Imprisonment: We need to get our house in order

My Aunt May, a good house-keeper, would say we are sweeping offenders under the rug.... out of sight, out of mind. She would shake her head in disapproval, knowing the house looked clean but was still dirty. Very dirty indeed. We all know it in our heart of hearts, but we (yes, we) still continue to let it happen. It's the easy way out if our representatives in government are lazy and are not disturbed by unconstitutional shortcuts the justice system uses in prosecutions every day, and the corruption and greed that pervades the prison system.

Are we lazy? Grab a broom, folks. We know what needs sweeping and where it belongs. While you're at it, pick up a shovel and try to scoop up some of that horse---- that is excusing and justifying the methods and results of the drug warriors.

With the ever-increasing costs of incarcerating more and more people - and I don't just mean tax dollars, although that is definitely a valid consideration - we must learn the facts! The 2 million people behind bars are not the only ones affected -- each person's life is intertwined with others: family members, victims, friends, communities, acquaintances and society as a whole. Often, we don't take the time to dig deeper to look at an issue unless it affects us personally. And this issue is beginning to affect an awful lot of people.

As a result of longer sentences and a rapid increase in the number of drug offenders (who account for 70 to 80 percent of new inmates in recent years), the nation's prison population has soared. The number of people jailed in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1985. Many prisons are overcrowded, and state budgets are strained by the high cost of incarceration. However, a few officials in some states are showing a willingness to experiment with new ways of handling offenders.

During the past thirty years, Federal and state governments have come to depend on incarceration as a catch-all solution for society's social ills. Unfortunately, most researchers conclude that prison expansion has done little to address the crime problem. Instead, massive incarceration has further disrupted the social fabric of crime-ridden communities-breaking up families, isolating offenders without offering meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation. Meanwhile, the high cost of prison expansion has crowded out funding for schools, hospitals and drug treatment-institutions which really do contribute to healthy communities. Finally, prison expansion has intensified public fear of crime and exacerbated racism.

And the children are in danger too --- "The growing tendency in the USA to prosecute and punish children as if they were adults is inconsistent with the approach encouraged by international standards that have been adopted by almost every country in the world, that governments should establish laws, procedures, authorities and institutions specifically for children. The committee on the Rights of the Child, the group of international experts who monitor compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, has consistently proposed that all those who are under 18 years of age should be dealt with by a distinct system of justice." -Amnesty International, report on juvenile justice

An example -- While North Carolina's court system is starved for resources, state officials say they are putting the prisons on a much-needed diet. The state's per-inmate costs are the highest in the South, two recently released studies show. In fiscal 1996, North Carolina spent $25,303 per year to imprison each inmate - 65 percent more than the Southern average and 26 percent more than the nation's, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The N.C. Department of Correction also has cut food and health-care costs, and has pared unnecessary staff, says Greg Stahl, an assistant correction secretary. "The department constantly looks for ways to make itself more efficient," Stahl says. Correction officers seem to think it is in their interest to have prisons and their population multiply -- job security, etc. However, they fail to recognize that over- population means less pay for them because more money has to go to prisoner allocation (housing, feeding, etc). This also increases the amount of inmates each guard has to watch, increasing workload, and compromising their safety. In addition, the move to larger prisons with advanced surveillance will lead us in the same direction as did consolidation of schools --- a larger population with less supervision. Cost effective, but foolish.

Here is my conclusion (and many agree with me)-- Imprisonment must not be the first recourse in legal sanctions, but the last -- prison expansion and the imprisonment epidemic have not reduced the threat of violence -- instead, they have given us the highest incarceration rate in the world (most of whom have committed non-violent crimes), wasted massive funds allocated to correction that could be used to eradicate the roots of crime, fueled the escalating racial cancer that eats away at our nation's soul, and undermined our here-to-fore cherished principles of democracy. It is clear to us that the major danger we face in this society is not crime, but the misconceived fight against crime, called the Drug War.

We urgently need a humane, constructive and cost-effective response to our national crime problem. Alternatives have been endorsed legislatively for more than twenty years, however, in spite of documented research that alternatives are cost-effective, they have been under-funded. In spite of research proving that alternatives are enforceable and have an significant affect on recidivism, they have been under-utilized. Most importantly, alternatives have been abused and manipulated, contributing to a "widening of the net" of state observation, surveillance and control. Courts are susceptible to the cross pressures of public fears, police anger, victim frustration, and their own concern with bad press. We need to take these reasonable steps. We need a jury system that works, and a jail system that keeps only those who belong there.

William Kaber . . . . October, 2000

Previously on Strange Days-- 1 2