8.5 times more likely and
that Hispanic people are 3.9 times more likely to go to prison than are
Further examination of these statistics reveals the depth of their meaning.
For example, if instead of the usual per 100,000 people, we employ
percentages (per 100 people), we see that 1.489% of all Black people (and
0.176% of all White people) will be in prison at any given moment. Using
census data we can calculate related figures: 3.0% of all Black males will
be in prison on a given day in 1994 as will 6.0% of all Black men aged
18-44 and 7.6% of all Black men aged 25-29.
We can also consider some other research findings:
- In 1992 there were more Black men in prison (583,000) than in college
- One out of every four Black men will go to prison in his lifetime(12)
- 30% of Black men aged 20-29 in Chicago were arrested in 1993(13)
- 42% of Black men aged 18-35 in Washington, D.C. were under some form of
criminal justice control in 1992(14)
- 56% of Black men aged 18-35 in Baltimore were under some form of criminal
justice control in 1992(15)
THE NEW CRIME BILL
A new "crime" bill has just been passed by Congress. This bill will render
the horrific numbers discussed above small by comparison. In addition to
adding scores of new crimes punishable by the death penalty, the goals of
this new "crime initiative" involve: placing 100,000 more police on the
streets; increasing conviction rates; increasing the proportion of
convictions resulting in imprisonment; requiring those imprisoned to serve
at least 85% of their sentences ("truth in sentencing"); and incarcerating
"three- time losers" for the rest of their lives.
Political scientists and criminologists have started to estimate the impact
that this bill will have on imprisonment. John Irwin and James Austin, two
criminologists who often prepare publications for the prestigious National
Council on Crime and Delinquency, have estimated in their new book entitled
'It's About Time' (16) that a package of laws such as those included in the
new crime bill would result in over 9 times as many people being imprisoned.
Thus, if we multiply by 9 the 6.0% noted above, we see that well over half
of all Black men aged 18-44 would be in prison on any given day if all
projected aspects of the new "crime initiative" are implemented. Irwin and
Austin note similarly: "[The Crime Bill] would mean that most of the
nation's 5.5 million black males aged 18-39 would be incarcerated."(17)
Other estimates of the potential impact of the crime bill have suggested a
smaller but still devastating impact.(18)
There is much that is speculative about this estimate, and that must remain
so given the unfolding details of the new crime bill. Other specifics would
have to be taken into consideration to refine the estimates above, such as
estimating the impact of an aging prison population, determining how much of
the "crime" bill will actually be funded, etc. Whatever these refinements,
the numbers will remain staggering. Never before has any society at any
time used imprisonment in this fashion. The impact that this will have on
the Black community is difficult even to fathom.
Much has been written about the financing of the "criminal" "justice" system
(CJS). Just a few figures here will suffice. Funding for the CJS has
increased seven-fold over the past 20 years, from $10 billion to $74 billion
a year, with $25 billion spent for incarceration.(19) This, however, is
all spare change compared to what may follow, depending upon which aspects
of the new crime bill are implemented. For example, it has been estimated
that the "three-time loser" provision itself will cost $5.7 billion
annually and require an additional $21 billion in prison construction
costs.20 It has also been estimated that the crime bill could cost as
much as an extra $351 billion over the next ten years.(21)
Since not many of us have this much money in our pockets, or even in our bank
accounts, let's try to understand just how much it really is. It costs much
more to send a person to prison for a year than it does to send that person
to Harvard. In fact, it costs more to send a person to prison than it would
to support a family of four. Interestingly, about 300,000 families of four
or 1.2 million people could live for what it will cost just to implement
the new three-time loser laws. Noting the surging hunger in the U.S., the
Bread for the World Institute has just determined that $10 billion would be
enough to expand the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food program to
assure that there were no longer any hungry people in this category.(22)
This is less than two years of payments for the three-time loser law. Or,
consider this. According to a report from the American Bar
Association,(23) all the state taxes of 18 average taxpayers in Delaware
are required to keep one person in prison for a year; and the money spent
to build a prison in Wisconsin would pay for 11,000 children to attend Head
WHAT IS CRIME?
