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. Derek

    Well if there is one thing the United States does well, it's putting American's in jail with companies getting rich off doing it.

    It's laughable at best.

    Pretty soon those companies will be lobbying Judges for higher sentences because their companies turnover rate of inmates is hurting the prison companies stock prices... oh.. wait, sorry, that's already happening.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      Great post.

      August 18, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  2. Reality

    Free food, health care and other perks. Adding to the population are the illegal aliens which are having fun with our prison system. Portect our Borders, we might be able to cut the prison population by more than 15%.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      Free health care .Talk to the mother who her son or daughter died as a result of poor prison health care. Or the mentally ill who commit suicide. You my friend pay for the neglect and the fun in prison.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Reply
  3. Walt

    Americans need to realize their country isn't tops any more, in fact far from it. Your once great country is a mess. Keep thinking you are number 1. It's sad to watch. No one respects the USA any more. The US boasts one of the largest prison systems in the world. Still arresting people for pot? The war against drugs? You lost, check your moral fiber. You chased the fleas and forgot about the rats. Now this great country gets to live with the consequences of archaic thinking. Fear got you here. You've disrespected your own citizens.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Reply
    • Martina

      The US is still #1, at least California. That's why so many Europeans try to come work here. On the other hand, how many Americans are dying to find work in Europe?

      August 18, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Reply
    • Nwaf Alghamdi

      America is still #1 ! I'm a Saudi student in the US, if the US isn't still #1 I wouldn't be here, or the other millions of people from all over the world to get education from the US. By the way, in all kind of rankings, American universities are the top in the world, and with a great education you will definitely have a great country. God bless America!

      August 18, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Reply
    • Matt

      Agreed. America used to be the apple of the worlds eye.
      Been to detoit or Philly lately?
      Embarrisng or what? I brought friends from Canada to Philly lately and they couldn't believe how the city was deteriorating since the last time they were here.
      Unless we have a course correction soon we could the way of dodo.

      August 18, 2013 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  4. BobPA

    Bureau of Prisons statistics show 75% of inmates are black or hispanic. 20% are citizens of Mexico. The problem is not with our laws, but with those communities. Whites and Asians have no problem staying out of prison.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Reply
    • John

      This problem can be solved by building more prisons to put the poor misunderstood criminals in.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Reply
      • Lance

        I really feel sorry for the womb that conceived you. You lack common sense and empathy....what a waste of space!

        August 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
      • Phil Marlowe

        How gracious of you to offer to pay for them. When can the government expect your check?

        August 18, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
      • LostNomad

        @Lance, @Phil:
        It appears you're sarcastically challenged.

        August 18, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
      • Joe

        Says the prison industry lobbyist.

        August 18, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
      • julie acklin

        I really feel sickened by the thought you have in your evil soul. Ice crystals are already forming in your heart.

        August 18, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
      • Searge

        If you are the strongest sperm cell your daddy could muster, that man just needs to be shot. (Prevent him from further contaminating the human gene pool!)

        August 18, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • internetisgay

      It's surprising how ignorant you are. Do you wake up every morning and say to yourself, "I'm going to say something racist today". I hope you kill yourself soon.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Reply
      • holam

        are you serious, telling someone to go ki!! themself, how can you do something like that. That to me is ignorant.

        August 18, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • jess

      I think there's some food for thought in the "why's" behind that statement. What are the income levels within those ethnic groups? Are their ties between generation poverty and crime? What kind of charges are they incarcerated for? Are whites more likely to hire better lawyers and play the system? Does the system have inherent racial bias? Are the laws themselves targeting activities more common within non-white groups? -For instance, alcohol is a traditionally white-euro decent drug of choice (culturally speaking- and this is not to say that white people don't routinely use other drugs). In spite of prohibition and massive negative effects hit has had on public health (such as familial abuse and DUIs) it has remained legal. Opium, was the cultural drug of choice for Chinese people who came over during the 19th century to work on the railroads. It wasn't until the influx of Chinese people became so large that it scared white politicians that opium was made illegal in order to give them a reason to round up people of Chinese decent and attempt to reduce the overall numbers. The point? It's incorrect and far to simple to look at numbers like that and assume that because less whites are imprisoned it must means whites are better behaved. As for the questions I posed at the beginning of this rant, I don't have the answers- no one does really. There are tons and tons of really tedious well researched sociology books out there debating those subjects.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Reply
      • jess

        their=there. Auto correct. boo.

        August 18, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
      • BobPA

        Right, those are the fundamental issues we need to address. Not simply change the laws to reduce prison time.

