The Prison Crisis

We increasingly hear the term “prison crisis” today. The most prominent prison crisis impacts the State of California. California did not provide constitutionally adequate healthcare and mental healthcare for inmates, leading to deaths and alleged cruel and unusual punishment, so California was ordered by a federal court to release up to 40,000 prisoners or more. Releases like this cause crime rates to increase. California’s appeal is now at the U. S. Supreme Court. Other states face less publicized overcrowding in connection with exploding correctional costs. Collectively, American prisons now cost about $150 million dollars per day for direct expenditures. The collateral, social and lost opportunity costs are much greater than the financial outlays. During some recent years, one new prison was being built on the average of once per week.

Get tough law & order policies like mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes legislation, together with the War on Drugs, filled America’s prisons to the breaking point. We now have about 2.3 million American behind bars in city, county, state and federal prisons and jails. The entire correctional population, which includes those on probation or parole or awaiting trial, exceeds seven million. The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and almost 25% of the world’s prisoners. Unfortunately, incarceration is only an expensive way to make bad people worse. The destructive process of incarceration now harms a record numbers of prisoners.

Incarceration breaks up marriages and families, causes mental illness and disease, makes little restitution to crime victims, takes able-bodied workers out of the labor force, increases welfare costs outside prison and creates a massive group of full-ride welfare recipients inside prison. Prison is most often a human cesspool of gang activity, racism, violence, rape and depravity. After working its destructive magic on inmates, prisoners are released back into the free world. Ex-convicts then proceed most of the time to make the world outside prison worse. With the felon label to carry around, released prisoners have trouble obtaining housing, jobs, spouses or education. Over half of released prisoners commit additional crimes or violate the terms of their parole, sending them right back to prison. The destructive process then goes to work all over again, running inmates down further.

Correctional expenses take up ever-larger shares of city, county, state and federal budgets. California, which once prided itself on its educational system, now spends far more on prisons than education. This is a very sick trend. It’s bad for the entire economy. When people go off to prison, it technically reduces unemployment because they do not count prisoners in those statistics. In actuality, sending offenders to prison increases unemployment, because only a small percent of prisoners work full-time jobs in prison. In a land rightly concerned about the declining percentage of younger workers who have to support increasing numbers of retirees, we cage millions of young, able-bodied people and keep them inactive most of the time. Private enterprise cannot prosper in the prison setting because of restrictive federal and state laws. We provide government manufacturing jobs, but there are not enough jobs to go around. Prisoners want to work, but we’ve socialized prison industries.

Whatever government does, it does more or less badly. Big government in the form of correctional institutions has grown exponentially over the last 40 years. We have a true prison crisis in United States, because the number of people and dollars subject to this bad treatment has skyrocketed. On a per capita basis, we imprison about 15 times more people than we did a century ago. Other statistics are equally shocking, including the amount of debt we as a nation already owe. Things have to change.