Friday, September 11, 2015

All Hail a Jail Sale

From privately-owned and managed prisons that some states rely on for their inmate overflow to a litany of specialized products and services that are tailored for the special requirements of prison procurement standards. Styrofoam cups? Nope. They can be melted down, through a couple of stages, to be formed into deadly shivs (homemade prison knives), hard and able to kill. Gotta have a plastic that just lacks the qualities that allow it to be formed, by any inmate process, into a deadly weapon. It that available? Of course… for a price.
Given our massive inmate population and the nature of the average procurement process, vendors who’ve got it down, seem to have a captive marketplace, and taxpayers are footing the bill.  “[There were] 264 vendors in booths at [a recent] Indiana Convention Center for what is essentially a trade show for the prison industry. It is the shiny, customer-friendly face of a fairly grim business. The [American Correctional Association] accredits jails and prisons and is also the country’s largest association for the corrections field, with a membership filled with wardens and state and county correctional administrators.
“The convention is where those people window-shop. The United States currently imprisons about 2.2 million people, making it the world’s largest jailer [a quarter of the earth’s incarcerated criminals]. Those in charge of this immense population need stuff: food, gas masks, restraints, riot gear, handcuffs, clothing, suicide prevention vests, health care systems, pharmacy systems, commissary services — the list goes on. These outlays are a small fraction of the roughly $80 billion spent annually on incarceration, though precise sales figures are hard to come by because most companies in this niche market are private. Two publicly traded players, the private prison operators Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, have a combined market capitalization of almost $5.8 billion. Both companies had booths in Indianapolis.” New York Times, August 28th.
While it may be difficult for those states that administer the lethal injection death sentence to acquire the necessary sequence of drugs from a highly-resistant international marketplace, just about everything else you might want to have a “dungeon du jour” is at the convention. This is a big and nasty business supporting a criminal justice system that educates criminals to become angry crime experts, subjects inmates to mortal danger for virtually every moment of their “time,” and destroys their ability to get real jobs after release with their criminal records. But you can bet that an industry that generates the kind of money noted above is doing everything in its power to make sure that prison reform cannot damage their lucrative business. Sound a like a mini-version of our military-industrial complex?
But legislators everywhere are beginning to wake up to reality. Not only does the criminal justice system fail society at virtually every level, the costs of long sentences and a need to incarcerate are simply no longer affordable. So whether you are a humanitarian or a pragmatist, there is growing trend of cutting prison time and finding alternatives to traditional incarceration. And even the prison vendor lobby is unable to stem that tide.
“For prison vendors, this would appear to be a historically awful moment. Sentencing reform has been gaining momentum as a growing number of diverse voices conclude that the tough-on-crime ethos that was born 40 years ago, and that led to a 700 percent increase in the prison population since 1970, went too far. Mandatory minimum laws, many of them passed at the state and federal level in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s locked people away for decades, often for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses. Those laws have had a disproportionate impact on African-Americans, who tend to serve longer sentences than whites.
“For families, the results have been devastating. Former inmates are stigmatized and have a far harder time finding jobs, causing incalculable social and economic damage. And a paucity of rehabilitation programs keeps many former criminals ensnared. Nearly three out of four inmates offend again after five years.
“The first stirrings of sentencing overhaul happened five years ago, around the time that California’s prison system was so bursting with inmates that a federal court called the conditions unconstitutional and mandated reductions. Texas has stepped up its use of community supervision programs and drug courts. For the first time in state history, it has closed prisons — three of them. The point is to save money, as former Gov. Rick Perry underscored time and again.
“More recently, for reasons both humanitarian and fiscal, the notion of changing sentencing laws has gone national. At a time when congressional Democrats and Republicans agree on almost nothing, there is a rare political consensus that the criminal justice system needs to try something other than severity. In July, when President Obama called on Congress to pass laws that would slash mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, the response was essentially ‘We’re already on it.’ Bills like the Smarter Sentencing Act have support across the spectrum, from Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois on the left to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas on the right.” NY Times.
Ever since the Reagan administration pulled the funding needed to house the mentality ill, dramatically reducing the number of facilities aimed at treating those severely afflicted, for those whose mental impairments have led them to violent criminal activity, their care and management was shifted to our prison system. With half inmate offenses being drug-related (half again of those for relatively minor drug offenses), drug rehabilitation efforts are only recently growing to meet demand. With also about half of all inmates incarcerated for non-violent offenses, you really have ask yourself how much money you are willing to spend to hold them in prison and destroy their earning capacity for life?
Think of the costs of recidivism, loss of tax revenue while increasing governmental costs for the failed system, and the extra pressures place on the social safety net. Worth it? NO! Want to be tough on crime – and the United States has some of the longest sentences on earth and the greatest number of crimes that mandate incarceration – maybe you should have to pay a massive surtax for that vengeful and extreme expensive wish.
I’m Peter Dekom, and smart governmental leaders use pragmatics to determine spending policies, not meaningless slogans that will cost billions if not trillions of dollars for sheet waste.

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