August 17th, 2013
03:07 AM ET

U.S. wakes up to its prison nightmare

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By Global Public Square staff

We were struck by a piece of news recently that is good for America, shows that our politicians are learning from their mistakes, and are actually cooperating with each other – on both sides of the aisle. Sounds too good to be true?

For many years, the United States has had a growing problem in its criminal justice system. As Global Public Square has pointed out before, the United States is number one in the world when it comes to incarceration – by far. In 2009, for example, for every 100,000 citizens, 760 Americans were in prison. That was five times the rate of incarceration in Britain, eight times the rate in Germany and South Korea, and 12 times the rate in Japan.

This trend began about 40 years ago. In 1970, state prisons had a combined total of 174,000 inmates. By 2009, they had 1.4 million – an eight-fold increase. And these correctional systems cost a lot of money of course – nearly $80 billion a year, more than the GDP of Croatia or Tunisia.

Well it seems that finally, common sense is prevailing. Attorney General Eric Holder made an important speech this week admitting that our prisons are overcrowded and costly. He specifically called for a reduction in mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders.

It's important the attorney general brought up drugs, because the numbers are startling. Federal prisons, the group Holder was referring to, account for about 14 percent of our total inmates. In these prisons, the most serious charge for nearly half of all inmates is a drug offence. Compare that with state prisons, where only 20 percent of the inmates have a drug offence as their most serious charge.

More from CNN: Shame of mandatory minimums

Now, here is what is interesting. The federal prison population has increased every single year since 1980. On the other hand, state prison populations have been declining in recent years, so much so that the overall number of inmates – state plus federal – is actually down in each of the past three years. And here is the best part: the declines encompass 28 states, red AND blue.

Part of these declines are because budgets were simply collapsing. But it could also be because of a growing acknowledgment that the war on drugs has failed. According to the pro-reform Drug Policy Alliance, the United States spends about $50 billion a year on the drug war – adding up to a trillion dollars in the last four decades – but there has been no real change in addiction rates.

Americans are not more prone to drugs or crime than citizens of other countries, so why should we put so many people in prison? Well, the good news is that the numbers are finally too large to ignore. The states are already acting. And Holder's comments will add momentum to a growing chorus for reform.

The greatest challenge in pushing these numbers further down will be the prison lobby. Believe it or not, many of our prisons are run by private companies that then lobby state legislatures massively for bigger prisons, larger budgets, and of course more prisoners. According to the non-profit Justice Policy Institute, the two largest private prison companies in America together generate revenues of $3 billion a year – paid by taxpayers, of course. These private prison companies also happen to be major donors to a number of state campaigns, lobbying for more resources.

If our politicians can take on the prison lobbies, there really is hope for America.

Post by:
Topics: Drugs • Law • United States • What in the World?

soundoff (1,005 Responses)
  1. RSG

    Wait.. 'commercial prisons".. lobbyists, lobbying for tougher laws and more prisons? They use taxpayer money, to make more money, and then spend it in Washington..... to get more of our money?!?! Our leaders are definitely MIA.
    OK, I can live with that I guess. I want to get in on this insanity. So I can apply to start up a Meth lab... with taxpayer money (to make it legal), so I can create more addicts, to provide more business to these 'private prisons', right. Makes sense. We don't want to put these prisons out of business (it's bad for the economy)... so we have to create more criminals. I just need to find out who they hired to lobby for them... they make their cut too (from our tax dollars) which supplies them with a bottomless pool of money. I just want to complete the cycle!!!

    August 18, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  2. larisa

    I agree with many of the comments on here...throwing non violent offenders over the drug addiction wont solve a problem but will make it worse. My fiance is currently doing time in another state he is a non violent offender who got more time for drugs then a murderer gets for killing people. It breaks families emotionally and mentally, being apart they assume its a consequence...but instead in research that was done if families and loved once visit and stay in contact with an inmate their is a better chance that inmate wont go back to prison because of the emotionally s7pp9rt they will be getting from people on the other side. That tells us something about the system how the priorities are upside down. I would prefer paying my taxes to help and provide non violent offenders on better ways to improve themselves and be part of this community and society. Most of them are crying for help and throwing them in prison its locking them away from the world like they are not worth anything. To top it off hoe can a person change in prison if they get treated not like a human, but an animal.

    August 18, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Reply
  3. That Guy

    They need to PURGE, You on the Spot!
    Budget Solved & Less Crimes, PURGE on SPOT, will make crime stop and we will all be fine!