This is not as simple a question as it appears. For example, there is the
street crime that breaks the law and that sometimes results in imprisonment.
But most crime does not result in imprisonment, nor is it even considered
crime. For example, domestic violence, or the battering of women, is almost
never seen as a crime -- even though it is estimated that 3 - 4,000,000
women a year in the U.S. are battered by their mates.(24) Waging war is not
considered criminal even though the war against Iraq murdered about 500,000
Iraqis. Denying people health care, food or housing also isn't a crime.
And it is not a crime to manufacture and sell cigarettes, which each year
kill 20 times as many people as guns. We make these points to emphasize
that whatever the relationship between crime and imprisonment, it doesn't
involve any of these issues.
HOW IS CRIME MEASURED?
There are two main ways that street crime is measured in the U.S. The first
is with the Uniform Crime Report (UCR). This is computed by adding together
the major crimes that are reported to the police who in turn report to the
F.B.I. who in turn publish the findings. The other measure of crime comes
from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). About 20 years ago it
became clear that only a proportion of crimes are actually reported to the
police and that if we wanted a more accurate count, we would have to
conduct scientific surveys of the population and ask people if they had
been victims of crime. This is what the NCVS does.
Since the UCR and the NCVS measure crime in different ways, they present
different views of crime. For example, the UCR only contains crimes that are
reported to the police, by some estimates only 40% of the total. (In 1992
there were about 34,000,000 crimes reported to the NCVS and 13,000,000 to the
UCR.)25 On the other hand, the NCVS does not include the crime murder (since
its victim can't report it) nor crimes for which there is no reporting victim,
like most drug-related crimes. Also not included are all white collar crimes,
like the savings and loan frauds, and much more.
Let's look at each. But first let's look at murder since this is the easiest
to measure and thus is the crime we know most about. About 25,000 people
were murdered in the U.S. last year. As Figure 2 shows, the murder rate in
the U.S. was about 10 (per 100,000 population) in 1930 and about 10 in 1990
-- almost no change at all in 60 years.26 Similarly, the murder rate in
1993 (9.3) was just about what it was in 1973 (9.4).(27)
HAS CRIME BEEN INCREASING?
Figures 3 and 4 show crime that is measured by the NCVS. As you can see,
since 1973, when the NCVS was initiated,(28) the index of all NCVS crimes
has decreased rather steadily while the violent crime index has stayed
constant. Figures 5 and 6 show crime that is measured by the UCR, also
since 1973. Here an uneven pattern of increases and decreases is present
for all crimes while violent crimes increased steadily and
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CRIME AND IMPRISONMENT
Few matters are as clear as the answer to the question: Is there a
relationship between crime and imprisonment?" Virtually everyone, from
criminologists to wardens to social scientists to specially appointed task
forces, answers the question the same way: "No." We would like to sketch
just some of the arguments which illustrate this lack of relationship.
- Let us consider the data presented above.
We can see that over the past
20 years one measure of crime (the NCVS) has decreased by 26% and the other
measure (the UCR) has increased about 47%, and the imprisonment rate has
increased by 200%. In addition, consider the fact that the UCR (Figure 4)
decreased from 1980 to 1985 and then increased about the same amount
between 1985 and 1990. These changes took place while imprisonment rates
spiralled equally upward during both of these intervals (Figure 1). When
all of this is added together, it is clear that putting enormous numbers of
people into prison has not reduced the crime rate. A recent report from
the National Council on Crime and Delinquency(31) presents these data in a
summary form that is reproduced here in Table 3.
Table 3. Changes in Correctional Populations Between 1980 and 1990.