        August 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
      • jess

        Also, those numbers weren't quite right. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports:

        1 in every 198 U.S. residents was serving a
        sentence in state or federal prison in 2007
        Males accounted for most
        (93.1%) of the 1.5 million
        sentenced prisoners under jurisdiction. Black males
        made up the largest percentage of the overall sen-
        tenced population (36.3%) and the sentenced male
        population (39.0%) (table 5). An estimated
        471,400 white males made up 30.8% of the overall
        sentenced population and 33.0% of the sentenced
        male population. Hispanic males made up about a
        fifth of both populations. The largest absolute num-
        ber and percentage of sentenced females were white
        (50,500 prisoners or 47.9%), followed by black females
        (29,300 prisoners or 27.8%) and Hispanic females
        (17,600 prisoners or 16.7%)

        August 18, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
      • jess

        BobPA- I'll concede that response:) and I'll add that changing prison sentences to reduce the prison population to try to save money is a terrible and reactionary way to use legislation. I think it's indicative of some fundamental (and larger) things that are broken within the political/legislative process in this country right now.

        August 18, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
      • Starlyte

        Jess, you are correct. There's a lot of bias, fear, and racial discrimination in our system. Ethnic groups are no worse than whites. It's a matter of criminalizing certain ethnic groups cultural behaviors. Just as high Chinese scared whites, the same was true about marijuana. It was fine and dandy for whites to smoke it, but when more and more Mexicans came over getting high, whites became scared and criminalized it. Same goes for blacks. It's ok for whites to snort, smoke, and shoot up cocaine with only a slap on the wrist as punishment and empathy for the drug-user, but when blacks dilute it and turn it into a "poor man's drug" called crack, the book gets thrown at them. Our system is no doubt racist.

        August 18, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
      • jess

        Starlyte: Exactly:)

        August 18, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • Jerome

      Worst comment in a while. Have you no ability to reason? I have a feeling logical arguments are not your strong point.

      I wont even go further with this comment except to point out how ridiculous it is and how YOU are the problem.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Reply
    • Jeremy

      Most serial killers and pedophiles are white males.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Reply
      • julie acklin

        Where did you get that information?

        August 18, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • CheckUrFacts

      So you've determined that those statistics can only represent a problem of race? That those statistics have nothing to do with poverty, education, or a system that punishes the poor more than the wealthy for the same crimes? Any facts to support why you eliminated these or any other possible cause other then skin color?

      August 18, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Reply
      • julie acklin

        Jeremy when ever there is a issue of real true meaning it turns into race. This is important to many. All races are incarcerated.

        August 18, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • Lance

      You are only being a simpleton. Careful analysis of the real situation requires a lot of brain power which you my friend lack! You are only a beneficiary of your great grand parents hard work [exploitations] and enjoy the "positive" stereotype associated with it. Why don't you crawl back to your hole and come back to comment once you take off your white hood!....or better yet make the peep holes bigger so you can see clearly?

      August 18, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Reply
    • rednaxelat

      I know you're trying to be provocative, but you succeed only in the sense one feels provoked to clean up dog poop on one's lawn. Whites get let off with warnings, non-whites get pulled over for no good reason. We live in a profoundly racist authoritarian culture far less free than many others in the world, and we should be acting out of shame, not overweening nationalist racist pride, born in the hollow shells of hollow men like yourself. I know simpletons will always outnumber the rest of us, but please try to keep your opinions out of the public sphere. They stink.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Reply
    • Education

      One one is more deserving than others. BUT if certain group of ethnic group are NOT taking education seriously. It seems that the white and asian are more concern about their kids education. Not every thing is black and white but it seems that if you born into a poor family, you are already setup for failure! I am NOT a racist..take my comment for what it worth!

      August 18, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Reply
    • Cy Mann

      It's the US culture that dates back even before slavery and the disenfranchisement of select groups of people throughout our history. Which has been allowed to ingrain disparity into these groups and inflame the more fortunate largely unaffected peoples opinion. Even your post demonstrates that culture. All sides use this history to perpetuate hate, distrust and division. Until we put aside the sins of our fathers and move on as just Americans we're doomed to continue with this behavior.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Reply
    • Thomas A. Hawk

      And there are no other variables involved...not even economic status? Come on. Use science and math properly, please.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  5. Skeptic

    The conservatives like to throw every offender in jail, but also don't want to pay to lock them up. How do you do that?

    August 18, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  6. jess

    Regardless of how one feels about letting low level drug offenders out of jail, there are enormous implications for our society if this policy change is not implimented carefully and thoughtfully. We already have a serious unemployment problem. If we reduce these sentences and let everyone out, what are they going to do to feed themselves? With prison records, even if they apply for legitamte employment they will most likely be turned down in favor of applicants without "criminal" histories. Would this drive people with simple drug convictions into more nefarious activities?