    August 18, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Reply
    • Bryan

      And you should be first

      August 18, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Reply
    • Maghe 33

      Great news...NOT. Less punishment for transporting illegal drugs? Means more drugs. Thanks Holder and your sidekick president.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Reply
      • Hunter

        I guess the phrase "lesser drug offense" was above your reading comprehension.

        August 18, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
      • winner winner

        Great Post Maghe. a crime is still a crime.

        August 18, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
      • 94TIMES

        Hunter – Crimes Are Still Crimes. Get over it.

        August 18, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • Tom Walsh

      Abortion for the Druggies that will fix the Budget Deficit

      August 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  4. georgex9

    Attorney General Eric Holder made a bold move that will help get changes done at all levels of the legal system and prisons.

    August 18, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Reply
    • flambeauxfire

      Well why cant he do that with the NSA concerning spying on us?
      Anyway, this is a good development. And I'm gaining a lot of respect for Zacharia's exposes. Pretty cool. Beats the 'kitten up tree' stories that seem to be on the rise on CNN

      August 18, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Reply
    • Tom Walsh

      Holder is a criminal he should be tried for Crimes Against Humanity

      August 18, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  5. truttman

    "Just say not to drugs, right Mommy? How's that astrologer doing today?"

    August 18, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  6. Rob in FL

    America makes up 5% of the worlds population, but has 25% of the world's prisoners. The Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, the private for-profit prisons are heavily invested in Washington, so this problem will NOT go away.

    August 18, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Reply
    • Scott

      Neither will the prison unions, which in my state, California, run the system and are incredibly overpaid

      August 18, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Reply
    • Max

      CCA and MTC-CAPP are both gunnin' for the money under the guise of "treatment programs" for drug/alcohol offenders. I do not have a relative who is incarcerated. I was in law enforcement for years and saw how these programs COULD have been effective, but the big boys in management don't want effective programming – they want the revolving door to continue.

      August 18, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Reply
    • Susan

      Maybe the problem is the rate of crime?

      August 18, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Reply
    • sundownr

      I prefer using the word 'own' to the word 'invest'. The money here is incredible and suggests why American justice is broken. For real insight Investigate the California prison debacle and you will wonder if anybody in Washington has a brain at all.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Reply
    • Fox

      That stat is BS.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Reply
      • sundownr

        I assure you, the stat is 100% correct. America incarcerates more people than any other nation in world history. This is also why the corrections industry is one the most profitable industries in America. A few people believe this is an American virtue, but most people are beginning to understand the American justice system is broken beyond belief.

        August 18, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
    • damm_right

      Not until the money goes away.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Reply
    • Oliver Cowderey

      BINGO!

      August 18, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Reply
    • Tom Walsh

      Unfortunately we have the Black Racists like the NAACP Sharpton, and having children out of wedlock making our children criminals so we have more

      August 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  7. nancy

    While able bodied men are incarcerated for minor charges, their families suffer. Children are without fathers, wives without husbands and the cost on the family financially is a burden in itself. The state profits, the private companies profit, while the families suffer, financially, emotionally and physically. Their is a loss of income and support when a husband/father is incarcerated. Marijuana is being legalized in many states. Minor offenders that are sent to federal prisons should be set free and their felony convictions should be expunged so they can reenter and be a part of society. Unless you have been in the system or have a loved one in the system, you cannot understand what families go through and how challenging it is for the inmate once they return. Life remains a challenge all the way around.

    August 18, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • Julie

      Exactly. It feeds into a perpetual cycle of disenfranchised people who need government assistance like welfare and food stamps. These non-violent drug offenders children are educated on the streets instead of schools. The whole system is designed to continually fail. That failure is now the basis for the prison industrial complex.

      August 18, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Reply
      • DPB

        And you think these low life thugs will make good fathers...what will they teach their kids...it's ok to break the law as long as it is necessary

        August 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
      • Tom Walsh

        We have been brainwashed into thinking our prisons are filled with Victims

        August 18, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • sundownr

      Correct correct and correct. Revolving prison doors are America's worst nightmare. Not only is it a breeding ground for harden criminals, it breeds corruption faster than any other American issue, which turn challenges our democracy by eliminating common values and common sense.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Reply
    • DPB

      can't do the time don't do the crime...stop making excuses for these people...the law is the law...a crime is a crime...

      August 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Reply
      • brian

        that doesn't mean that classifying something as "illegal" is worthwhile or effective. Anything can be a crime if you want to call it a crime. I spit my gum out on the side of the road today while I was jogging. Is that an offense? Should I go to jail and have an arrest record and pay a 1000 dollar fine? Other countries do not have these problems.

