How the Prisons Hold Us Captive

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After years of deficit financing, my state, California, is currently hurtling toward bankruptcy, the revenue from its savage personal income tax having been consumed, and over-consumed, by government employees’ salaries and benefits. Yet in the midst of the budget turmoil, Governor Jerry Brown has just negotiated yet another Rolls Royce contract with one of the biggest beneficiaries of state government, the prison guards’ union.

The deal was so friendly that even the state’s mainstream media began to criticize it. In response, Brown went into Scarlett O'Hara mode, swearing, "As God is my witness, I did the best I could." Then he demanded of his critics, "Why don't they go into prison and have people throw feces at them?" — an allusion to the plight of prison guards in institutions that are out of control.

I’ll return to the governor’s pungent comment. But first, I’d like to mention a few facts about American prisons. I’ll start with California. The California prison system, euphemistically known as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, employs more people than any other state agency. It has 69,000 authorized positions. Between 1998 and 2009, its budget almost tripled, reaching $10.3 billion dollars in the latter year — despite the fact that the number of people in prison had increased by only 9% during the period. (I’m using the Department’s own figures here.) As of 2009, the average cost of maintaining an inmate in this system was more than $49,000, of which about a third was spent on healthcare. That is more than twice what my own excellent healthcare insurance costs me and my employer, the University of California, despite the fact that I, unlike 85% of the inmates in California prisons, am over 50 years old and therefore have higher real healthcare costs than the average California inmate.

Now, if you think this picture is representative only of California, you are right — in a way. Florida, which is demographically comparable in many respects, and also has a “modern” prison system, spends only about $20,000 per year, per inmate, and of that only $4300 is spent on healthcare.

But which state has the better prison system? One measure — bleak and basic — of a prison’s success is the extent to which it prevents its denizens from suffering needless death. The latest comprehensive state and national statistics on this, provided by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, cover the period from 2001 to 2007. They show that California, with 70% more inmates than Florida, had almost 500% more homicides in its prisons. When homicides are combined with deaths from “accidents” and drug and alcohol intoxication, that percentage is about 550.

It needn’t surprise anyone that giving more money to “corrections” may not be the best way to solve its problems (any more than giving more money to government schools is the best way to solve the problems of education). But giving more money is exactly what states have been doing. According to a recent report from the Pew Center on the States, between 1987 and 2007 state expenditures on prisons rose nationally by 315%. During the same period, the number of people in prison rose by only (!) 169%, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The Pew report shows that even Florida gives 9.3% of its general fund to corrections, with California slightly behind, at 8.6% — an indication that the total amount of money that a state spends on prisons isn't influenced so much by the nature of the prison regime as by the amount of money that taxpayers “contribute” to the state. One way or another, the prisons are going to be given their due proportion of the take.

Any problems with the prisons — and there are a lot — are unlikely to be solved by increased taxation and expenditure. At present, it’s difficult to say how much the 50 states spend, per convict, on their prison systems; their reporting methods vary a good deal. The best estimate is something over $30,000 a year. Yet prisons are almost universally regarded as failures by the people who pay for them.

What can be done?

“Private prisons” are a potential means of making penal institutions more efficient and more humane, but they have never succeeded in clearly demonstrating their benefits — mainly because they are commissioned by the state and are governed by its customs and regulations. Under these conditions, private prisons have only so much ability to innovate.

Another way of getting a hold on “corrections” is to reduce the size of the prison population by decriminalizing drugs. This idea, which is good in itself, would undoubtedly help reduce both crime and the prison population. In 2008, “drug offenses” accounted for 26% of new male inmate admissions in California, and 33% of new female admissions; and California wasn’t far from the national average.

It’s true — and libertarians should know this — that people who are arrested for drug violations are often the kind of people who also commit real offenses; it’s just that it’s sometimes easier to nail them for drugs. When you look at their longterm records, you see that many of them would probably be in prison anyway. But stripping drugs of their illegal profits and their aura of adventure would keep a lot of young people at a greater distance from prison. One of the worst things we could do would be to continue our course of creating crimes — for instance, by increasing the price of tobacco products, thereby opening a new and profitable black market to be exploited by gangs.

If we want to decrease the size of the prison population, we can also take a serious look at reducing prison sentences. The average state prison sentence, which was 79 months in 1992, has crept downward to 57 months. But for many inmates, even a sentence of that length is just a silly way of satisfying the public's (or the media's) desire for revenge. While I was doing the research for my book, The Big House, the retired warden of a large state prison told me that most of the inmates he encountered had committed their crimes when they were drunk or high. When they weren't drunk or high, they were tractable enough. For many inmates of this kind, one short stay in prison, or the county jail, is long enough. Yet the average sentence for motor vehicle theft is now an astonishing 29 months.

Any patient review of individual inmate records shows that a very large portion of the prison population leaves, never to return, at the end of even a short sentence. Every opportunity must be taken to reduce sentences — no matter what the crime — to the deterrence level. Some habitual criminals, and many criminals of passion, are not deterred even by the prospect of a long sentence, but many other people are deterred just as much by a one-year as by a five-year jolt.

Then there is the issue that neither modern liberals nor modern conservatives want to face — the problem of actually running the prisons. I return, now, to Jerry Brown’s remark about people who don’t want to spend more money on prison guards: "Why don't they go into prison and have people throw feces at them?"

The answer is, "Why should they? If you are funding a prison where guards (not to mention inmates) are constantly endangered, you ought to be looking into how that prison is run, not how to pay people more to run it."

There is a myth, assiduously cultivated by cinematic sensationalists, that prisons are naturally places where people are constantly being murdered and raped, and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. That is a cynical assumption, embraced by both the modern conservatives who demonize "criminality" and the modern liberals who want to feel sorry for “imprisoned people,” without ever getting serious about safety and good order in the prisons. During the past two centuries, most prisons in America have been incompetently managed. Yet, as demonstrated by the most extensive sociological study of prison operations (Close Control, by Nathan Kantrowitz), prisons can be run in such a way as to maintain safe conditions for both guards and inmates. It takes some rationality, and it takes some dedication, but it doesn't take as much money as California currently spends on its dangerous, badly administered joints.

What it also does not take is the kind of eccentric judicial meddling that has helped to drive up the costs of the state prisons without increasing the safety of anyone. And what it does not take is the disgusting delight that anti-crime crusaders show in sentencing people to long prison terms, during which they may be raped or murdered.

Unfortunately, much of the melancholy history of American prisons has resulted from a convergence of “conservative” and “liberal” assumptions. Each party appears to believe that there is something better than rationality — revenge, on the one hand, or feckless attempts at state-sponsored reform and rehabilitation, on the other. Add to that the use of prisons as the states' primary source of pork-barrel spending (did you know that California has 30 prisons? or that Georgia has 35? or that even Kentucky has 15?), and it's surprising that the “corrections” disaster isn’t greater than it is.

My own view is that rationality will come to the corrections industry only if state budgets as a whole start shrinking in a significant way, so that finally there is nothing left to try but rationality. When you think about it, that would be a good solution for a lot of the problems we have.

Stephen Cox [send him mail] is Professor of Literature at UC San Diego. His most recent books are The New Testament and Literature (Open Court Publishing) and The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison (Yale University Press).

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