Economic Crisis Prompts Prison Closures Nationwide, but Savings (and Reforms) are Elusive
by David M. Reutter
With the current economic crisis adversely affecting state tax revenues, lawmakers across the nation are seeking ways to cut costs and slash spending. Many states have proposed reducing their prison budgets by closing correctional facilities; however, by shuffling prisoners to other locations rather than releasing them, this amounts to little more than a shell game.
Further, politicians, guards’ unions and local businesses often protest the potential loss of jobs from prison closures, which they say will hurt the local economy. The result is that when prisons close, most of the affected employees are moved to other facilities and few are actually laid off.
The main benefit of proposed prison closures appears to be the stoking of public fear over the mere suggestion of releasing prisoners and losing prison jobs – which translates to a greater willingness to cut costs in other areas. Apparently our society is so vested in prisons as sources of employment and revenue that closing them is extremely unpopular and releasing prisoners early practically impossible.
When the Unites States was facing an economic crunch in the 1980s, rural economies that relied on manufacturing and farming began to crumble. Combined with the “war on drugs” this provided the fuel that spawned the prison industrial complex, which has resulted in more than 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S. – the largest per capita incarceration rate in the world. And that’s not including another 5 million people on probation or parole, according to a March 2009 report by the Pew Center on the States.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s economic research service found that an average of four prisons per year were built in rural America in the 1960s and 70s. That number quadrupled in the 1980s, and reached an average of 24 prisons a year in the 1990s.
The prison building boom provided not only employment in local communities but also a cycle of dependency. With prisons offering decent-paying jobs with benefits, the surrounding region was able to support businesses subsidized by spending from corrections employees. And since prisons supplied both jobs and revenue, community leaders put little effort into attracting other industries.
New York’s Franklin County is one example of a rural area that flourished due to prison expansion. Located in Adirondack Park, any local development must abide by strict rules designed to complement the bucolic scenery, which promotes tourism. The terrain is carved by mountains, streams and lakes that provide limited farmland.
“Everyone around here either works in the prisons, or has a relative who works in the prisons, or knows someone who knows someone who works in the prisons,” said Mary Keith, supervisor of the town of Franklin. “My kids were able to build their homes and raise their families here because of the prisons. If it weren’t for the prisons, they would have had to leave the area.”
The economic reliance on prisons by Franklin County and its residents is near total. The county’s 1,678 sparsely populated miles contain five state prisons and one federal facility; not only do the prisons provide the only real gainful employment in the region, they provide a means of legislative influence. Since census population counts include the prisoners (who, of course, have no voting rights), legislative district lines are artificially increased, which gives the county more political clout.
Seeking to trim spending to address a multi-billion dollar budget gap, New York officials have recently proposed closing four of Franklin County’s prisons. Faced with a crushing loss of jobs and economic resources that would result from the prison closures, local residents and union officials have rallied against this threat to their livelihood.
Nationwide Budget Cuts
The story in Franklin County is typical of rural communities that have lobbied for prisons as a form of economic development. Absent the influx of cash that comes from prison jobs, the local economy is threatened with collapse when the facilities close.
A December 2008 survey by the American Correctional Association (ACA) asked adult and juvenile prison officials to respond to budgetary questions. Forty-one state adult systems, the federal Bureau of Prisons and New York City responded. Of those, thirty-one reported cuts to their current fiscal year budgets, while four said they expected reductions in the near future. The responding prison systems reported an aggregate $691.8 million in spending cuts. New York was the hardest hit, with a projected four percent decrease in its Dept. of Corrections budget amounting to $100 million.
While state officials are moving to close some prisons, they are also trying to appease the public by crowding prisoners into other, existing facilities rather than releasing them, and by offering guards jobs at other prisons instead of firing them. In many cases, job “losses” result from eliminating vacant positions. Regardless, skirmishes over potential prison closures have resulted in lawsuits and vocal protests.
Some states are considering early prisoner releases or related ways to cut costs. In 2008, for example, Arizona, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Vermont reduced the sentences of thousands of parole and probation violators who had been returned to custody. But closing prisons as a solution to the economic crisis has become increasingly popular. “Many states are trying to cut corrections budgets, and the only way you can cut them is to close facilities,” said criminologist James Austin.
