Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The costs of incarceration: how putting more people in prisons hurts the rest of us

This week’s interview was, for me, among the most thought-provoking conversations I’ve had recently. Heather Thompson is a historian who’s writing a book about the Attica prison uprising in 1971, but her research suggests some new ways of thinking about what’s happening with prisons in America today. She argues that what happened at Attica contributed to changes in U.S. laws that have increased the prison population by more than 2 million. Thompson suggests that this increase is having a detrimental affect on the American economy and our society.

I’ve heard lots of discussion about prisons that focus on the poor conditions in which prisoners live. But Thompson takes a different approach; her focus is on how the growing prison system hurts the rest of us. Setting aside entirely the cost of keeping so many people in prison, large-scale incarceration has other social and economic costs. It breaks up families and communities, creates economic incentives for business and communities to maintain or even increase crime rates, and reduces the number and quality of jobs available to those who are not in prison.

The first point seems somewhat obvious: when a parent or spouse is in prison, the family suffers, and when people who might otherwise contribute to community life are in prison, the community suffers. No doubt, some of those who are in prison were not model parents or citizens, but in prison, whatever ties prisoners, their families, and their communities may have had get broken. This happens in part because the private prison system often sends criminals to prisons far from their families, making it impossible for them to maintain relationships that might help them return more successfully to the community when their sentences end. Add to that the loss of any income they might have contributed to the family, taxes they might have paid locally, and prison conditions that encourage mental illness and asocial behavior, and we have a system that seems to be designed not to rehabilitate prisoners but rather to ensure that they will return to prison soon after they are released.

And that’s just one way the current prison system ensures that crime will not be decreased. As the private prison system grows, with publicly-owned companies that have stockholders demanding ever-increasing profits, the prison industry has an incentive to incarcerate more and more people. They need crime to go up in order to prosper as a business. So do local governments, which often view prisons as a source of economic growth. It’s strange enough, I think, to view prisons as economic opportunities, but it’s even worse to realize that this means that it’s in our interests to have more crime, not less. Now that’s twisted.

Finally, Thompson points out that prisoners are increasingly working for private firms, earning much less than minimum wage (try 21 cents an hour), doing jobs that might otherwise go to people who have not committed crimes. Prisoners make clothing, auto parts, and other goods. They stock shelves at major retailers and take telephone orders in call centers. Of course, free people can’t compete for these jobs, not only because the contracting process excludes them, but also because they can’t work for $2 an hour. Indeed, the Federal Prison Industry program admits that non-prison employment has declined in some of the sectors that use prison labor. So again, business has an incentive to see crime rates maintained or increased, and giving jobs to prisoners takes jobs away from others. Companies make larger profits, but ordinary people miss the opportunity to work for a decent wage.

The whole thing seems wildly contradictory to me. We changed the laws to put more people in prison in order to make America safer. But in the process, we’ve created a system in which business benefits from increased crime, that almost ensures that once someone has gone to prison they will return, and that undermines economic opportunities for people who are not in prison. All of this seems like way too good an example of the law of unintended consequences. Is this really the best way to fight crime and improve our society?

1 comment:

Father Junto said...

interesting interview.

but I disagree with Ms. Thompson on a number of points including the following:

1 - I tend to not think having local prisons collecting individuals from outside of the area drives local crime.

It's similar to a landfill. If there is a landfill in Trumbull County, does it encourage people in New York to waste more? Perhaps if the existence of the landfill reduces the cost of throwing away trash, that could be the case.

But housing criminals in Trumbull County (from a housing and not prison labor standpoint) would probably not cause people in Washington to kill more.

2 - Ms. Thompson's view of "they should have concentrated on offering incentives to high-tech companies instead of prisons" shows her lacks knowledge of the economic development process.

While it is true that tech companies also look for business incentives, they also look for skilled labor, access to markets, access to capital, etc.

Her argument is simply too simplistic in this case. She should choose another field, like landfills, to compare prisons to.

good to her her thoughts. thanks for the broadcast.