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Thursday, May 13, 2010

On My Mind Today: Again and Again, “Follow the Money”

Every American has an opinion about prisons. Everyone’s information is partial, and perspectives are often skewed by personal experience or special interest. That’s my topic for today, and I won’t try to pretty it up with pictures.

As we all know, statistics can be confusing, if not downright misleading, so let’s get this straight right away: The United States prison population is the largest in the world, by actual head count. We also have the largest percentage of our population in prison of any country world-wide. The U.S. prison population numbers are ahead of second-ranking China, a country with four times our population, and we don’t come out looking any better when the stats are given in percentages: Twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population is incarcerated in the United States, a country with four percent of the world’s population.

Why? Don’t you wonder? Are Americans more inclined to crime than people of other nationalities? Is our culture the most depraved? Our government the most politically repressive? What could account for the United States coming in first in such a sad race?

Beginning from a different starting point, one comes up with different questions and different answers, all of which came rushing back in on me recently in the course of a conversation that began with someone I know casually voicing the common complaint, “Prison is like a resort! They’ve got it better in there than people outside! I don’t call that punishment!” Seeing my shocked expression (has this person not read statistics about violence in prison, including forcible rape?), the speaker went on to say, “I know—losing your freedom is supposed to be the punishment. But how is it punishment if they have everything else?”

I asked, “Would you trade places?”

“That’s not the point. If you do the crime, you do the time.”

No one was arguing that. The question up for debate was whether or not prison is a punishment or an undeserved reward, a cushy life provided for free to criminals.

Others were drawn into the discussion. One recalled days when prisons had working farms and prisoners grew their own food. (They probably cooked their own meals then, too.) Someone else asked why that system stopped, and another person—perhaps my original conversation partner--ventured a guess that “prisoners didn’t want to work any more.” Wait a minute! How about this: large-scale food producers, processors, transporters, distributors and vendors didn’t like the fact that that captive market was closed to them. With prisoners growing their own food, the state wasn’t handing out contracts to private companies to provide it.

If you look at the link above, you’ll find a hefty paragraph centered on the idea that “prisons are big business.” As we all know, business means jobs. (Somewhere. But where? We’ll get to that.) Michigan is hardly alone with its floundering business economy and high unemployment figures, so it’s no wonder communities compete for the chance to have new jails and prisons built in their areas. They’ll even be happy to rent out cells to other counties, housing law-breakers from other parts of the state for profit. It means new local jobs inside and outside the prison.

My adversary in discussion the other day was upset about a state-of-the-art basketball court prisoners enjoyed. I imagine a lot of people would see that basketball court and sneer in contempt and resentment, thinking how spoiled prisoners are and how much they have that they don’t deserve, but would anyone sneer in contempt and resentment at the company that won the contract to build the basketball court or at the company workers who built it and took home a paycheck to pay the rent and put food on the table for their families?

The numbers, though, the numbers. Why are the numbers so high? One way to examine this question is, again, by looking at statistics. How many prisoners are doing time for nonviolent crimes? How many for illegal drug use (while kingpin distributors go free and rake in profits)? How many for nonpayment of child support (and does incarceration help support their children)? Now many for something as nonviolent as not appearing in court to pay fines and costs they can’t afford?

An unscientific way is to look at anecdotal evidence. You know someone in jail or prison. (If you think you don’t, then someone’s keeping something from you.) What are some of these anecdotes? Here’s just one:

A young man receives a speeding ticket and is assigned a court date. Lacking money to pay fine and costs--and not knowing any better--he just doesn’t show up. A warrant is issued for his arrest. He is apprehended, arrested, tried and sent to jail in another county.

I choose this anecdote because it is so simple and much more common than many people imagine. This young man was white, which makes his case less usual. “There are more black 17 year olds in prison than in college.” I’m not saying all these young men, black and white, are incarcerated for failure to appear in court on speeding tickets or for falling behind in their child support payments. I am saying that there is enormous pressure to provide an incarcerated population that provides jobs for the free, “outside” population, and putting people behind bars for an increasing range of violations increases the incarcerated population, providing an increase in community jobs. Communities vie for jails and prisons in the same way they vie for waste disposal sites, dollar signs so blindingly bright on the benefit side of the analysis that costs to the community recede into the dark background, invisible.