The United States is not the only country contemplating prison closures. England plans to shut down 15 women’s jails; the motivation for that move, however, is based more on compassion and rehabilitative efforts than economics. U.K. officials want to create custodial units closer to where women prisoners will live after their release, to help them maintain family relationships and assist in their reintegration into society.
As noted above, New York has proposed the largest cuts to its prison budget. To save $26 million, the state has suggested closing Camp Gabriels, Camp McGregor, Camp Pharsalia and the Hudson Correctional Facility. State officials hope to save an additional $12 million by discontinuing farm programs at twelve prisons.
Guards from Camp Gabriels protested by marching with signs in front of the town hall while state and local officials met inside with 300 concerned citizens. In addition to losing jobs in the community, residents were worried about the loss of free prisoner labor, which is used to clear snow from fire hydrants, maintain parks and hiking trails, mow the lawns at cemeteries and unload trucks at food pantries.
Because the prisoners will be moved to other facilities, and employees offered jobs at other prisons, some question how budget savings will occur. Further, critics argue that closing the prison farm programs is a questionable way to cut costs.
New York’s prison farms produce more than 2 million quarts of milk and 161,000 pounds of beef for in-house consumption. Rather than having prisoners produce that food, it will now be purchased from vendors once the farms close in the spring of 2009. Typically, these items can be purchased cheaper on the open market.
Local farmers, businesses and community groups call the move short-sighted; they contend that closing the prison farms will not only have an adverse economic impact but also a negative effect on rehabilitative efforts. “I estimate the local economic impact is between $1 million and $1.5 million,” remarked Roger Brucher, whose Fasterdale Equipment company provides tractors and other machines to the prison farms. Local purchases of feed, fertilizer and other supplies, and veterinary services, will be lost.
Erik Kriss, a spokesman for the New York Corrections Department, said closing the farms was the correct move because they “are not part of our core mission, our core operation.”
He noted that most prisoners return to urban areas after their release, not rural communities, thus they do not learn viable job skills in the farm programs.
Others contend the farms instill a work ethic and sense of responsibility. “When somebody knows they have to go to work, report to a boss, get along with people, these are traits that stay with you for the rest of your life,” stated Phil Coombe, Jr., a former New York prison commissioner.
Officials in Camden, New Jersey hope to get back to their core mission with the 2009 closing of the Riverfront State Prison (RSP). When the state built the facility in 1985, city officials and residents protested. RSP, a medium-security 1,000-bed prison, sits just north of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge on 17 acres of prime real estate.
Camden County freeholders plan to introduce a resolution asking the state to demolish and remove “every inch of that prison ... to start the revitalization in North Camden.” It’s said that the guard towers at RSP offer a striking view of the Philadelphia skyline.
After RSP was built in a declining industrialized area, the surrounding region attracted an amphitheater, minor league baseball stadium, aquarium and other amenities. City officials hope that whatever replaces the prison will bring in more development. “I would hope it would be something that would bring some ratables [property that provides tax income],” said Mayor Gwendolyn Faison. “Boy, do we need the jobs.”
But prison guards and their union representatives want RSP to remain, and have engaged in a campaign to frighten local citizens to prevent the closure. During the week of Christmas 2008 they launched a $40,000 ad campaign that warned people to “Lock your doors!,” implying that prisoners would run rampant if RSP closed. The ads were placed in flyers and appeared on transit buses and the Riverline train.
The campaign was nothing but rhetoric, as New Jersey’s prison population has declined in recent years, with sufficient space remaining in other facilities. The prisoners and employees at RSP would simply be transferred elsewhere. The state plans to auction off the prison property, which has an assessed value of almost $41 million.
“Certainly because of the dire financial times we’re in, we’re looking at the efficiencies, looking at everything,” said New Jersey Corrections Dept. spokeswoman Deirdre Fedkenheuer. “If you can close a prison, you have to do it.”
The residents of Charleston, Maine had a different view of the prison in their community.
Rather than focusing on lost jobs, they were concerned about losing the free or ultra-cheap labor provided by prisoners at the Charleston Correctional Facility. “Oh my goodness, gracious, they are such an asset – they are our public works department,” said Selectwoman Terri-Lynn Hall.
Charleston’s prisoners performed 39,337 hours of community work last year, the equivalent of 19 full-time employees. Prisoners maintain the five local cemeteries, set up election booths, hang Veteran’s Day flags, and help break up beaver dams in local streams. The also built a log cabin “snack shack” at a community park.
