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How Bad is the Crisis in America’s Prisons?
By John Dewar Gleissner, Esq
Published: 12/20/2010

Dollar wire Pretty bad. From 1987 to 2007, the U.S. prison population nearly tripled.[1] The American prison population in 2004 was eight times larger than it was in 1954.[2] In 2008, it was 40 times greater than it was in 1904.[3] On a per capita basis, there were 15 times more sentenced prisoners in 2008 than in 1904. At the beginning of 2008, 2,319,258 Americans were in prison or jail, more than in any other country in the world, and a greater percentage of our population is in prison or jail than in any other country in the world.[4] At the start of 2009, the total incarcerated population in the United States was 2,424,279.[5] That is just the number behind bars, four times more people than are in the U.S. Army, more than Utah in the last census. “The United States incarcerates more people than the Russian Federation, South Africa, Mexico, Iran, India, Australia, Brazil, and Canada combined.”[6] With 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of the world’s prisoners. As U.S. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia put it: “With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different – and vastly counterproductive.” In 2010, more Americans are serving life sentences than ever before. Prisoners now have their own inspirational lifestyle publication, Prison Living Magazine.

In 2007, the entire U.S. correctional population, which includes jail and penitentiary prisoners plus those on probation and parole totaled 7,328,200.[7] By the end of 2008, the number of probationers and parolees rose again.[8] Add in ex-convicts who have completed sentences, parole, or probation, and all who are slaves to their addictions, and the number of living Americans who are now or have ever been enslaved exceeds 10,000,000. “Over the course of a year, 13.5 million people spend time in jail or prison, and 95% of them eventually return to our communities.”[9] Reducing the number behind bars does not directly decrease the correctional population. Over two-thirds of the correctional population is outside prison, on probation, on parole or awaiting trial. When the prison population peaks and then declines, it will probably just mean more offenders are on the outside.

The hyper-incarceration statistics for African-American males are much worse. We incarcerate one in nine African-Americans between the ages of 20 and 34.[10] In 2003, it was calculated that “At current levels of incarceration newborn black males in this country have a greater than a 1 in 4 chance of going to prison during their lifetimes, while Hispanic males have a 1 in 6 chance, and white males have a 1 in 23 chance of serving time.”[11] By 2007, just four years later, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that African-American males have a 32% chance of going to prison or jail – becoming slaves – in their lifetimes.[12] Young black male high school dropouts are almost 50 times more likely to wind up behind bars than the average American, and 60% of that demographic cohort eventually goes to prison.[13]

“Prison costs are blowing holes in state budgets but barely making a dent in recidivism rates.”[14] The total cost exceeded $49,000,000,000.00 in 2007, and fairly recent figures show a national per prisoner operating cost of $23,876.00 per year.[15] One study pegged the total costs at over 60 billion dollars.[16] Costs are still rising, taking ever-larger shares of state general funds and crowding out other priorities.[17] “The national inmate count marches onward and upward, almost exactly as it was projected to do last year. And with one in 100 adults looking out at this country from behind an expensive wall of bars, the potential for new approaches cannot be ignored.”[18] Forward thinking criminologists, recognizing the lack of good answers in penology, actively seek new evidence-based techniques from other disciplines.[19] The State of California pays $49,000 per prisoner per year according to its governor at mid-year 2009, who also said the national average is now $32,000 per prisoner per year.[20] With more inmates serving life-without-parole and longer sentences, incarceration costs continually increase due to rising health-care expenses for older convicts.

Not just the prisons are overcrowded and expensive. Officers supervising parole and probation often have more cases to handle than earlier thought optimal.[21] “At year end 2007, over 5.1 million adult men and women were supervised in the community, either on probation or parole. More than 8 in 10 were on probation (4,293,163), while less than 2 in 10 were on parole (824,365).”[22] Each of those probationers and parolees costs thousands of dollars per year to supervise. Direct expenditures on police and the judicial system increased by several hundred percent over the last 30 years, too, and now cost a total of about $150 billion dollars per year.

Americans of both parties thought we ended “welfare as we knew it” when work was required of welfare recipients – but we forgot the biggest group of unemployed welfare recipients.[23] The millions of social parasites we fully support in prisons and jails went almost undetected during welfare reform. Very few prisoners pay for more than a tiny fraction of their upkeep; most pay zero. Unlike welfare recipients who may receive some money for food, clothing, and shelter, we provide prisoners with all of their balanced and regular meals, decent clothing, shelter, utilities, court-mandated medical and dental care, medication, education, limited franking privileges, recreation, toiletries, bedding, various forms of treatment or therapy, and for those in isolation their own private cells with room service. Many enjoy TV, radio or music devices. President Clinton announced in 1998 that inmates would be stopped from receiving Social Security checks, but thousands of prisoners received U.S. government stimulus package checks in 2009, many by mistake. According to the Inspector General for Tax Administration in 2010, 1,295 prisoners fraudulently received first-time home-buyer tax credits, averaging over $7,000 per prisoner. Of this group, 715 were serving life sentences. Mass incarceration increased the size of the American welfare state through direct costs and the collateral welfare costs caused by family members going to prison. The costs of crime and punishment are much greater than the expenses of incarceration. There are huge personal costs for the victims and the families of the perpetrators.[24] Victims lose heavily in dollar terms. “Crime victims in 1992 lost $17.6 billion in direct costs, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey.”[25] Every year, U.S. gun violence costs society an estimated $80 billion.[26] Black victims greatly outnumber white victims on a percentage basis. “From 1993 through 2001 blacks accounted for 46% of homicide victims and 54% of victims of firearm homicide but 12% of the U.S. population.”[27] Blacks victimize their own race. In 2005, “Among single victim-single offender homicides, about 93 percent of black victims were murdered by black offenders.”[28]

