May 24, 2006


Caption: This chicken is doing hard time.

The population of prisons and jails in the US grew at a rate of more than 1,000 per week between 2004 and 2005. According to the Associated Press, "The total on June 30, 2005, was 56,428 more than at the same time in 2004, the government reported Sunday."

The biggest increase was in the jail population, which grew by 4.7 percent or 33,539 people. The total number of people behind bars in the nation was around 2.2 million or one out of every 136 US residents.

West Virginia has also experienced dramatic growth in its prison population. The costs of this increase has drained resources away from investing in education.

According to a 2005 report by the Appalachian Institute of Wheeling Jesuit University, the West Virginia Council of Churches, and Grassroots Leadership,

*Between 1994 and 2002, state spending for higher education adjusted for inflation went up by 21% while appropriations for prisons went up almost 119%.

*Despite the state's low crime rate (often the lowest in the nation), the prison population increased by 86% in the same period. By 2004, it had doubled. By contrast, full time enrollment in the state's public colleges and universities increased by only 9% in the same period.

Much of the growth was due to the incarceration of non-violent offenders. Currently, about 2 in 5 people incarcerated by the state Division of Corrections are in for non-violent offenses. While violent offenders have seen average sentences fall in recent years, sentences for property and drug crimes have increased.

In other words, we're spending lots of money that could be more productively invested elsewhere in a system that locks up more people--but not necessarily the right ones--without making us noticeably safer. It may make us less safe in the long run.

It has long been noted that prisons tend to reinforce some of the very problems they are intended to fight and that the lessons learned by inmates while incarcerated often tend to feed the problems rather than the solution. There is a strong tendency towards recidivism or repeat offenses and incarcerations for people once they've been in the system.

As the philosopher Nietzsche put it, "Generally speaking, punishment makes men hard and cold; it concentrates; it sharpens the feeling of alienation; its strengthens the power of resistance."

And while the growth of the prison-industrial complex was seen by many to be a kind of economic development,the results seem to show that using prisons for economic development is kind of like using meth as an energy supplement: the boost isn't worth the cost.

One positive sign in West Virginia at least is the move towards community corrections and alternative sentencing such as day reporting for non-violent offenders, an approach that makes sense both in human and financial terms.

One state corrections official noted that "for certain kinds of crimes, people who go through alternative programs are much less likely to repeat those crimes...We still have to lock up the hardcore cases, but incarceration is the least corrective and the least profitable in terms of human rehabilitation."

One state probation officer summed it up pretty well: "we need to lock up the people we're afraid of, but not everybody we're mad at."


1 comment:

Dominque Stevenson said...

The only problem with locking up the people "we" are afraid of is that this country has a history of being afraid of people of color, the poor, gays and lesbians, etc.- you get the point? African Americans are disproportionately represented in the prison population, and this is not because we commit more crime it is a fact that we are easier to arrest and detain, and go to jail for things that whites often receive probation for. This lockdown addiction is based in part on the fear that this society has of the "big black boogey man" which I think is actually more reflective of the hidden guilt that some folks have about slavery and oppression. I think there is an expectation and fear that African Americans, males in particular should be angry - who wouldn't be after a few hundred years of slavery and repression, hunh? When I look at the criminal justice system I think that we are suffering because of that fear and expection of violence that many people believe is a natural response to oppression. But it is not as simple as fear alone, that would absolve too many of us who on a daily basis buy into the inherent bias and racism that exists within the various institutions that comprise the criminal justice system. The two boom periods in the building of prisons coincide with the periods in which African Americans demaded full rights and freedom - Reconstruction - in which we saw the creation of Parchman Farm and Angola, two former plantations that became prisons, and the 1970's - right on the heels of the Black Liberation Movement. Each period also saw shifts in the economy - the first from an agrarian society to industrialization and later from industrialization to a more service oriented economy. Prisons have always been profitable and convenient ways to detain people who are no longer useful in this society. I think that the courts should be more mindful of alternartives to incarceration, and more forgiving toward those who have served significant time for crimes. A lesson in forgiveness can be found quite easily in the African American communities response to enslavement, Jim Crow, etc.