To keep their prison labor pool, Charleston officials did some lobbying and found a way to save the state $100,000. The prison is heated by wood harvested by prisoners on state property. Only the first and second shifts at the facility are heated with wood, while the third shift uses heating oil. The savings came from employees volunteering their time to offset the cost of keeping the third shift heated. Citing that move, and the benefits of Charleston’s transitional release program, the State Appropriations Committee delayed a closure decision until June 30, 2009.
Maine is further considering sending prisoners out-of-state, laying off 40 prison employees, and closing housing units at the Bolduc Correctional Center and Downeast Correctional Facility to reduce costs. The out-of-state transfers would save money because private prison companies typically charge less to house prisoners with their non-union work force.
In New Hampshire, the governor’s office has proposed cutting 90 prison staff positions, closing the 315-bed Lakes Regions Facility, expanding home confinement with electronic monitoring for some prisoners, and speeding the deportation of incarcerated illegal immigrants. In Massachusetts, prison officials have suggested double-bunking at maximum-security facilities as a way to save money.
Union officials representing Illinois prison guards used a more aggressive tactic to prevent the closure of the Pontiac Correctional Center (PCC): They filed lawsuits which alleged that moving prisoners from PCC to medium- and minimum-security facilities would pose a safety threat. Many of PCC’s prisoners are in segregation due to assaults on staff or because they are on death row.
Three lawsuits were filed against the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) by Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). In November 2008, a state court judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing prisoners from being transferred under the state’s closure plan.
IDOC spokesman Derek Schnapp dismissed claims that prison guards would be in jeopardy because of the transfers. “Any inmate that is transferred has to fit the criteria of the [receiving] facility,” said Schnapp. “The review process of an inmate’s security level has not changed. IDOC has always reviewed and transferred inmates on a daily basis and will continue to do so.”
The state’s plan to close PCC would save $4 million a year over the next two years. IDOC intended to move half of the prisoners to a facility in Thomson, which has been largely vacant since it was built in 2001. The decision to transfer prisoners from PCC to Thomson, however, is immersed in politics.
Former Governor Rob Blagojevich, who was impeached in January 2009 by a unanimous vote of the Illinois legislature, decided to close PCC rather than the Stateville prison in Joliet after a Democratic state senator from Joliet declined to support a recall measure that targeted the governor. Republican lawmakers from Pontiac had voted for the measure.
Federal investigators who charged Blagojevich with influence peddling are now looking into the former governor’s decision to close PCC [see related article, this issue of PLN].
Schnapp supported transferring prisoners from PCC to Thomson, noting it is “the most modern, state-of-the-art facility that we have and we’re not using.” While the IDOC spent $140 million to build Thomson, it has sat empty for the past eight years, costing $5.2 million to maintain.
Prison guards, AFSCME officials and community leaders in Pontiac argued the state recently spent $17.33 million to upgrade PCC. But an economic study on the impact of the facility’s closure indicated the real concern was the revenue that the prison generates for the Pontiac area. The study found the closure would mean the loss of $54 million in Pontiac and a 15 county-wide region in central Illinois.
The study, conducted by the Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, said the largest impact would be in the areas of hospital care, nursing homes, restaurants, bars and the service industry, due to the loss of an estimated $18.2 million in disposable income should PCC’s 500-plus employees move elsewhere.
“Right off the bat, your service industry will be hit hardest,” said Mike Stoecklin, chairman of the Greater Livingston County Economic Development Council. “Your restaurants, gas stations, and other service providers would all take a pretty good hit as that revenue source would be taken out of the equation.”
Another study, by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, estimated that closing PCC would result in economic losses of $16 to $26 million. While that study had initially found the closure would result in a $4 million per year gain, which was cited by state officials as justification for shutting down the prison, the study’s author later recanted and said he had used inaccurate data.
The controversy over PCC’s closure was resolved on March 12, 2009, when the state agreed to keep the facility open. The decision was lauded by union officials. “The state prison system is dangerously overcrowded, and closing any prison would make a bad situation much worse,” said ASCME Council 31 Director Henry Bayer.
Meanwhile, officials in Michigan are having little difficulty closing prisons. The state obtained permission from a federal court overseeing the Hadix litigation to close the Southern Michigan Correctional Facility in 2007. [See: PLN, Dec. 2007, p.26]. The closure was expected to save about $36 million, but it spread the chronically ill prisoners held at the facility all over the state, which will lead to higher medical costs.
