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Can America Continue to Operate Its Prisons
By William Sturgeon
Published: 03/07/2011

Budget a A 1990’s Speech Comes True

In the 1990’s I was asked to give a speech at the Mid-Atlantic Correctional Association’s Annual Conference. For those of you who remember the late 1980’s and 1990’s, new prisons (jails) were being built all over the country. We were in the middle of the correctional industrial revolution.

As I prepared my speech, I began thinking about the high cost of building all of these new prisons (jails), not to mention how costly it was going to be to operate them.

Also, I was concerned about the way prisons were being used. The number of people with mental illnesses coming into the prisons (jails) was growing every year.

Politicians were looking at prisons (jails) as employment opportunities for their constituents without realizing the future costs. I really do not think they could have imagined the high cost of operating prisons (jails).

I believed then, (and we are experiencing it now) that he high costs associated with operating prisons (jails) would have such a negative affect on state budgets. The cost today associated with operating prisons (jails) is preventing the states from spending money on schools, roads, bridges, other infrastructure projects, university systems, etc.

California is by far the most publicized, but certainly not the only state having challenging problems paying for its correctional system. As with most state correctional systems, the California system is overcrowded with no real operational plan to resolve its overcrowding and other operational problems. Building new prisons is out of the question.

The nation’s correctional systems have for the past two plus decades seen a continuous flow of prisoners going in, and nothing more than a trickling stream of prisoners coming out. One must also mention the unbelievable recidivism rate of 70%.

The “3 Strikes and You Are Out Law”, “Rockefeller Drug Laws”, mandated sentencing, and numerous other laws that were once heralded as being tough on crime, I believe, are major contributing factors to the overcrowding of American prisons, and thereby increasing the operational costs.

Having the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” turned on the field of corrections.

The joke was on the system Strike One: The building of new prisons in the last century rather than examining and implementing ways to reduce crime. Also, those involved in building these new prisons (jails) appeared not to comprehend that the building of these prisons was the only fixed cost, which was in the millions. They could not have understood that operational costs would continue to increase every year.

Strike Two: The enactment of the laws with no regard for what the cost of these laws would be to enforce and what would these laws would resolve.

Strike Three: Not having the foresight to understand that they could not build their way out of criminal/social/mental health /addiction problems that are part of society.

The Time Has Come To Act. The time has come to act. I believe that as a nation we have to initiate a “Think Tank” to start to answer the many questions confronting the field of corrections. This “Think Tank” should:

- Consist of experts from various fields of study: business, criminal justice, mental health, additions, medical, social and psychological, etc.

State Departments of Corrections should conduct detailed analysis of the following:
  • Look at what assets the department of corrections has now (buildings, programs, personnel, recidivism rates, etc.)
  • Determine what is working and what is not working (This determination should be done using scientifically sound evaluation methods. There cannot be any sacred cows.)
  • Reexamine the rationale of keeping people with moderate to severe mental health issues in prisons where they do not receive the care, compassion, life skills, or rehabilitation that they need. There are agencies than can confine and treat people with mental health issues better than most prisons (jails).
  • Reexamine the way the nation treats drug addicts and alcoholics. Determine whether keeping them locked-up in high cost prisons (jails), with little to no programming for their problems, is the most efficient way of dealing with them. There are agencies than can confine and treat addicts and alcoholics better than most prisons (jails).
  • Examine the concept of closing down out of date, energy inefficient prisons and constructing “temporary” energy efficient prisons. I say “temporary” because the ultimate goal is to reduce inmate populations nationwide.
  • Examine how many inmates could be released to less expensive halfway houses, pre-release and/or rehabilitation centers, parole, or some new approach that has yet to be discovered, etc. Corrections continues to use methods and programs that do not work - have not worked for years. There are those who believe that these ineffective programs are better than nothing.
  • Discontinue programs that are not achieving predetermined goals (Anyone who has worked in corrections for a few years knows that there are programs that just are not working and that the personnel and funding for the non-performing or underperforming programs could be put to a better use.)
  • Reinstitute vocational training programs for inmates who demonstrate an aptitude and interest for such training. Some of the funding for these programs could come from programs that were eliminated
  • Reinstitute educational classes for inmates who demonstrate an ability and interest.
  • Carefully develop well designed, energy and operationally efficient prisons to replace the old inefficient prisons which are costing millions of dollars to operate and maintain.

(Architects in the past have designed the prison (jail) versions of the Taj Mahal, thereby driving up costs of new prison projects. During the boom, architects were hired to design prisons (jails) that have had zero experience in designing prisons). I remember interviewing an architectural firm who said to me, “we have built dozens of motels what is the difference?”

