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Prisons - An Expensive Stone Wall

This monolithic "solution" is becoming more and more costly to society. Yet, in spite of its expense and its dubious role in crime control and prevention, the prison response is being used with increasing frequency. In the last decade, the prison population doubled nationwide. The number of women in prison tripled, and the number of people in federal prisons almost tripled.

The cost of new prisons is staggering. In the next five years, the cost of building new federal prisons is expected to exceed $70 billion. In addition, the amounts that must be spent to maintain prisoners in confinement are also substantial. A 30-year prison sentence is equivalent to a $1 million investment in an individual. The total cost of incarceration, at the federal, state and local levels amounted to $20 billion in 1988 alone.

A physician once testified before a California legislative committee when it was considering the construction of more prisons. He said that, as a doctor, he would be driven from the profession if he provided a single remedy for every ailment, regardless of its complexity or symptoms. He urged the committee to consider that there should be more than one response to crime.

Alternative punishments are usually much less expensive than prison sentences, but even so, they are very vulnerable to federal and state budget cuts. For example, in the early '80s, when the Bureau of Prisons underwent budget cuts, it closed all of its halfway houses and asked for more prisons.

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