The recent economic downturn, which has resulted in the need to curb spending, combined with Michigan’s prison population dipping below 49,000 for the first time in seven years, has allowed Governor Jennifer Granholm to close additional prisons. Early releases of up to 4,000 prisoners are also being considered.
The 1,200-bed Deerfield Correctional Facility and the 710-bed Camp Branch will shut down by April 2009, while the Robert Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth, Michigan, a women’s prison, is scheduled to close by May.
The closure of the Robert Scott facility is expected to save $12 million in 2009 and $36 million per year afterwards in operating costs. Local community residents, who live in $1 million homes, and local officials are ecstatic about the closure, as the 35-acre prison site should be attractive to developers.
“There’s got to be developers just out there salivating,” said Chip Snider, Northville Township’s manager. “This piece of property is right in the cortex of this community. This is a prime piece of land. It’ll be exciting to see what comes out of this.”
Apparently affluent communities don’t mind when prisons shut down, as they aren’t as economically dependent on prison jobs and revenue, unlike their impoverished rural counterparts.
Michigan officials are looking at other ways to curb prison costs, too. “I want to make significant cuts in corrections,” stated Rep. George Cushingberry, chair of the House Appropriations Committee. Cushingberry is pushing for the release of prisoners who pose little risk, more spending on programs to help parolees re-enter communities, and hiring more parole officers.
Russ Marlan, spokesman for the Michigan Dept. of Corrections, said fewer people are being sent to prison, parole rates are up and a parole program aimed at preventing recidivism is working. Despite the recent prison closures, Michigan still spends $2 billion a year on its corrections system, which is more than it devotes to higher education.
In Ohio, Gov. Ted Strickland increased funding for prisons by $100 million. To his credit, he increased the funding for state education by a historic level of $321 million in 2010 and $606 million for 2011. Strickland said he intends to close a prison in 2011 if there is no decrease in the number of state prisoners.
Oklahoma corrections director Laura Pitman wants to reduce the state’s female prisoner population and close the Eddie Warrior women’s facility in Taft, though the prison would not be abandoned. Rather, it would likely be used to house male prisoners, Pittman stated.
And in Kansas, with $8.3 million in proposed prison budget cuts, the corrections department is closing several prison units as well as a sex offender treatment program and two residential supervision programs for parolees. The Lansing Correctional Facility’s South Unit closed on February 6, 2009, while the El Dorado Correctional Facility East Unit suspended operations three weeks later. Employees were offered positions at other prisons.
“We anticipate there will be additional programs and services that will be reduced or eliminated, and obviously a great deal of it depends on how long it takes the economy to turn around and for the state to not be in the fiscal situation it is in right now,” stated Bill Miskell, public information officer for the Kansas Dept. of Corrections.
Although the Winfield Correctional Facility was also slated for closure, the state expects to receive sufficient funds in federal stimulus money to keep the prison open. A task force of local community members, including city managers, school officials and a business that uses prison labor, had lobbied against closing the Winfield facility.
Rural correctional camps in Toronto, Osawatomie and Stockton, however, were ordered to shut down by April 1; about 160 prisoners at the camps will be moved to other facilities. The closures upset local residents who relied on prison work crews.
“For years, inmates have been our main source of labor. Probably 98 percent of the improvements we’ve had in the last 20 years have been from inmate work,” said Kim Jones, a state park manager.
“It’s a very difficult situation because it looks like the state is adding back to the budget with one hand and taking it away with another,” added Kelly Johnston, chair of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Commission.
California was experiencing budgetary strains long before the current economic crisis. Regardless, the state’s prison population has continued to expand. The blame for the increase is often placed on illegal immigrants, but it is more the result of sentencing laws – such as the state’s onerous three-strikes statute – and parole policies that make obtaining parole virtually impossible for many prisoners.
Despite an enormous budget shortfall, California planned to cut its $11 billion prison budget by a mere 0.33%, or $36 million. When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed reducing the number of state prisoners by 22,000 (and firing 4,000 guards), union officials and Republican lawmakers raised such strenuous objections that he was forced to back down.
Regardless, on February 9, 2009, a three-judge federal court issued a preliminary ruling that will require the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation to release more than 40,000 prisoners over the next few years due to overcrowded conditions in the state’s prison system that deprive prisoners of constitutional medical and mental health care. [See: PLN, March 2009, p.40.]