Mass incarceration harms the country in multiple ways. It simultaneously creates more actual unemployment, because prisoners are vastly under-employed, labor shortages outside prison, regularly filled by foreign workers, and new welfare recipients inside prison, because each prisoner is in essence on full-ride welfare. It produces extra welfare recipients outside prison as well. Families of prisoners lack financial support. Prisoners have greater legal and correctional expenses generally and suffer from more suicide, self-mutilation, gang influence and racism. Mass incarceration broadens widespread unhappiness and societal disruption. The 2010 Census will arguably count a couple of million prisoners “in the wrong place.” Uncontrolled government spending misled us into thinking we could afford mass incarceration. As it turns out, we cannot. It’s a significant drag on our entire economy. Over two million people are in prison, and it takes millions of citizens outside prison, working hard, just to support them.

The good news from history is that nations eventually do what makes economic sense with their prisoners. Change is therefore coming, because our present prison systems are wasteful in many ways.

[John Dewar Gleissner, Esq. graduated from Auburn University (1973), Vanderbilt Law School (1977), and is the author of the new book, Prison & Slavery – A Surprising Comparison.]
  1. One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, Public Safety Performance Project, The Pew Center on the States, Pew Charitable Trusts, pg 5 @ pewcenteronthestates(pdf).
  2. Gresham M. Sykes (Contributor, Bruce Western), The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison, Princeton Univ. Press, 2007, pg x.
  3. U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Historical Corrections Statistics in the United States, 1850-1984. See also, footnotes above and below.
  4. One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, supra, pg 5.
  5. Prisoners in 2008, U.S. DEPT. OF JUSTICE, BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS, Table 9, pg 8.
  6. Pew Center on the States, Public Safety Performance Project, Statistics and Facts, pg 6.
  7. U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Key Facts at a Glance – Correctional Populations, last revised Dec. 11, 2008.
  8. Lauren E. Glaze & Thomas P. Bonczar, Probation and Parole in the United States, 2008, NCJ Number 228230, U.S. Dept. of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  9. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, Summary of Findings and Recommendations, pg 1 @ prisoncommission.org.
  10. One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, supra, pg 6.
  11. U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Lifetime Likelihood of Going to State or Federal Prison, 3/97 NCJ 160092.
  12. U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Offenders Statistics, last revised Aug. 8, 2007 @ ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/crimoff.htm#staff.
  13. Dr. Linda Young, “Graduate from High School or Graduate to Prison,” www.ourownvoices.com, posted Dec. 15, 2009; John M. Bridgeland, John J. DiIulio, Jr., Karen Burke Morison, The Silent Epidemic – Perspectives of High School Dropouts, A report by Civic Enterprises in association with Peter D. Hart Associates for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, March 2006 @ www.civicenterprises.net.
  14. One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, Public Safety Performance Project, The Pew Center on the States, Pew Charitable Trusts, pg 3 @ pewcenteronthestates(pdf).
  15. Id., pg 11.
  16. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, Summary of Findings & Recommendations, pg 1 @ prisoncommission.org.
  17. One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, supra, pgs 11-16.
  18. Id., pg 21.
  19. Michael Dow Burkhead, The Treatment of Criminal Offenders – A History, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2007, pgs 173-175.
  20. A. Schwarzenegger, OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR, June 12, 2009 speech @ gov.ca.gov. Jails are even more expensive than prisons on a per prisoner basis.
  21. National Research Council. (2008). Parole, Desistance from Crime, and Community Integration. The National Academies Press, pg 35.
  22. U.S. Dept. of Justice, BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS, Probation and Parole Statistics @ ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pandp.htm.
  23. Robert D. Atkinson, “Prison Labor – It’s More than Breaking Rocks,” Progressive Policy Institute, Policy Report, May 2002 @ www.ppionline.org.
  24. Bill Cosby & Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D., Come On, People – On the Path from Victims to Victors, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007, Ch. 7, The High Price of Violence.
  25. U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bureau of Justice Statistics Crime Data Brief, “The Costs of Crime to Victims: Crime Data Brief,” Feb. 1994, NCJ-145865.
  26. Anthony A. Braga, Gun Violence Among Serious Young Offenders, Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Problem-Specific Guides Series, No. 23, July 2008, pg 1, citing Cook and Ludwig (2000).
  27. U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Weapon Use and Violent Crime, 1993-2001,” 09/03 NCJ 194820.
  28. U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Black Americans Were Victims in 15 Percent of All Nonfatal Violent Crimes and 49 Percent of All Homicides During 2005,” Aug. 9, 2007 @ ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/press/bvvcpr.htm.


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  2. Joe on 01/01/2011:

    How about a prison WPA..(Work Prisoners Again) I know jobs are scarce and the economy is tough,,Use tractable,Classification Board Prisoners in Minimum Security Facilities and or Camps for Labor Projects in the Community..repairing playgorunds,cleaning beaches,we due this to some extent with hiway androad clean up crews why not expant this concept to other area saving tax payers and cities and town money for labor..Involve the Unions in training for future Union members..this concept is in somw States already in place and camp facities are in use expansion of this concept releases overcrowding in walled facilities helps cities and towns during this tight economic time.and lessen the high cost of incaceration...we might also utilize the day reporting concept in some instances in cases where incaceration is not neede yet keeps strict control over probationers this is also bein used in some states sucessfully and already in place...I guess the key word is alternatives,effectinve professional classification and supervision.and strict enforcement of the law.

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