How the Prisons Hold Us Captive
by Stephen Cox: The
Death Tax and Barney Frank
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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?"
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.
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.
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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