Population 1980 1990 % Change
Probation 1,118,097 2,670,234 139
Jails 163,994 403,019 146
Prisons 329,821 771,243 134
Parole 220,438 531,403 141
Total 1,832,350 4,375,903 139
UCR Index Crimes 13,400,000 14,500,000 8
- Consider the funnel effect,
which demonstrates why most crimes don't even
come into contact with the criminal justice system. Joan Petersilia, former
president of the American Society of Criminology, and an employee of the
conservative Rand Corporation, in an article entitled "Building More Prison
Cells Won't Make a Safer Society," notes: "Of the approximately 34 million
serious felonies in 1990, 31 million never entered the criminal justice
system because they were either unreported or unsolved." Thus, she
continues, only 10% of all crime ever entered the courts, about half of
these resulted in convictions, and about a third of these resulted in
imprisonment -- less than 2% of the total amount of crime.(32)
- Over half of all murders are
committed by people known to the victim. In
addition, virtually all murder is committed in fits of passion that are
immune to rational consideration of consequences. We are not saying that
murderers should not be incarcerated. We are saying that incarceration
will not prevent murders. Similarly, it has been demonstrated again and
again that the death penalty does not deter murder. These latter
observations are illustrated by the data in Figure 2, which shows that the
murder rate has remained more-or-less constant over the past 60 years,
through periods of little imprisonment and through periods of massive
imprisonment; through periods of the use of the death penalty and through
periods when the death penalty was not used.
- Consider the question of supply.
There is a virtually unlimited supply
of people who will commit crimes associated with drugs. As soon as one
person is removed from the labor market, another replaces him or her.
Prisons will never be able to dent this supply.
- Virtually all experts agree that prisons cause people to become even
more deeply embedded in a life of crime. Recidivism rates are over 50%
within three years in most states.(33,34)
- The following comments are by people
in the field who one would expect
to be supportive of imprisonment. Thus their denials of the impact of
imprisonment on crime merit attention:
- By a criminologist: "Incapacitation
appears to have been only slightly
more effective in averting crimes in the early 1980s than in the 1970s,
despite a near doubling of the U.S. prison populations in less than ten
- From the Correctional Association of
New York: "The state's new policies
have been staggeringly expensive, have threatened a crisis of safety and
manageability in the prison system, and have failed to reduce the rate of
crime or even stop its increase. After almost ten years of getting tough
the citizens of New York are more likely to be victims of crime today than
in 1971. Moreover, the largest rise in crime came at the end of the decade,
during 1980-81, well after the introduction of more severe sentencing
- Even the Director of Corrections of Alabama understands
"We're on a train that has to be turned around. It doesn't make any sense to
pump millions and millions into corrections and have no effect on the crime
- From Robert Gangi, current Director of the Correction
Association of New York: "Building more prisons to address crime is like
building more graveyards to address a fatal disease."(38)
- One last study on this topic must be noted before moving ahead.
Fellowship, the organization founded by Chuck Colson (of Watergate infamy),
commissioned a special report to determine how much prisons deterred crime.
Their findings were so non-supportive of prisons that they were reduced to
this sarcastic attack:
Incarceration rates are such a poor predictor of crime rates that
researchers would find proximity [of states] to Canada more
reliable. Eight of the 12 states that border on Canada rank in the
bottom 20 in overall crime rates. Even alphabetical order is more
reliable [than incarceration rates] when predicting crime rates:
Three states among the first 15 alphabetically rank in the bottom
two-fifths of crime rates.(39)
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
We have examined imprisonment, crime, and the relationship between the two.
What can a reasonable person conclude?
Elliot Currie has written an insightful book on crime and imprisonment.(40)
In this book, Currie poses the question why the U.S. keeps pumping billions
of dollars into the CJS, which everyone, he acknowledges, knows doesn't
work: "Ifwe know as much about crime as I think we do, why haven't we
already acted on that knowledge more consistently and
constructively."(41) In other words, Currie is asking why the U.S.
continues to pursue imprisonment strategies that don't work. The only
answer that Currie can find for his question is that the U.S. doesn't
understand what the research is showing. This is an extraordinary answer
which shows where liberals must wind up on such a question. Here is a
system that is spending $74 billion a year and Currie thinks it acts the
way it does because it cannot find someone to explain what the research is
saying. Let us try another possible answer.
Currie and many others get stuck and can move no further because they assume
that the purpose of the criminal justice system is to prevent crime.
Consider a quote from another leading liberal in "criminal" "justice"
reform, Norval Morris, a professor of law at the University of Chicago who
has written excellent articles and books critiquing the CJS: "The whole
law-and-order movement that we've heard so much about is, in operation,
anti-black and anti-underclass. Not in plan, not in design, not in intent,
but in operation."(42) Thus, also according to Morris, the direction of
the CJS is an accident.