I have articulated the above observations, comments and suggestions as a means of starting a dialogue before the time comes when states can no longer afford to keep offenders in prisons (jails) and are forced to release them.

The nation’s recidivism rate is around 70%, so obviously the nation’s prison systems are broken, yet the states continue to pump millions of dollars into them. One has to ask, what if a significant portion of the money spent to build new prisons (jails) was spent to develop more efficient and productive correctional systems?

If the real truth were known, the majority of America’s prisons (jails) are nothing more than warehouses for criminals. An extremely dangerous sub-culture has developed over the years. This subculture consists of gangs, violent young offenders many of whom have been groomed in juvenile corrections and on the streets. There are also older seasoned offenders who orchestrate criminal initiatives and other nefarious activities.

While amazing people, including administrators and staff, work to maintain order and keep the lid on, the time is quickly approaching when all the negatives reach a critical mass. Overcrowding, staff to inmate ratio, lack of offender programming, deteriorating prisons (jails), and lack of funding will meet and create a perfect storm.

The solutions to the problems facing corrections will not be easy nor will the answers to the multitude of questions that will bombard those brave enough and thoughtful enough to work on them. We arrived here, I believe, because rather than confront the real issues facing the field of corrections back in the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, we took the path of least resistance and built more prisons, hired more correctional officers and other staff, and passed more senseless laws without giving any thought to the long range implications of these solutions of least resistance.

I know that much of what I have written in this article will be disputed and corrected by those who are entrenched in the various systems, or who have some financial interest in the current way corrections is being done. I, however, stand by what I have written and believe it to be correct. The time will come when the cost of operating prisons will become so overwhelming that that states’ will have to release prisoners.

Visit the Bill Sturgeon page

Other articles by Sturgeon:


  1. jameslite on 12/09/2018:

    Nice Article. liteblue

  2. erick on 09/08/2011:

    early realease of the majority of these knuckleheads will be a revolving door yet c.a. wants to lay off hundreds of c/os' destroy more of the economics in ca by us loosing our homes health care special need medical cases bankruptcy, we like other millitary vets who serve our country are treated worst than the felons who destroy this country with drugs, disease from drug usage, murder, rape, child molestation and yet these inmates still complain and these freakn idiots get free medical dental food and still some get paid for a job they owe society for , then they , complain they need more more chocolate chips in their cookies , and have the nerve to sue you for it only in america, what a disgrace for law enforcement and millitary, firefighters we get attacked spit on verbal phyiscal assaults threats to us and family only to get a pat on the back and laid off i love america but how we as public workers in law enforcement firefighters and millitary is a freakn disgrace c/o davis jamaica1959@yahoo

  3. Eugene on 03/22/2011:

    I fully agree with the article written by Mr Sturgeon "Can America Continue to Operate its Prisons". It is my openion that more emphasis should be placed on preparing the offender for re-entering society. When you look at our society it appears we have a system in place that prepares offenders for incarceration than correcting the problem when it is at a place condusive for intervention. We need more programs and less of what we consider punishment. Just look at the money wasted in building and operating what we call Super Max Facilities. There is a better way of handling the problem than by making or enhancing the problem we consider so sever we need to have a special building for individuals that must be treated far differently than that of a person on death row. More prison,stricter laws and punishment are not the answer. Think about this...we take a person into the prison system for non-payment of childsupport..making it more of a burdon on the state and the family because this person is now criminalized. I know there is a better way, but we would rather fatten the pockets of those that already have deep pockets than fix the problem without incercaration. This also applies to drunks and those out to buy a little amount of drugs for personal use, etc. We consentrate on the defenseless and allow the instigators and providers to stay free or get light sentences.

  4. Dazed IT/CO on 03/09/2011:

    I wrote an article about this very subject back in the 90s, pointing out that as a nation we have become a bigger victim of crimes because we have to spend precious tax dollars on keeping all the criminals incarcerated. I beleive we can reduce the cost by looking at was to reduce prison populations, by getting those inmates out that really should not be there just like Bill suggests, I would also highly suggest we use inmates to produce their own foods, which was what my article was about. It provides two excellent outcomes, one the cost is reduced for feeding them and second they learn how to feed themselves when they get on the outside. If we reduce the number of drug addicts in prisons and put them in facilities where the same principles are used to feed them we gain in two ways there as well. addicts need rehabilitation for their weaknesses not prison to learn better ways to hide their crimes caused by their addiction. Decriminalizing certain drug offenses gets the addict help but reduces overcrowding in most prisons and jail.

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