Prisons and the social fabric
Let there be no mistake: when you produce so many criminals that you can’t afford to lock them up, you are a failed state. Virtually every important civil institution in society has to fail to get you to this point. Your homes and houses of worship are failing to build law abiding citizens, much less responsible and informed voters. Your schools aren’t educating enough of your kids to make an honest living. Your taxes and policies are so bad that you are driving thousands of businesses away.
Although we in America like to think of ourselves as the “land of the free,” we are actually the land of incarnation. If you study the map above you see we lead the world in the number of prisoners as a percentage of population. We jail more criminals than allegedly less developed countries like China, Russia and Mexico. We are spending so much of our scarce resources on imprisonment. What has gone wrong? Is our social fabric so frayed that criminality is increasing? Have corporate interests driven an incarceration agenda? Does America have a prison–industrial complex?
Prison population in the US has soared way ahead of population growth and is now about 240 percent higher than it was in 1980 (Graph from Wikipedia):
It seems that the prison population is on growth hormones. Some people think the increase is due to corporate interests twisting the public agenda. Wikipedia describes the alliance of corporate and penal interests:
“Prison–industrial complex” (PIC) is a term used to attribute the rapid expansion of the US inmate population owing to the political influence of private prison companies and businesses that supply goods and services to government prison agencies.
Such groups include corporations that contract prison labor, construction companies, surveillance technology vendors, lawyers, and lobby groups that represent them. Activists have described the prison industrial complex as perpetuating a belief that imprisonment is a quick fix to underlying social problems such as homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy.
Social problems like drug addiction and mental illness cannot be addressed by jailing people. It’s economically inefficient and it’s cruel. The Center for Economic Policy and Research published a report last June which recommends reducing the non-violent offender population:
We calculate that a reduction by one-half in the incarceration rate of non-violent offenders would lower correctional expenditures by $16.9 billion per year and return the U.S. to about the same incarceration rate we had in 1993 (which was already high by historical standards).
The large majority of these savings would accrue to financially squeezed state and local governments, amounting to about one-fourth of their annual corrections budgets. As a group, state governments could save $7.6 billion, while local governments could save $7.2 billion.
A review of the extensive research on incarceration and crime suggests that these savings could be achieved without any appreciable deterioration in public safety.
If we release non-violent offenders, some of the savings should be spent on treatment and rehabilitation. Muniland faces a 2012 deficit of approximately $200 billion. States are anticipating $414 million in cut to the 2011 mid-year corrections’ budgets (National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers’ Spring 2011 report, page 12). Saving $15 billion a year by reducing the non-violent offender population would provide a substantial jump towards fiscal balance.
The broader questions of the involvement of private corporations in the penal system and jailing so many for drug use should be examined. America wants to be a world leader, but leading in jail populations is a dubious distinction indeed.
New York Times: Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings
Sociological Images: Overcrowding in California prisons