Or so it appears on the surface, but the reality is much more complicated. Although the story aired on “Sixty Minutes” years ago (when we still had television) and has been the subject of many other features since, in print and in other media, I am constantly surprised by how many people have no idea that private companies have workshops set up in prisons and hire prison labor rather than employing from the free community. You were worried about losing jobs overseas? The minimum wage in Haiti is 27 cents an hour, while prisoners can be paid much less or even nothing at all, depending on which state of the union is holding them behind bars.

When economic times are tough, when the financial present is anxiety-ridden and the future uncertain, people need to point the finger of blame, and no one wants to blame winners, because success is what everyone wants, and winners are to be admired. They are the proof, after all, that our system rewards work and entrepreneurial ingenuity. We don’t want to blame those on top--we want to be up there with them! But someone must be responsible for rising crime and unemployment, so how satisfying for us to locate failure and wrong-doing at the bottom of the heap, among society’s losers. And no one is lower on the loser heap than a prisoner.

Forget how many jobs the losers are generating, just by being in prison. Don’t think about work they do, for slave wages or for free, for profitable companies that would sooner employ slaves than free men and women. Finally, don’t suspect for a moment that generation of jobs and profits may be the reason so many Americans are in prison.

Is it true that life “inside” is better than life “outside”? If that is true, as it certainly is for a segment of our population, isn’t that itself a sad commentary on American life?

It will be argued that I am trivializing crime, ignoring criminal violence. I don’t forget those prisoners, but I think it should trouble (too mild a word) every American that our prisons themselves have become trade schools for violence, “monster factories,” to use one writer’s term. How many “career criminals” are created inside? Is this an appropriate way to punish offenders or an effective way to protect society?

Thank you to anyone who has read this post in its entirety.


Mr G said...

This is a great essay Pamela. The "jail is too easy", “JITS”, crowd is taking the easy way out. They have no answers. The JITS people are being true to their up-bringing – every man for himself. No Social Security. No Universal Healthcare. No Minimum Wage. No Empathy! Period! I remember thinking, after 20+ years as a union steward, that we are are not really a union, but a collection of selfish individuals. That's how too many of us are raised. Selfish individuals have no empathy. Cut my taxes is the cry. Who cares about the impact on society and its ability to educate the population. I've got a few more bucks in my pocket. But education is an important part of the way out of this self-defeating morass! The answers are not easy. There is much more to say.

P. J. Grath said...

There's always more to say, Steve, but you said a mouthful. Thanks for commenting, too, because it lets me know that at least one person read my post.

I do have to remind myself that all of us, on one issue or another, fall prey to oversimplification. I have not read and reflected deeply on every social issue and doubtless hold some opinions that would not stand up under close scrutiny. As a philosopher and a bookseller, however, I feel an obligation to push myself and others to investigate further the issues that have such huge impact for society and for individual human beings. Prison sentencing is certainly one of those issues.

Karen said...

Thank you Pamela for an insightful post on an important topic. And I couldn't agree more w/Mr. G re the selfishness of many, perhaps most Americans. It is sad. Tax cuts may give us a couple hundred to go out to dinner a few times or buy a tv, but social programs suffer. Despite the difficulty that the cost of health care causes the poor these days, did you know that very needy people in Michigan--and qualified--cannot get on Medicaid because they are not accepting new people into the program at present? No matter what. But many people who have not experienced an issue w/health care turn a blind eye--what problem?

P. J. Grath said...

Steve and Karen, I have two more people reading DREAMS FROM THE MONSTER FACTORY, by Sunny Schwartz, which I reviewed last year, and as it's now out in paper I'm going to recommend it to the library group for their list of books to read this year. I do think that argument changes few, if any, minds. It's when people feel or at least see first-hand the dreadful effects of policies they thought were good that they begin to think beyond political posturing.