        August 18, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • hagsmtl

      Nancy, I totally agree. I have a family member in prison who is 34 years old, has an MBA, worked all his life, family man with a loving wife and son, never even had a traffic ticket,made a questionable mistake (in Arizona, worst place to make a mistake) and they threw the book at him. The case was always in doubt yet the judge wanted "to make a statement" prior to her re-election and sentence him to 15 years in one of the worse prisons in Arizona (Yuma), four hours drive from his family. He is now "fighting for his life in the prison, housed with murderers , drug cartel members and skinheads.Many of these folks are in for life. He could have plead for 7 years, yet maintained his innocence, and when found guilty, she threw the book at him knowing he was going to appeal.
      Bad enough to incarcerate a person for 15 years and then through him to the wolves. There is no rehabilitation system in prison, it is survival every day. My son-in-law teaches high school English and Math 10 hours a day to the prisoners to protect himself and stay out of the yard.
      There needs to be a prison review board to evaluate prisoners and their "danger to society" rather than turning them into hardened criminals with no chance of survival in the "outside world" once released. Shorter prison terms for non-dangerous prisons will dramatically reduce the prison population. Since most of our manufacturing jobs are heading to the Far East, why not use the savings (reduce prison time = $40K/ per year per inmate) and provide US manufacturers with subsidies if they hire these persons. It will give a fresh start to the released prisoner , save taxpayer dollars, and create US jobs, plus provide top quality US goods.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  8. Mike3121

    I wonder if Holder and company will try for the Statical Balance remedy. If a certain federally protected minority makes up say 13% of the general population then the US prison makeup should reflect that. All others would be immediately released regardless of the crime. All court cases sentencing involving federally protected minorities would have to take Statical Balance into consideration.

    August 18, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Reply
    • mike 3122

      mike 3121
      are you just trying to be funny or are you just a racist? The disproportionally represented communities in our prisons are there as much for their crimes as for the disproportionally represented targeting by law enforcement, prosecuting attorneys and the judiciary...too many people want to believe all the problems in Our Nation are the faults of Blacks. They are not...there are people who would have you believe that, a lot of those people are extremely wealthy and an even greater amount are just ignorant

      August 18, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Reply
      • Tom Walsh

        We can fix the Black problem and I know how but it isn't money Here is what will happen all money will move from the US.
        The US will be Detroit uninhabitable Cannibalism will insue.

        August 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • Flags for all

      How can you be that stupid?

      August 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Reply
  9. Johnny

    No more incarceration for possession, and legalizing marijuana as CO & WA did would help the problem, if employed. Finally Eric Holder came up with a good idea. Good going Eric.

    August 18, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      Great post.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Reply
  10. debria seabrrok

    good story! how about lets look at how innocent people can be held without evidence, the Probation system and its cruel officers and how they treat people daily and threaten them with their freedom, and how can we expect offenders to positively and effectively join society once released when they cant obtain assistance, housing, jobs, etc. I have a daughter now who is experiencing being held but because she has no attorney and cant afford one she may spend the years for something she didn't do! lets talk about those issues.

    August 18, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      Keep the hope. We have to all speak. You are a mother. Others will listen .Keep speaking.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Reply
    • sundownr

      Have you checked with the ACLU? They may find reason to support your daughter's case. Good luck.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  11. Dave Seavy

    It isn't just the private companies that lobby; prison is ultra-big business. Security equipment manufacturers, modular cell manufacturers, food service companies – and especially medical services companies – all have a big chunk of the pie, and they're not about to give it up quietly. The reason we're in the mess are the politicians – they all ran on the "lock em' up and throw away the key" platforms, and they sucked the majority of citizens into it. Untold number of elections were won on that stance. So long as lobbyists and politicians control corrections, nothing is going to change. There's too much money at stake, and greedy politicians aren't about to relent.

    August 18, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      We have to have some hope.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Reply
      • Tom Walsh

        No hope with Democrats FREEBIES will soon END all will be Detroit Rich will be in Monte Carlo

        August 18, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • malasangre

      Don't forget the phone scam. 15$for a 1.50 phone call, that includes the three minutes it takes to hook you up

      August 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Reply
  12. Susan

    It's not so much a prison nightmare as it is a crime nightmare in this country.

