Prisons and the social fabric

June 3, 2011

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.

Walter Russell Mead

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.

Further reading:

New York Times: Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings

Collins Center: Smart Justice: Findings and Recommendations for Florida Criminal Justice Reform

Sociological Images: Overcrowding in California prisons


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The war on drugs is a waste of time, money and lives. It cannot be won. The world’s drug warriors are out of ideas.

Fresh thinking is of the essence. Governments should consider legalizing drugs to take profits out of the criminal trade.

Filling prisons with drug users does nothing to curb the billion-dollar illicit business, one of the world’s richest. Drug use is a public health problem, not a crime. Arresting small-time dealers does little but create a market opportunity for other small fry. Destroy drug crops in one region and cultivation moves to another. Cut a supply route in one place and another one opens up. 2011/06/03/the-war-on-drugs-and-a-milest one-critique/

Posted by Cate_Long | Report as abusive

Taking advantage of two concurrent 30-year trends–toward mass incarceration and toward privatization of government services–CCA has grown to a $1.6 billion company that operates 66 facilities in 20 states, with approximately 90,000 beds. It has become notorious for its poor treatment of prisoners, and for numerous preventable injuries and deaths in its prisons and immigrant detention centers. About 40 percent of CCA’s business comes from the federal government, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as the Bureau of Prisons. As BOP director, Lappin would have overseen government contracts with CCA worth tens of millions of dollars. CCA spends approximately $1 million annually on lobbying on the federal level alone.

A press release from the invaluable Private Corrections Working Group notes that Lappin’s quick trip through the government-to-industry revolving door is hardly unique in the Bureau of Prisons’ history: “Lappin joins another former BOP director already employed with CCA, J. Michael Quinlan, who was hired by the company in 1993. He retired as director of the BOP in 1992, several months after settling a lawsuit that accused him of sexually harassing a male BOP employee. While settling the suit, Quinlan denied allegations that he made sexual advances to the employee in a hotel room.” ral-prison-director-takes-job-private-pr ison-company

Posted by Cate_Long | Report as abusive

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Posted by Somewhat interesting article on prisons | Report as abusive

America refuses to change its Government, which is where the problem lies. Our courts and police institutions are barbaric and create life time peons out of individuals seeking disapproved but non-violent pleasures.

Can the country change its ways? Not until it switches to proportional representation, election districts which are not gerrymandered, and periodic mandatory judicial confirmation by popular vote. Then governmental power will bend to the popular will. Until that happens, it will absolutely not.

The choice is to reform or to become slaves.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Thank you, OneOfTheSheep!

This is an incredibly stupid, poorly argued and biased column. It’s so bad I can’t believe it was even published.

We have more people in prison than other countries, therefore it must be those EVIL CORPORATIONS, responsible for every problem known to man (though of course they did provide YOU with a job), at it again. Sure enough, some egghead has “discovered” (manufactured) a connection. Anything where people make money has to be on the wrong track.

Of course, it’s also true that crime has plummeted during the very years that this idiot author points to as the time when we were throwing too many criminals (too many according to her, that is) into prison … where they could no longer steal and rob people. What a coincidence.

We wouldn’t want to mention any GOOD effects that could be related to those notorious, money-grubbing behemoths that do things like build prisons and supply food to their inhabitants.

They make money, therefore they’re evil. Life’s easy when you have a black-and-white belief system.

We have more people in prison than China and South America, therefore there must be something wrong with US.

The something must be capitalism. It always is.

Or could it be stupid, sloppy journalism?

Posted by NewsLady | Report as abusive

I would like to apologize for the tone of my previous comment. I do feel that the column is simplistic and ignores some evidence that works against it, but I was rude and mean, and I’m sorry.

Posted by NewsLady | Report as abusive