If liberal critics of the CJS would just turn the problem around and not ask
why the CJS fails at its stated purpose but rather ask what purposes a
system like this could have, then they could find an answer. Let us
examine Table 4 which presents the characteristics of the CJS that have
been established above:
Table 4. Characteristics of the "Criminal" "Justice" System
We would suggest that a system with these characteristics might be seen, not
as a crime prevention system, but as a system whose foremost purpose is to
control of people of color. Remember what events preceded the growth in
imprisonment that started in 1972. That year followed in the midst of the
F.B.I.'s COINTELPRO program; the assassination of dozens of leaders of the
Black Liberation Movement and the imprisoning of hundreds more; the
assassination of George Jackson on August 21, 1971; and the rebellion at
Attica on September 9 - 13, 1971. Then just a few months later, the
imprisonment rate started to spiral upwards, and has not yet stopped doing
so. Furthermore, 1972 was also the year that the first Control Unit was
opened -- as one wing of the U.S. Penitentiary at Marion.
- The process of mass incarceration started in 1972.
- The CJS spends many billions of dollars every year
caging millions of people.
- The cages are filled with people of color, most of them Black.
- The system does not prevent crime.
- The system does not rehabilitate people.
- We know of many other measures that would prevent crime.
When this historical context is added to the statistics about crime and
imprisonment and the rampant racism of U.S. society, it seems clear that the
hypothesis that prisons are institutions for control of people of color is a
far more viable one than the notion that prisons are an effort to prevent
crime. In fact, the only support for the latter hypothesis would appear to
be the assertions of some of those who run the prison system and
It seems worthwhile to elaborate on this point. There is no viable evidence
that prisons prevent crime. There is an abundance of evidence, a small
proportion of it presented above, that prisons don't and can't prevent
crime. In addition, every serious analyses of the history of incarceration
reveal the same historical thrust: prisons and other systems of punishment
are for social control, not crime control. For example, in 1939 Rusche and
Kirchheimer wrote a very important book showing that the systems of
imprisonment throughout history were simply reflections of the economic
systems that existed at given times. These systems were not about crime
prevention; they were about the relations of production.(43) Foucault, in
his seminal book, Discipline & Punish, has shown that the evolution of
state punishment had little to do with crime and everything to do with the
exertion of the state to maintain its power: " . . . one would be forced
to suppose that the prison, and no doubt punishment in general, is not
intended to eliminate offences, but rather to distinguish them, to
distribute them, to use them"(44) or: "We are aware of all the
inconveniences of prison, and that it is dangerous when it is not useless.
And yet one cannot 'see' how to replace it. It is the detestable solution,
which one seems unable to do without."(45)
CEML belives that one of the main functions of progressive struggle is to
counter the prevailing ideology. If this is correct, then fighting to
establish the real purpose of the "criminal" "justice" system is meaningful
work. At the same time, it is not easy work, to say the least. Many
progressive publications show no understanding of or interest in these
issues. We in CEML have often posed the slogan "Not One More Cell," only
to be opposed by other progressive people. When we have asked why they
disagree, they note that crime is a serious problem and we have to offer
some solutions. We couldn't agree more that crime is a serious problem,
and that solutions are needed. But prisons have nothing to do with
preventing crime. They haven't; they don't; and they can't -- ever. Until
we all understand this and have the courage to put forward the notion that
we need real solutions, not diversions which are nothing more than racist
attacks on people of color, we will not be able to move our pursuits for a
human society any further.
This gives us still one more reason to fight against law and order hysteria
and the racist use of imprisonment in our society. Rather than devoting our
resources and energies to proven failed strategies like the use of massive
imprisonment, we should instead pursue those strategies which will build a
truly human society and thus prevent crime. These strategies include
struggling to eliminate white supremacy and poverty while building an
economy that meets human needs rather than the desires of profiteers.
Rather than creating a nation of prisons we should be allowing the
emergence of a nation of human beings.
The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown
P.O. Box 578172
Chicago, IL 60657-8172
- David J. Rothman. The Crime of Punishment. New York Review of Books,
February 17, 1994, p 34-38.