    August 18, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      You are correct. It is extortion. Any time a body is sold for profit .It is slavery. Our families are victimized.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Reply
    • mike 3122

      Susan, you are right it is a problem of crime but the criminals are the bankers, the lobbyists, the legislators, the judges, the prosecuting attorneys and the, especially the police. not all of them of course but enough of them that we might have to build a few more prisons

      August 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Reply
      • julie acklin

        What build some more prisons.We have enough .You want to build anger and hate .

        August 18, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
    • DougNJ

      You are right. People always state how good and great America is. Anecdotally, at 5% world pop and 25% world prisoners, the USA churns out way more felon grade criminals per capita than any other country. America is number one.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Reply
  13. Jerry Okamura

    Should an AG decide which laws he will fully enforce and which laws he will not fully enforce? If he should, why have these laws in the first place? If an AG should be able to do that, can't an AG decide which parts of a new immigration law he will enforce and which he will not enforce?

    August 18, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  14. fayray11x

    crazy prison system and drug war. thank you GOP the people who (and ask anyone of them) want more prisons because they don't have a clue and never think about real solutions.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Reply
  15. julie acklin

    The inhumane treatment of mass incarceration and the feeding from warm bodies for profit is slavery .Many inmates are not receiving simple human rights. Medical care being top on the list. The indifference to human lives is horrific and troubling in America. We need hospitals for our mentally ill. Not prisons. We need substance abuse treatment. Not prisons. We need hope not prisons.. Our families are suffering with the high cost of phone and other extortive measures to profit off from our loved ones .We in a sense do the time as well. Victims and selfish shameless profiting by big companies that we pay for. Prisons are designed to return bodies through a revolving door policy. Folks this isn't a department store. Or is it? Our mentally ill .Our most vulnerable loved ones .Thrown away in isolation. Result more damage to even healthy inmates. Again designed to return from society immediately. For profit from warm bodies. Cruelty in the 1st degree.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Reply
    • flambeauxfire

      Yeah this is the bad side of private companies for everything – the reason 'state companies' were created (Im not saying that worked BTW) – because if you profit from supplying a body with, let's say, bullets, then you fight hard to create more ways to use them. The down-side of capitalism. So health care keeps people sick a lot of the time (I've had categorical proof/experience of this so don't say it's not true). So mercenaries working for the army create antagonistic scenarios that they have to be further hired to contain. So the military-industrial complex neccesitates consistent states of war ('good for the economy') etc. It goes on and on – it's the bad side of how we work....

      August 18, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Reply
    • flambeauxfire

      U r correct.
      I wish there was something to be done about drug demand though. The 'war' doesnt stop demand. But what will? Cartels slicing up innocents on our backs. Bad.
      It's crazy – in Toledo Ohio, my peeps worked in the Ford plant. Ford is hiring – GREAT jobs for out there – but they can't find anyone to fill the positions cos they have drug testing and everyone's high. Cos it's Toledo and there's nothing to do. BUT everyone complains about jobs – they exist but everyone's on meth and stuff. Ridiculous.
      So decriminalize it. Legalize pot and get tax revenue. But know that some parts of society will just slip on a downward spiral. Maybe not in the middle-class, white suburbs or in Mendecino County where everyone's taking a 5 year hiatus from their magazine editor jobs, but in depressed places? Sure! Down the toilet. That's why there was an attempt to curtail demand for drugs. Please consider what scenario America should take to decrease the need to dull down their reality. It just poisons things.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Reply
    • ware runner

      Please...Julie... visit a foreign prison. They are prisons, not resorts.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Reply
      • julie acklin

        I am sure they are not resorts. But we are talking about America who incarcerates more inmates and humans than anywhere in the world.

        August 18, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  16. flambeauxfire

    Since I came to this country, I have been appalled at the totalitarian nature of the justice system. That was years ago and actually by now I know all the good sides of it too. But what it was that I saw back then – therefore, the thing that stands out most to someone coming here for the first time – is how much you lock people up. It's the ultimate infringement. It can't be applied at a whim. Or at a political level. Or as an experiment. But it is here. Really, the liberal-and-free US of A has got to start cleaning up it's contradictions and it will get a FLOOD of support instead of all the anti-Americanism it gets now everywhere which is mostly to do with the hypocritical way it operates. Really. Stand behind the big words and phrases you use. ITS A CONTRADICTION FOR THE LAND OF THE FREE TO LOCK UP MORE PEOPLE THAN ANY OTHER COUNTRY! It ought to be obvious to you..........

