By Paul Wright
The modern era of prison reform began in 1971 with the Attica Rebellion. Many Americans were horrified when New York state police and prison guards stormed the prison 52 years ago, in the process killing dozens of prisoners and hostages and wounding many more. The conditions that prompted the uprising: brutality by staff, inadequate medical care, arbitrary discipline, mail censorship, overcrowding, racism of a nearly all white, rural prison staff against a largely poor, urban prison population of disproportionately Black and Latino men, was far from unique to New York. It was somewhat typical of American prisons at the time with the rallying cry: Attica is every prison; every prison is Attica.
A lack of adequate staffing was a major problem that cascaded into many other problems and the solution was to increase pay and benefits for guards. Along the way, prison guards went from being poorly paid and a tiny amount of the state work force to becoming some of the best paid state employees and in states like Michigan, prison employees constitute 25% of the entire state government work force. Which in turn has led to massive bloated budgets as prisons consume ever larger amounts of money every year.
Yet the $100 billion or more spent on prisons and jails is not enough to keep them fully staffed. In the 1990s hundreds of prisons were built in sparsely populated rural areas and the government struggled to staff them because not many people wanted to live in the middle of nowhere. As this issue’s cover story notes, that problem has gotten much worse. One of the ironic questions of the day: what if the government builds a police state and can’t hire enough people to run it? Far from rhetorical, we are seeing states with thousands of vacant positions in their prisons. With the employment market changing dramatically post Covid, it is not surprising that so many are rejecting careers in the prison industry.
When one thinks of prison conditions, we rarely think of the staff since they are choosing to work in prisons voluntarily and after all, they go home at the end of their shift. That few prisons in the South are air conditioned is miserable for prisoners, but equally bad for the staff who work there. As we report regularly in PLN, these are not great places to work with rampant racism, anti Semitism, sexism and brutality directed by staff against their own co workers. If the jobs are low paying, conditions and work environment are likely better at Walmart than the average prison and safer as well.
Historically complaints of under staffing have led to big budget increases and the massive growth of the prison population. Whether it will do so now remains to be seen. Even as states are awash in money they seem unable to hire enough guards. The other alternative, which is much cheaper and more humane, would be to use the opportunity to dramatically reduce prison populations and in the process close down prisons and lay off redundant staff if they cannot hire their way out of the current mess. However, the most sensible and humane solution is also the unlikeliest with the American political and ruling classes devoutly committed to the police state and its carceral institutions.
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