Unlike California, officials in Washington State have no qualms about taking action to cut prison costs. “It was pretty clear that based upon the fiscal constraints we’re going to be facing, that we need to close a facility,” observed Dick Morgan, director of the Washington Department of Corrections’ (WDOC) prison division.
To save about $14 million over two years, WDOC plans to close the women’s Pine Lodge Correctional Center and convert the men’s Larch Corrections Center into a women’s prison. The male prisoners would be transferred to other facilities.
WDOC has also proposed closing two units at Walla Walla, firing 40 staffers at headquarters, saving $3 million by cutting nurses and medications, freezing all pay raises, and reducing or eliminating firearms training at some prisons.
The state has further suggested releasing 12,000 prisoners on probation, which would allow the WDOC to cut 400 staff positions (though some of those employees presumably would be rehired as probation officers). Under this proposal, the sickest prisoners would be released and non-citizens convicted of drug and property crimes would be deported. These moves will hopefully save $125 million.
The Utah Department of Corrections had $11 million whacked from its budget, which eliminated the planned opening of a 300-bed Parole Violator Center in Salt Lake City. The Center was intended to meet violators’ specific needs to help them transition back into society in 45 to 60 days.
Losing the $5.73 million needed to open the Center will force those violators, who are usually returned to prison for minor technical violations, to be housed in secure facilities. As a result, parole violators are expected to serve an average of nine to ten months, which will lead to increased costs.
Additionally, Utah’s budget cuts are expected to eliminate 40 administrative positions that prison officials were trying to fill. The prison system anticipates it will have to scale back sex offender, substance abuse and mental health programs, and is cutting $3 million from reimbursements to county jails that house state prisoners.
To help meet a $1 billion budget shortfall, Colorado proposed closing three prisons – the Rifle Correctional Center, the Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility and a medical clinic at the Colorado Mental Health Institute.
No prisoners will be released due to these closures, and few staff will lose their jobs. “When they talked to me about the Department of Corrections, they said they can absorb the staff as they follow the prisoners [to other prisons], and that makes sense,” said state senator Abel Tapia.
As in New York and Illinois, however, the closure of the Colorado prisons met with strong resistance, and on Feb. 21, 2009, Governor Bill Ritter announced he was dropping plans to shut down the minimum-security, 192-bed Rifle Correctional Center. “After listening to the concerns of people in Rifle and working closely with the department and the Joint Budget Committee, we believe we can close the budget shortfall without closing this facility,” Ritter said.
While Nevada lawmakers have ordered $41.5 million in cuts to the state’s prison system, they are critical of the Dept. of Corrections’ plan to close several facilities. The Nevada State Prison (NSP) is one of the oldest continuously-operated prisons in the U.S.
Established in 1862, it is now so deteriorated and obsolete that it costs $10 per prisoner per day more to operate than other facilities. Thus, it would seem natural to shut NSP due to its inefficiency.
By closing NSP and the 500-bed Southern Nevada Correctional Center, and not building a planned 100-bed transitional housing unit at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center, the state would save at least $37 million. Another $1 million per year will be saved by not filling 26 prison staff positions, most of which are presently vacant.
Yet the facility closures, proposed by Nevada Corrections Director Howard Skolnick, were criticized due to the impact they would have on local economies. Closing NSP would involve transferring over 700 prisoners and terminating about 130 prison employees. “There would be a loss of jobs [if it were closed] and the governor wants to avoid that at all costs,” said the governor’s spokesman.
When the Nevada legislature approved $300 million for 2,400 more prison beds in 2007, the facilities were going to be built in southern Nevada. To preserve the local economy that is dependant on prison dollars, the state is now considering building those prisons in northern Nevada if NSP is shut down. As of March 2009, state lawmakers were still debating whether or not NSP will face the budget axe.
The Southern region of the United States not only has the most callous criminal justice policies, it is also the most reliant on the prison economy because it has few other major industries. Many parts of the South are stuck in a Jim Crow era mentality, when blacks and poor whites were sent to prison to perform agricultural work that had been done by slaves. This later progressed to chain gangs, and even today prisoners in the South labor in fields under the watchful eye of guards on horseback.
Thus, the desire to maintain and build more prisons below the Mason-Dixon Line is a strong one, and some southern states have bucked the growing trend to close facilities to save money. Others, however, have made the painful choice to shut prisons due to economic realities that trump their get-tough criminal justice policies.
