Lessons From Prisons Around The World

In a newly published book, “Incarceration Nations“, Baz Dreisinger of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice goes on a global tour of prisons to discover and compare various approach to criminal justice and rehabilitation. As a professor and activist, rather than a criminal justice expert, her book offers less in the way of data and policy analysis and more in terms of insightful, first-person accounts of the various prison systems she visited, including those in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Jamaica, Rwanda, Singapore, South Africa, and Uganda. Continue reading

Inmates Versus Students

While state governments slash programs and funding for education,  the so-called “prison-industrial complex” — the vast and growing industry centered on incarceration rates — continues unabated, often at eye-watering cost. Consider the following piece from Al-Jazeera America:

A recent report found that jailing an inmate in New York City for one year costs more than four years of tuition at an Ivy League university.

The Independent Budget Office found that in 2012 it cost the city $167,731 to hold each of its daily average of 12,287 inmates, or about $460 per inmate per day.

Undergraduate tuition at Harvard University is $38,891 annually, or $155,564 for a four-year degree.

Talk about getting priorities straight. Obviously, its a necessary function of the state to put criminals behind bars. But how and why we’re doing so is a different story:

Experts say certain expensive fixed costs in New York’s system keep the figure high despite a large drop in incarceration, which peaked in 1991 at about 22,000 inmates. The Department of Corrections has substantial pension and salary responsibilities and significant debt-service payments. It says 86 percent of its operating costs go to wages; it employs 9,000 relatively well-paid unionized correction officers. The department’s budget in 2012 was $1.08 billion.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year to run Rikers Island — a 400-acre island near the runways of LaGuardia Airport that has 10 jail facilities, thousands of staff members, its own power plant and a transportation system.

New York’s per-inmate costs dwarf other large cities’. Los Angeles spent $128.94 per day, or $47,063 per year, in its 2011-12 fiscal year, LA’s sheriff’s office said. According to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, in 2010, the most recent year for which figures were available, Chicago spent $145 per inmate per day, or $52,925 for the year.

Needless to say, prison workers’ unions and private incarceration companies have often supported tougher sentencing laws, no doubt because there’s plenty of money to be made in locking people up — another perverse example of how almost anything can be driven by profit motive in this country.

And although New York State is a particularly troubling example in this regard, it’s part of an overall trend in the growth of imprisonment:

The United States leads the world in the number of people behind bars, according to the International Center for Prison Studies in London.

The so-called war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing and related laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s have contributed to a rising number of inmates, especially those charged with drug-related offenses.

Holder added in his August speech that one of the changes he would implement is ensuring that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders without ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels are not given “draconian mandatory minimum sentences.”

Among such measures is California’s three-strikes law, enacted in 1994, which mandates a state prison term of 25 years to life for any person convicted of a felony who has two or more previous convictions. This contributed to a mushrooming prison population in the state.

In 2011 the Supreme Court ordered California — which has the largest prison population of any U.S. state — to release tens of thousands of inmates or take other steps to ease prison overcrowding to prevent “needless suffering and death.”

It’s worth bearing in mind that, contrary to popular belief, the rate of crime in this country (particularly the violent kind) has continued to decline since the 1990s. So what accounts for this counterintuitive growth in prisoners during this time?

Over the past 30 years, there has been a 500 percent increase in U.S. incarceration rates, which has led to prison overcrowding and overwhelming financial burdens for states.

According to prisoner-advocacy group the Sentencing Project, people incarcerated on drug charges comprise half the population at the federal level.

And in state prisons, the number of drug offenders has increased 13-fold since 1980. Most of them are not high-level criminals, and most have no record of violent offenses.

And many will come out of prison in far worse shape than when they went in. Not only are we imprisoning people that in most cases aren’t a threat to public safety, but we’re causing lasting social and economic damage in the process. These are people who will find it much harder to find work due to their conviction, and who are likely to reoffend due to the lack of actual rehabilitation in many prisons. This is a perverse system that needs to be changed, lest it become the new normal.

Profiting From Prisons

It seems that nowadays, there are very few things you can’t make money off, as even incarcerating prisoners appears to have become a lucrative venture. This isn’t too surprising, given that we have the highest incarceration rate in the developed world. Clearly, some clever and enterprising folks discovered a silver lining to this social and legal failing of our society.

A long and in-depth report by AlterNet reveals the thriving industry of private prisons and – in particular – detention centers for illegal immigrants. It covers the emergence and rise of prison privatization, and how it’s become increasingly more systemic, to the detriment of taxpayers (ironically enough) and those who are incarcerated (whom, for cost-saving purposes, are subject to often inhumane conditions – not exactly conducive to rehabilitation).