    August 18, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Reply
    • sundownr

      What you are suggesting is America is confused, but what you need to understand is that we are confused because that is the master plan. My God, if America ever became un-confused we would all rise up and replace our government in less than a heart beat.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Reply
  17. Thomas

    So, the problem started about 40 years ago. Hmmm. That's how long this stupid war on drugs has been going on. What a strange coincidence. I admit, I haven't yet finished reading this article and intend to but the "40 year" remark hit me like a brick. I wonder if he is going to get into statistics such as how many or what percentage of inmates are in prison because of pot charges; and I'm not talking about large scale dealing here. The Government is slowly waking up to how stupid pot laws are but they need to move a heck of a lot quicker. especially with medical Marijuana. I'll use the wild card that all government agencies use from time to time to get what they want. There are sick "CHILDREN" out there that can benefit from this drug. I could go on and on but the trolls will probably sniff out my posting and tear it to shreds from lack of anything constructive to do with their day or lives. Besides; it's just something to think on.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Reply
  18. Freedom to Anarchy

    Isn't it great how the answer to our prison issue is to just give up? "These actions have been punishable by prison sentences for years and years, and yet they keep doing it... clearly they aren't getting any smarter, so we may as well just accept that is who they are."

    August 18, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  19. Budd

    This idea is so wrong on so many levels. Yes, the prison population has increased with minimum sentences. And the crime rates have dropped year after year. The recidivism rate in this country is over 60%. That means that the same people are committing crimes over and over. That's the genesis of the three strikes law. Do you honestly think that the criminals you stop locking up will suddenly see the light and follow the straight and narrow? Oh drug offenses are non violent offenders. Where do you think they get the money for their dope? Pay Day loan stores? Wake up America.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  20. ken

    Too late. The prison industry has gotten too big and Americans have been fed the terror and paranoia pill too long for any change to the status quo to succeed.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  21. shawn poland

    america wakes up? no you mean the media decided to talk about..... pffft! is it any wonder why the media is down to 23% trustworthiness in the latest polls???!!!

    August 18, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Reply
  22. Thomas

    Well, I should have waited to post. I always did have a problem with a lack of patience. This dog may be old but I did just learn an new trick.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Reply
  23. Matt

    I live in Toronto Canada. Like our neighbours to the south we drink the same amount of alcohol, smoke the same amount of pot, drive the same cars , watch the same tv and and movies, own lots of guns and get upset with our government.
    YET. Our incarceration rate is one seventh of the US and our murder rate is a third as high (one twentieth with guns).
    It seems we haven't fallen prey to the paranoia of jailing people for most non-violent crimes or the right to shoot someone for stepping on the our front lawn.
    How is that the American public accepts the never ending corporate sponsored cycle of rediculous incarceration terms, prison building and guard hiring? What's next, debtors prison?
    I find it hard to fathom that there 1.7 million people in US jails. The cost in unnecessary suffering and billions of dollars in funding must be astronomical!
    In Canada incarceration is not a business nor should it ever be.
    Perhaps it time rein in the lobbyists and try to get the US penal system up to modern day standards like the rest of the first world nations.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Reply
    • fast day even

      whoa. and most of Canada is what, ice and desolate? thanks for playing.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  24. Walter

    We either pay for them to be incarcerated, or we pay them welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, etc. Either way, we pay.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Reply
    • barbara

      Trust me all those thing are much least a payment then being in jail the going ratetoday for a prisonet is about 60000.00 a year and most of us3 do not make have that much a year ourself

      August 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  25. Big_D

    We have a big problem with our system. There is always a buck to be made everywhere, including incarcerating people. May our system is efficient but we need to choose our morals. Our drug laws are obviously off the chart as far as discriminatory and wasteful. It seems like child predators get out quicker.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  26. ray

    stupidest offense to jail someone for? Child Support. Everyone loses.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  27. Black Dynamite

    Yesterday's article about how to perform civil disobedience, and now this?
    Since when did CNN start caring about what's really going on in this country, and stop trying to be TMZ?

    The corporate leadership must be on Summer Vacation, or in Vegas for the weekend.....
    BD

    August 18, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  28. rebeccahaworth108

    How absurd that burgeoning costs are the only real reason they are looking at tackling this problem of over-incarceration – what about loss of life? loss of productivity? broken families? Our country has become more and more inhumane.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Reply
  29. barbara

    Ithink eric is so right we the tax payers are paying a lot doyou now how much of your hard tax money go to one prisoner a year money that could be spent on something else because most of the one that are in there for drugs never did anything to anyone else but themself and you lock them up for year instead they should build more place were they can get treatment and have you notice that people that do drug get more time then the real criminal you can get life for doing drug and 5 year are lest for killing are raping someone what is wrong with this country.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Reply
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