Florida is one example of a southern state that refuses to back down from prison spending. Despite facing a $3.3 billion budget deficit, in the last year no cuts have been made to Florida’s correctional system. In fact, the state legislature decided to increase prison expenditures.
To build 10,000 more prison beds, Florida lawmakers cut the state’s education budget by $330 million and spent $310 million to expand the prison system. With one of the lowest-ranked school systems in the nation, Florida’s reduced spending on education will create a self-fulfilling need for those new prison beds in coming years.
South Carolina’s legislature authorized the state’s prison system to operate with a deficit of $14.5 million, which increased to $36 million when state agencies were ordered to impose a 7% across-the-board budget cut.
With lawmakers resistant to closing prisons and laying off guards, Corrections Director John Ozmint has suggested a few novel remedies. He recommended that a few thousand dollars could be saved by not performing autopsies on executed prisoners; that dead prisoners’ savings accounts could be tapped to recover the $450 cremation cost when families do not claim their bodies; and that fees for prisoners in work release programs could be increased.
Although South Carolina operates the lowest-cost prison system in the country, lawmakers have suggested the department’s budget deficit could be “because of poor management.” Ozmint countered by saying state prisons and equipment are in wretched condition. In regard to weapons in poor repair, he said, “We’ve got to replace some of those or we literally are not going to have weapons on our perimeter; not going to have weapons in our vehicles [that transport prisoners].”
Kentucky has axed nearly $18 million, or 4%, of its corrections budget, yet the state is not expected to close any facilities due to an increasing prison population. In 2008, the legislature approved early releases for more than 1,800 prisoners in an effort to save $30 million over a two-year period. That move prompted a lawsuit by Kentucky’s own attorney general, who objected to releasing prisoners early.
Virginia is one of several southern states that have recently closed prisons, having shut down the medium-security Southampton Correctional Center in January 2009. The prisoners were transferred to other facilities, as were most prison employees. Only three staff members at Southampton were terminated. “Some employees went into the same or a reduced level” of seniority, stated David Robinson, regional director for the prison system’s Eastern Region, while “some may have taken a demotion.”
Additionally, Virginia lawmakers have introduced legislation that would allow low-risk prisoners to be released up to 90 days before their sentences end, resulting in projected cost savings of $50 million. The bill is presently under consideration.
Georgia has closed two facilities – the Rivers State Prison and Milan State Prison. The prisoners and staff were absorbed into other facilities. While these two aged prisons have been closed, 3,000 new beds are under construction. In the meantime, to crowd all of the state’s prisoners into its existing corrections system, triple-bunk beds have been installed in many Georgia prisons.
In North Carolina, local lawmakers are fighting an attempt by state officials to close the 128-bed Haywood Correctional Center to accommodate budget cuts. The prison was built in the 1930s. Advocates for keeping the facility open cite 44 staff positions and prison labor for community work projects that would be lost. Two other minimum-security facilities are on the chopping block; the closures would save a combined $3.4 million a year.
Tennessee faces a projected $1 billion budget gap by the end of the fiscal year. State officials plan to close Brushy Mountain Prison, which is the state’s oldest facility, in the summer of 2009. The Dept. of Corrections may achieve additional savings by not using 612 beds created as part of a $155 million renovation of the Morgan County Complex, which were intended to house prisoners moved from Brushy Mountain. Prison officials are also promoting less expensive alternatives to incarceration, such as community corrections programs.
The economic downturn is affecting private prison companies, too. Nashville-based Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) announced in February 2009 that it was suspending construction of a new 2,000-bed facility located in Trousdale County, Tennessee, because it had not obtained contracts to fill the prison.
“A lot of states are taking the approach that until they understand what their long-term revenues will be, and what assistance they would be realizing from the federal stimulus package, they’re delaying decisions on contracts for additional space from companies like CCA,” said Tony Grande, the company’s chief development officer.
Juvenile Programs Curtailed
“If you raise a child in prison, you’re going to raise a convict,” observed South Carolina Juvenile Justice Director Bill Byars. Yet sending juvenile offenders to adult prisons has been a popular move that is gaining wider acceptance in this time of severe budget shortfalls. With schools cutting costs, more juveniles are dropping out or failing to graduate, which leads to more delinquency and crime.