- New York Times, October 28, 1994, p 1.
- Projections based upon the
Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 1993,
Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Section 6, 1994.
- Statistical Abstract
of the United States, 1992, Washington, D.C.: Bureau of
the Census, 1993.
- New York Times, 1994; Sourcebook, p 600.
- Marc Mauer, Americans Behind Bars: A Comparison of International Rates of
Incarceration, The Sentencing Project, Washington, D,C. 1991.
- In order to allow for international comparability Mauer used rates which
included people in jails plus those in prison, since many countries do not make
distinctions between these two groups. We call this the incarceration rate.
In the U.S., where there are important distinctions between jails and prisons,
it is more common to use only the number of people in prison when calculating
rates. We follow this convention in this paper and call this the imprisonment
rate. 8 Marc Mauer, Americans Behind Bars: One Year Later, The Sentencing
Project, Washington, D,C. 1992. 9 Marc Mauer, Americans Behind Bars: The
International Use of Incarceration, 1992-93 ,The Sentencing Project,
Washington, D,C. 1994. 10 ibid
- Mauer, 1994
- Patrick Langan and Lawrence Greenfield. Prevalence of Imprisonment.
Washington D.C.: US Department of Justice, 1985.
- Chicago Tribune, September 23, 1990, p 1.
- Jerome G. Miller, Search and Destroy:
The Plight of African American Males
in the Criminal Justice System, Alexandria, VA: National Center on Institutions
and Alternatives, 1992.
- Jerome G. Miller, Hobbling a Generation,
Alexandria, VA: National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, 1992.
- Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1993.
- Ibid, p 161
- James Austin and Barry Krisberg,
Press Release, NCCD, San Francisco, CA, 1994
- Sourcebook, p 2-3.
- Mauer, 1994
- Austin and Krisberg, 1994.
Interestingly, all of these costs are notable
underestimates as the plagues of the U.S. in the 20th century, AIDS and TB,
enter and spread in the prisons. Even the U.S. prison system will be forced to
deal with some allocation of funds for medications and hospitalizations for
these epidemics, as well as for the increasingly aging population of people who
will never be let out. 22 Chicago Tribune, October 14, 1994, p 7.
- Lynn S. Branham, The Use of Incarceration in the United States,
Association, 1992, p 21-22.
- Heather Bruce. "Clinton disburses domestic violence grants. The Boston
Globe, March 22, 1995, page 21.
- Sourcebook, p 247, 352.
- Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, Vol 41, May 1992
- James Austin and Marc Mauer, "Crime Explosion" is a Myth. USA Today,
January 27, 1994.
- Sourcebook, p 247.
- Sourcebook, p 352.
- The UCR is measured by the number of crimes per 100,000 population. The
NCVS is measured by the number of crimes per 1,000 people age 12 and older.
Thus, although the patterns between these two measures may be compared, their
magnitudes are not comparable.
- James Austin and John Irwin. Does
Imprisonment Reduce Crime? San Francisco: National Council on Crime and
Delinquency, 1993, p 5.
- Petersilia Joan. Building More Prison Cells Won't
Make a Safer Society. Corrections Today, 1992, p 170-171.
- Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Americans Behind Bars, New York, 1992.
- Elliott Currie.
Confronting Crime. New York: Pantheon Press, 1985, p 76-81.
- Cristy Visher. Incapacitation and Crime Control: Does a Lock 'Em Up
Strategy Reduce Crime? Justice Quarterly, 4, 513 - 543, 1987, p 519.
- Currie, Confronting Crime, p 349-350.
- Morris Thigpen. The Atlanta Constitution, June 26, 1989.
- Jill Smolow. Lock 'Em Up and Throw Away the Key. Time,
February, 7, 1984 p 55.
- The 1993 Criminal Justice Crisis Index, Washington, D.C.,
Justice Fellowship, 1993, p 10.
- Currie, Confronting Crime
- ibid, p 18
- Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1990.
- G. Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer.
Punishment and Social Structures. New York:
Columbia University Press,1939.
- Michel Foucault. Discipline & Punish.
New York: Vintage Books, 1979, p 272.
- ibid, p 232.
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