    August 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • kevin

      Thats a good point. They would have to implement some job placement program to help curb that

      August 18, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Reply
    • word

      Tell me, how many criminals a year does the war on drugs create? About a million, think about it.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Reply
      • Chris

        Let me ask you this. These poor drug criminals, how many of them have committed other crimes that go unpunished?

        August 18, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
      • word

        In reply how do they get there start? It's a cycle that feeds many many peoples pockets. 25% of our country is in jail, how is that good? Stating that 25% of the countries population is bad and out of wake big time.

        August 18, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
      • word

        how many times do you get away with speeding? law is law and your breaking it, so your also a bad bad person.

        August 18, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • julie acklin

      Job placement and re-entry placement centers to better place inmates on the streets and in the community is key.Companies getting tax breaks for hiring inmates.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Reply
  7. burnin hell

    Murica! Fuk yeh! Why da blaq man gotz to be a criminal? Dang nggers

    August 18, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Reply
    • Jeremy

      Your a bigot/racist.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Reply
    • Lance

      LMBAO...ignorance is bliss!!! Get an education or learn a trade.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      Sick and ill minded American.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  8. Lisa

    Most prisoners who are sentenced for a drug charges are mostly fake setup cases ( profiling cases). Its about time that the systems works for the tax payers instead of sending pity cases for a long term sentences while we pay for it. This is the best thing I have heard in years. think about it people real drug dealer are going to always sell drug and get in trouble, but this law is for the pity first time offenders only not the repeated jerk who have been doing this for years. well done!!

    August 18, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Reply
    • Swatguy

      Really Lisa, profiling? You've been watching too much professional victim TV. Yep, let's ease up on punishments and see how well society does....when does personal responsibility become a priority? Let's not fix the problem in this country, let's ignore the lack of responsibility and everything is wonderful.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Reply
      • Masse

        Our nation has the highest incarceration rate in the world- but you bemoan we don't seem to encourage "personal responsiblity".
        So even you know what science has discovered- that forcing people to behave doesn't teach them to be responsible for their behavior, it teaches them someone ELSE is responsbile for their behavior.
        Otherwise, we'd be at a height of "personal responsbility", right?

        August 18, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
    • julie acklin

      Right on Lisa. You tell them.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  9. Sean

    First off, I'm not a drug user and I rarely drink alcohol. I am a college graduate and employeed with the federal gov't. Im also a combat related disabled veteran. With that out of the way I'd like to state that my personal belief is that we should decriminalize all drugs. The war on drugs was a bust and privatized prisons are corrupt. It's in their best interest to incarcerate as many individuals for as long as possible. To allow the prison lobby to direct and dictate law is absurd. Time to decriminalize now!

    August 18, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Reply
    • Sarah

      I agree. There will still be crimes committed by people in order to get drugs and while they are on drugs, and those crimes should be fully prosecuted. Yet, despite the stereotype, most drug users are only criminals in the sense that they use illegal drugs. Besides, decriminalizing them will make them safer and will generate more revenue for the states.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Reply
      • julie acklin

        Once again profiting from warm bodies .Is slavery. Rehabilitation and hospital. Not prisons.

        August 18, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • Kristen

      Excellent post Sean. So very, very true.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Reply
    • jess

      Portugal is trying something interesting. They aren't legalizing drugs per se but they are "decriminalizing" them. What this means, is that drug addiction is then treated as a public health crisis instead of a criminal offense. This seems to be having a profound effect on drug and crime use.

      Check it out:

      August 18, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
    • Star

      Well said! It's a simple to understand...the more prisoners, the more they make. And as far as what to do with released prisoners, how about spending tax money re-educating them for a trade or better yet, creating more jobs! Wake up America... U Are A PRISON STATE!!!

      August 18, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Reply
    • KODAK

      If legalized, who sets the limits of useage, or do we simply let anyone who wants it to use as much as they can use before they pass out? We already "allow" this with we really need one more stupifying cop-out for people to take? What is the limit or do we simply let anybody do what they want, whenever they want?

      August 18, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  10. word

    War on drugs says it all.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  11. Benjamin Goulart

    We've been wide awake about this. It's the government that has been conveniently asleep on this subject while the prison industry is privatized.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      So very true. Asleep and a giant.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  12. Alan Smithee

    Ah, the crisis du jour.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  13. Cheem

    Want to double the current prison population ? Elect Scott Walker from Wisconsin and then buy prison related stocks.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  14. us_1776

    United States policy for past 33 YEARS:

    Fascism in 7 easy steps:

    1. Privatize the prisons.
    2. Pay off congress to pass more laws so you can lock up more citizens.
    3. Monetize the prison population.
    4. Get rich off "for-profit" prisons.
    5. Use the revenue to increase police state surveillance of citizens so you can lock up even more citizens.
    6. Become the country with the highest percentage of incarceration in the world.
    7. Rinse and Repeat.