Five states that responded to the ACA’s December 2008 survey reported they were making cuts to juvenile justice programs. On average, those cuts amounted to 3.1 percent of their juvenile system budgets. Texas, Virginia and Louisiana reported the largest cuts, with reductions of $24 million, $10.9 million and $8 million, respectively.
Louisiana is closing the Jetson Center for Youth. Actually the closure, which follows on the heels of brutality and sexual abuse by staff and prisoners, is not really a closure at all. The facility is being renamed the Capital Area Center for Youth and the offender population is being reduced from 216 to 99.
That seems to be a way to skirt the legislature’s order to close Jetson and create new programs with smaller populations. “It will be considered our first smaller, regional facility,” said Jerel Giarrusso, an Office of Juvenile Justice spokesman.
California is closing two of its eight juvenile prisons. The Division of Juvenile Justice presently houses around 1,700 youths, down from a high of 10,100 in 1996. This significant drop was largely due to placing more juveniles in county programs rather than state-run facilities. California officials are not saying where the prisoners from the two closed juvenile prisons will be housed, but the only other beds available are in the adult corrections system.
South Carolina is cutting a program that sports a 22% recidivism rate, which is less than half the rate for juveniles in large state facilities. The program, run by Florida-based non-profit Associated Marine Institutes (AMI), provides intense counseling and wilderness camps for at-risk youths.
Lex Wilbanks, 18, spent time in both the counseling program and juvenile justice facilities. He claimed the juvenile facilities were counterproductive. “When you did something wrong or you fight or you disrespect staff, they just throw you into lockdown,” he said. “They just throw you in and make them fight to survive. You’re making them a hardened criminal.”
In contrast, the AMI program responded to misbehavior with counselors who “talk you through problems and how you can actually change,” said Wilbanks. “It gives you hope.”
Florida has cut three AMI programs to save $1.7 million, while Michigan’s Adrian Training School, a facility for teen girls, closed its doors in January. Ohio plans to shut the Marion Juvenile Correctional Facility by June 2009; the prison might then be used to house adult offenders in order to avoid the loss of 300 jobs. Conversely, adult facilities in Georgia are being “revamped” to accommodate juvenile prisoners.
Other Cuts and Innovation ?for Revenue
In addition to facility closures, budget cuts have resulted in the loss of other criminal justice-related programs and services. For example, California has canceled a specialized program that allowed nonviolent prisoners to work and repay a portion of their court-ordered restitution. Residents at the California Restitution Center in Los Angeles will be sent to low-security prisons to serve the remainder of their time.
Massachusetts is discontinuing a jail diversion program that helps the mentally ill. Half of the $120,000 budget used to fund the non-profit agency Advocates, Inc. has been eliminated. The program included two medical clinicians who responded with police to calls that may involve people with mental illness. “It’s almost like a paramedic going to the scene of a medical emergency,” said Framingham Deputy Police Chief Craig Davis. “We wanted to create compassionate justice for the mentally ill.” In 2007 there were 457 joint interventions with 82 people diverted from arrest for nuisance-related crimes.
In Michigan, the Department of Corrections (MDOC) has finally rid itself of its watchdog, Prison Legal Services of Michigan (PLS). In 2003, MDOC pushed PLS out of its office space at the Egeler prison in Jackson. When inside the facility, PLS had direct contact with its incarcerated clients and was able to employ prisoners as paralegals for $1 an hour.
The $150,000 annual budget for PLS, a non-profit, was provided using prisoner benefit funds generated from commissary sales and in-house programs. MDOC successfully eliminated those funds by raising commissary prices, restricting hobby craft programs and imposing co-pays for healthcare. Since the early 1980s, PLS has filed prisoner appeals, investigated prison deaths, assisted prisoners’ families and friends, and advocated with the state legislature. No more; the valuable oversight services provided by PLS ended as of November 1, 2008.
Budget cuts have forced West Virginia to close the National Corrections and Law Enforcement Training and Technology Center. The Center will continue the annual Mock Prison Riot training program, but will discontinue its mock disaster exercise.
A budget proposal in Georgia would limit and realign specialized K-9 units used to track criminals. The units are operated by the Georgia Department of Corrections, but are often utilized by local police to find fleeing suspects, missing children and evidence. Over a two-month period the K-9 units responded to 57 tracking requests, resulting in 56 captures.