I suspect the main reason this issue doesn’t get as much attention as it should is simply because those most affected by are the dregs of society – criminals and illegals whom we’d rather just forget about, let alone bother care about. Just like in many other billion dollar industries, there is widespread collusion and lobbying between private prison companies and the state. The end result is a corruption of the legal system so that favors keeping people in jail – and money flowing to those who provide the service.

Although these companies are increasingly depended on immigration detention, they have not given up on the criminal justice market.  For private prisons whose profits are dependent on a constant and growing pool of prisoners, that means supporting policies that maintain and even increase the incarceration rate.  For inmates, that translates to longer sentences, unsanitary conditions, and as Shapiro documents in the ACLU report, brutal violence, corruption, and abuse with little to no oversight.

Leniency and sentencing changes actually pose a threat to business models of these companies. The more crime there is the more business private prison companies get, and the more strict sentencing laws there are the more taxpayer money is poured into private prison companies incarcerating individuals for nonviolent offenses,” says Shapiro.

The CCA lays out the risks to their business model in their 2010 Annual Report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC):

The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. 

The GEO Group, highlighted similar risks to their revenue stream in the company’s 2010 Annual Report:

[A]ny changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities. Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.

In other words, a more humane criminal justice and immigration detention system threatens the very existence of these companies, and according to the ACLU report, they have flooded government at the state and federal level with cash and armies of lobbyists to keep the laws as harsh and cruel as ever. 

That explains why CCA spent over $18 million on federal lobbying between 1999 and 2009 and has spent  $970,000 on federal lobbying in 2010 alone.   As for state government influence-peddling, the ACLU report cites a study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics which found that from 2003 to 2011 CCA hired 199 lobbyists in 32 states while GEO Group hired 72 lobbyists in 17 states.

The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released a comprehensive report in June called “Gaming the System,” that comprehensively lays out the tactics private prison companies exercise to push for tougher sentencing policies that add to the private prison population.  While their strategy is built largely around campaign contributions and lobbying, they also cultivate and maintain special relationships with current and former elected and appointed officials, which can lead to disastrous consequences.

It’s disturbing to think that the laws that govern us our being twisted to serve the interests of a specific industry (sound familiar?). Granted, the difference here is that these aren’t just loopholes or subsidies – these are laws which directly apply to us. They are supposed to safeguard our society, enforce peace, and ensure that the punishment fits the crime. Most importantly, they’re supposed to facilitate actual rehabilitation, rather merely throwing people in a system that will only spit them out in worse shape (to the detriment of the public).

What good is privatizing an industry when it more or less behaves like an extension of the state – or visa-versa? Privatization has its benefits, and it’d be presumptuous to assume it invariably leads to this level of sleaze. But it’s obvious that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and we’ve clearly put more faith in the private sector then it deserves. Moral hazard can taint any and every industry, privately owned or otherwise. This is especially the case when a perverse profit motive is involved – if you make money from imprisoning people,  it’s patently obvious you shouldn’t make the industry run like a business, let alone let it influence law.

Even the cost-saving argument, the most commonly cited reason for privatization, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny (and even if it did, the ethical and legal costs probably wouldn’t be worth it).

According to Shapiro [primary author of the ACLU report on the prison industry], evidence behind the assertion that private prisons save money is “mixed at best,” with a number of studies even showing that privatizing jails may actually cost the state more money.  An analysis conducted by the Arizona Department of Corrections of the state’s prisons indicated just that, finding that Arizona’s prisons may be more costly than publicly run prisons even though they avoid housing sick inmates to save on healthcare costs, something state run facilities cannot do.  In 2007, researchers from the University of Utah Criminal Justice Center published a meta-analysis of previous privatization studies and concluded, “Cost savings from privatization are not guaranteed and quality of services is not improved. Across the board effect sizes were small, so small that the value of moving to a privately managed system is questionable.”

Shapiro added, “In general the evidence that there are these cost savings associated is questionable and dangerous because the only way that money really can be saved is by putting less people in prison.  This argument has the potential to get politicians side-tracked from the making the moral and ethical and financially sustainable decisions.”

Ultimately, Shapiro hits on a relatively simple and sensible solution that I’ve advocated before.

Shapiro believes the best way to scale back the abuses of the private prison industry is to reduce the number of people in prison.  “This is crippling state budgets.  We can’t pay for roads or schools because so much money being funneled in corrections.  It’s tearing apart families and communities completely counterproductive. It’s good for no one except the private prison industry,” says Shapiro.

This would require a massive change not just in our legal and political system, but also in our social and moral paradigm: the way we view criminals, how we define appropriate justice, and whether we value punishment or rehabilitation.

I encourage you to read the rest of the article, it’s quite a good read.