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Caging America: The U.S. Imprisonment Binge

By Patricia Horn

[The following is an edited version of an article reprinted from the September, 1991, issue of Dollars & Sense magazine. It was edited by Ed Mead.]

"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons," Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote. Look into California's San Quentin prison, Sing Sing in New York, or Angola Prison in Louisiana. All are bursting with record numbers of poor, jobless, uneducated, unskilled people - especially people of color.

Since the late 1970s the United States has locked up its citizens at an ever quickening pace, a course the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) labels the "U.S. imprisonment binge." The number of people incarcerated in the United States shot up over 250 percent between 1970 and 1990. In 1990, the U.S. kept over 750,000 men and women locked up (not counting those in county and city jails), and the numbers grow daily. We are now the world's top jailer, surpassing the Soviet Union and South Africa.

Incarcerating more people doesn't stop crime. Even the fairest courts and the most just of prison systems only respond to crime, not prevent it. Most crime is rooted in social and economic discontent. Imprisonment is the "solution" of the conservatives. Not only is widespread reliance on incarceration a demonstrated failure, it is blocking many more humane, feasible, and cost effective options. Given the billions of dollars spent building and operating prisons, the human rights abuses such institutions inevitably foster, and the lack of real benefits to society, it is time to give alternatives a chance.

In the mid-1700s, European reformers, the most influential of whom was Cesare Beccaria in Italy, surmised that the certainty of punishment, not its severity, would deter crime. That principle became the driving force behind America penology and the idea of imprisonment. That philosophy reached its climax in 1989, when the U.S. Supreme Court approved federal sentencing guidelines that formally allow corrections departments to abandon even the pretense of rehabilitation.

The threat of imprisonment does not of course act as a deterrent, since most crimes are rooted in economics, drugs, or rage. "There is no relationship between the incarceration rate and violent crime," says Daniel O'Brien, assistant to Minnesota's commissioner of corrections. "We' re in the business of tricking people into thinking that spending hundreds of millions for new prisons will make them safer."

Nor does the prison experience deter offenders from returning to the cellblock. The California Department of Corrections estimates that 63 percent of released inmates return within two years. Common sense and careful research both show that prisons turn out people more prone to commit a crime than when they went in: Incarceration makes people "more alienated, more prone to violence, and less capable of re-entering productive society," argues the NCCD.

As Punishment, prisons are tremendously expensive. For most of the 1980s, corrections was the fastest growing item in state budgets.. State prison construction budgets are up 73 percent since fiscal year 1987. The slow economy, shrinking tax revenues, and the federal aid cuts have all failed to dampen corrections budgets significantly. In FY 1991, states' corrections spending grew 12 percent over the previous year.

Even as their prison spending soars, many states are cutting social programs and higher education. California boosted its corrections budget approximately 11 percent in 1991- while cutting Aid to Families with Dependent Children by 9 percent and forcing the state university system to raise fees 20 percent.

In the 12 states that account for almost half the nation's prisoners, inmate populations will jump 68 percent by 1994. Cells built to hold one person now hold two, gyms and classrooms have become dormitories, and lockdowns to quell the inevitable disorders mean that prisoners commonly remain in their cells for up to 23 hours each day.

Lawsuits by or on behalf of prisoners challenging these often volatile and unlivable situations mean that 41 states face court orders or a consent decree to limit overcrowding thereby forcing states to build more prisons or find an alternative. In the words of the 1989 mission statement of the Texas Department of corrections, that state would need to build "one prison every eight months to infinity" to keep up with incarceration rates.

Whom do we spend billions to lock away? Disproportionately, they are poorly educated, unskilled, jobless men of color in their 20s. Nearly one in four black males between 20 and 29 is in prison or jail, on probation, or on parole -a higher rate of incarceration than that of black South Africans. More American black men go to prison that to college.

"Alternative sentencing offers a lot more promise than the prison system ever can," contends Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a national clearinghouse on such programs. "With alternative sentencing we have some hope of keeping family and community ties intact, in not improving them. We can provide the support people need. And we can repay the victim and community through restitution or community service work"

It is all about responding to crime in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. While prisons can't stop crime, alternative sentences won't deter it, and crime prevention will only come with a dramatic change in society's priorities. Still, alternative sentencing treats both victims and offenders more humanely, and it makes more resources available for building better communities.

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