In Utah, the state legislature is considering a bill (HB 100) that would require prisoners to foot the bill for higher education and vocational programs; prisoners who participate in such programs would have to repay approximately $1,500 within five years of their release. Whether saddling ex-prisoners with debt is a good idea, and what would happen if they are unable to pay, are matters of debate.
The Georgia legislature is considering a bill that would charge prisoners a co-pay for all prescription medications, so they “can pay a reasonable amount toward their healthcare,” according to state Rep. Barbara Massey Reece.
On the federal level, legislation has been filed to reform sentencing laws (H.R. 1459), end mandatory minimums for drug offenses (H.R. 1466), and reduce prison terms through increased good time (H.R. 1475), which will decrease the number of federal prisoners and cut prison costs. All three bills were introduced in March 2009.
Lastly, at least eight states, including Maryland, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and New Mexico, are considering doing away with the death penalty as a way to curb costs, since capital punishment cases are much more expensive to prosecute. This seems to indicate that the death penalty debate may be less about moral issues, deterrence or eye-for-an-eye justice, and more a matter of simple economics.
“This is the first time in which cost has been the prevalent issue in discussing the death penalty,” said Richard Dieter, who heads the Death Penalty Information Center.
On March 18, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in the state.
Closing Thoughts: ?An Opportunity for Reform
The current financial crisis that has enveloped the U.S. is being called the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. While there is presently no end in sight, it is anticipated a turnaround will occur sometime in 2010 – though some experts say the recession could extend until 2011. Thus, states can expect a continued slowdown in tax revenue and a continued need to reduce spending.
The economic crisis comes on the heels of an enormous expansion in our nation’s prison population and prison infrastructure over the past two decades. It is frightening to think what could happen should more people turn to crime to meet their basic needs in these difficult times. Certainly, the prison industrial complex is capable of expanding to accommodate even more prison beds.
“The economy has changed priorities,” noted North Carolina state senator Joe Sam Queen. “Though it doesn’t necessarily change the demand for prison beds in our state. It may actually exacerbate the demand.”
While some states have closed or threatened to close correctional facilities, with rare exceptions those closures – when they actually occur – do not achieve substantial savings because prisoners and staff are simply shuffled elsewhere in the prison system. Further, efforts to cut prison expenses in the short term may have longer-term negative consequences, such as deferred costs or increased recidivism.
Several states have continued building prisons while curtailing social services. The most puzzling approach is cutting school budgets and education programs, which provide the youth of today with the skills and opportunities that will prevent them from becoming the criminals – and prisoners – of tomorrow.
The present need to reduce spending on prison-related programs and services presents a golden opportunity to achieve much-needed improvements in our criminal justice system, from sentencing and parole policies to alternatives to incarceration.
Some states are leaning towards reforms, such as New York, where officials announced on March 27, 2009, they were rescinding the draconian Rockefeller drug laws that have caused the state’s prison population to soar. Other states, however, may squander this opportunity for reform if they adhere to the mindless mantra of more prisons and more prisoners.
“Many political leaders who weren’t comfortable enough, politically, to do it before can now, under the guise of fiscal responsibility, implement programs and policies that would be win/win situations, saving money and improving corrections,” observed Marc Mauer, director of the Sentencing Project.
The United States cannot expect to be successful in the global economy when its local rural economies rely on the prison-based business model of warehousing prisoners.
Lawmakers must stop catering to lobbyists, union officials and for-profit companies that clamor for more prisons. Instead, our communities need to invest in meaningful job industries that do not depend on the incarceration of our fellow citizens.
Sources: Washington Post, Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, State Journal, freep.com, Albany Herald, redding.com, Metrowest Daily, American Correctional Association, The Courier Journal, The Star Ledger, The Marion Star, The Advocate, timesonline.co.uk, Macon.com, bizjournals.com, Tidewater News, The Virginian-Pilot, forbes.com, KOLO TV, Daily Record, Associated Press, The Chieftain, Salt Lake Tribune, gjsentinel.com, daileynews.net, The Colombian, cincinnati.com, Daytona Daily News, Pontiac Daily Leader, Herald-Review, pantagraph.com, Bangor News, Courier Post, Philly Inquirer, New York Times, Macomb Daily, Times-Herald, Wichita Eagle, El Dorado Times, smokeymountainnews.com, Tennessean, The Morning Sun, www.mpbn.net, Morning Sentinel, stateline.org, Las Vegas Review-Journal, afscme31.org, AlterNet, CNN?
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