    August 18, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Reply
    • word

      But us_1776 they need a million criminals a year so they can keep pushing up them gun sales and police budgets nation wide.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin


      August 18, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  15. GenericMan

    Legalizing pot is the wrong angle to take for supporting this prison reform. I also support legalizing weed though.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  16. Harry T

    How about we execute the high level drug dealers and then there will be more room for the low level ones?

    August 18, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Reply
    • GenericMan

      How about we make them irrelevant instead?

      August 18, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      What if nit were your mother?

      August 18, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  17. jdoe

    As long as there is a private prison industry, the problem will remain. Get rid of all private prisons. Like law enforcement, certain societal functions should not be privatized.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Reply
  18. Patriot60

    A lot of these people shouldn't even be in prison - especially murderers, rapists, pedophiles, etc. They should have been immediately taken from the courtrooms upon their convictions and hung from the nearest tree. Would go far to alleviate prison overcrowding.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      Segregate might be a start.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Reply
    • Lance

      If high levels of STUPIDITY were a serious crime....Based on your proposed solution, this would be your last post on CNN! oloriburuku...[check the dictionary meaning].

      August 18, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  19. Bill Thompson

    I notice no mention of China in this article. Surely the world's most populous nation deserves mention, particularly as American media often portrays China as a police state where individuals are deprived of liberties. China's per 100,000 incarceration rate is 121, which is ONE SIXTH that of the U.S. and this is well below the average of nations worldwide. You have a SIX TIMES greater chance of being imprisoned in the United States than in China. Land of the Free? Make no mistake: Our United States has become the world's greatest police state. To label and criticize other nations as such is a giant lie.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Reply
    • jess

      Just a fun side note pertinent to this response: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics you are significantly more likely to be imprisoned in Florida, Kentucky or Arizona.

      August 18, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  20. Terry

    We have a growing number of people from thirdworld countries who bring their tribal mentality and disregard for the law with them. The bleeding hearts would prefer a stern tongue lashing rather than do away with them properly.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Reply
    • Lance

      Have you taken your medication today? "Third world" ...who uses that term anymore?.... except TRIBAL ignoramuses from the "First world"?

      August 18, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  21. deb

    I'd vote for something out of Escape from New York. 3 times caught and you are in there for life. All the confiscated drugs can be thrown over the wall for them to enjoy.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  22. Laurie

    Instead of making crimes legal perhaps we need to look at why we have a nation of more and more criminals. Let's go back to God and the 10 commandments and teach them rather than decriminalizing bad behavior.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  23. Sam S

    I'm a registered Libertarian, so I believe in private enterprise, but the very idea of a for-profit, privately run prison is the stuff of nightmares. For them, recidivism just means repeat business, so they have no interest in effectively rehabilitating the inmates, and at best, they do the bare minimum to feed and clothe the prisoners so they can maximize their profit after having placed the lowest bid.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Reply
    • julie acklin

      The reason for not having private prisons. Lack of health care ,Suicides and escape. I GUESS I HAVE LISTED THEM ALL.OH NO PROFIT FROM WARM BODIES .SLAVERY

      August 18, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  24. Az

    Ever notice how many RESPONSIBLE PEOPLE are in prison?

    August 18, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Reply
  25. Tanny

    What do you mean, "common sense finally prevails?"
    After forty years. That mean we have people in positions of power that don't know what they are doing, do not speak out, or flat out don't care. I am at a loss for words. This has been discussed forever, since booking some one for smoking a joint, remember the 60's. Sometimes it appears that our system doesn't work.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Reply
  26. Justice

    We in America seem to think that prisons are a form of drug rehab. All addiction is a disease and it runs rampant in the USA. My state Washington just legalized marijuana. I do not smoke it but voted for legalization. It Is time to take a good look at our drug policy and take it from a crime to a rehabilitation policy.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  27. jimmy

    US "wakes up" to prison nightmare? really??? some of us have been aware that we have been a police state for generations.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  28. Connect the dots, man

    As long as the prison system remains privatized with a profit motive, nothing is going to change except that more folks will be locked up for inconsequential offenses. Thanks, President Reagan, you ignorant putz.

    August 18, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  29. Greg

    Hey, I have a brilliant thought! Maybe we have more in prison because we have a larger population than most countries and secondly, our society is more permissive than many others and thus more crime. Da!

    August 18, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  30. tom in san diego

    If I was over 70, unhealthy and in need, the first thing I would do is hold up a bank...go to jail, enjoy woodshop, the library and watch reruns of Oprah....

    And they wonder why so many black, mexican and illegals go to jail, Seems to me, they are smarter than the white guys..

    August 18, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Reply
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