The True Costs of Incarceration
Building Prisons -
In todays USA billions of tax dollars are being spent building more and more state prison facilities, federal detention centers and prison work camps. We as a society fund the development and construction of these facilities because we're told by "experts" in the field of corrections and lawmakers that this is necessary to protect us from the rising crime rates across the country. The fact that this is untrue, with all categories of crime diminishing over the past decade and a half, does not deter proponents from denying this fact and pushing for more housing for offenders.
Some prison facilities are being built by private corporations such as Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group - formerly Wackenhut - Cornell Corrections and MTC. In their cases they entice communities to fund building of their prisons through bonds and other investment opportunities, promising great returns. Some of these "private" facilities are now standing vacant, with skeleton crews maintaining the prisons until inmates can be found to house there.
In each case - federal, state or private - prisons are continuously being built at huge expense to society. We either pay for it through tax allocations or risk our earnings through the purchase of bonds in hopes of earning a return on our investments in housing of criminals.
This is not the entire expense associated with prisons and prison industry borne by taxpayers. No this is simply the beginning of the process that eventually will more than triple the costs to society. In addition to the building there is the operational expenses with staffing each facility, feeding inmates, transporting inmates from prison to prison, providing medical and health care to those inmates, mental health programs, and of course, prison industry operations. This latter issue of prison industries is one that most prison operators would argue costs the taxpayers nothing to operate, but that is not factual, as I'll demonstrate later on.
Re-Entry Programs -
Just as taxpayers are funding the construction and operation of more prisons, they are also funding re-entry programs - whether they know it or not. The US Department of Justice for fiscal year 2010 is allocating $114 million tax dollars for prisoner reentry program grants. In addition the Recovery Act has set aside $4 billion dollars for the states. Much of this huge lump sum of tax dollars is earmarked for corrections, crime and associated fields. This kind of tax allocations for reentry programs has occurred over and over again for years. Billions spent on reentry, yet our recidivism rates continue to climb and prison populations grow annually. These dollars are your dollars. Earned by you and provided to the government by way of taxes. As a tax payer I don't believe I'm getting my money's worth.
Prison Industries -
"We're self-sufficient and receive no funding of tax dollars to sustain our operations," is a favorite claim made by prison industry administrators. It sounds too good to be true...and as is often the case, it is not factual. While prison industries operate in such a manner that the sale of prisoner made products covers their overhead and allows a profit, they are not operating without tax dollar support. There are minor costs where tax dollars are used, such as when a prison industry operation has need for an experienced welder. If/when an inmate with the experience and skills sought by the prison industry is found at another institution or facility, that inmate or inmates are transferred to the facility where they are needed. This secure and thus expensive transportation is a cost that is paid for with tax dollars. In Florida alone, dozens of these facility to facility transfers are accomplished yearly.
A larger consumption of tax dollars is simply the cost of housing, medical care, feeding and custody costs of those inmates working within the prison industries. Sure, they work 5 to 8 hours per day, 5 days a week for the industry but you bear the cost of feeding those inmates while on the job. In some industries food is prepared and brought to the inmate work force where they're working. This requires escort by prison staff - at a cost not related to or paid for by the industry. Your tax dollars pay the wages of custodial staff who are assigned to maintain security within the prison factories and for staff to count the number of inmates at the prescribed times. Inmate counts taken at shift change are problematic and can be costly due to the prison industry operation. If a mis-count at the factory results in one or more recounts, the on-duty shift officers must remain at their posts until the count is finally cleared and the on-coming shift assumes their assigned duties. The recounts result in overtime being paid to those officers who were required to remain after shift end. This expenditure of overtime is not paid for by the prison industry, it's paid for by you, the taxpayer.
Another fictional claim by prison administrators is that participation in industry training operations under federal PIECP results in wage deductions from inmate pay to offset the cost of incarceration borne by the taxpayers. This is reported time and again as justification for continuing prison industry operations as a claim of savings to the state and taxpayers. An example of just how inaccurate this claim is you only have to look to Florida where PRIDE proudly informs the public that 40% of all money earned by the inmate is taken out of their checks and given to the FDOC to offset the cost of incarceration. This "room and board" deduction is authorized under PIECP through 18 USC 1761(c). The intent of the deduction is to do what PRIDE and other industries claim they're doing - helping to pay the costs associated with imprisonment. This is untrue in Florida, and possibly other state prison industry operations. The real truth to this issue is that in Florida the money authorized to be deducted from inmate wages is not paid into the hands of the FDOC to offset operations costs. No, it is put into a Prison Industry Trust Fund established by Fl. Statute 946.522 Prison Industries Trust Fund.— Once received into the fund the deductions from inmate wages are then taken back out by PRIDE and used by the corporation to offset their PIECP operating expenses. So none of the funds taken out of inmate earnings are or have been used to reimburse taxpayer funding for incarceration costs. Instead it is being used to offset industry expenses and this translates into profits to PRIDE. To date in Florida this diversion of funds earmarked for offsetting prison operation costs exceeds $3.5 million dollars and counting. This manipulation results in the necessity of appropriations of tax dollars to offset this loss to the FDOC.
Profits made by the prison industries under PIECP and normal product sales does not go into the state general revenue fund. In most cases that money is kept by the prison industry and used for R&D, equipment upgrading, staff salaries and other costs associated with prison industry. They claim to be self-sufficient, not that they share profits with taxpayers.
Double Dipping -
This is a procedure I believe to be the most onerous of them all. Corrections staff who complete enough time on the job to qualify for retirement and a state pension from the DOC are allowed to retire with huge benefits provided by the taxpayers. Staff with an average annual salary of $70,000.00 - due to tenure, length of service and rank acquisition - can retire with an annual pension of more than 60% of their gross salary, or approximately $42,000.00 per year. In many cases this is not the end of their employment with the DOC. After a required amount of time "retired" (usually as little as 3 to 6 moths) these individuals are rehired by the DOC and go back to work at the same pay grade and rank that they held upon retirement. This allows these double dippers to not only receive their monthly pension payments, but full salary of around $70,000.00 in addition. The same job where they earned $70K a year now pays them over $110K. Same job, same staff member, but taxpayers now pay him/her an extra $42K a year.
With the starting wage for a COI now hovering around $36,000 per year, it is easy to understand the impact on taxpayers for allowance of this kind of personnel manipulation.
Proponents of this procedure claim that the experience and knowledge held by those who take advantage of this double dip system is needed for the security and smooth operation of the prison facility. This forces us to question whether the training provided to staff during their tenure is working to our advantage or not. I mean, if this kind of thing is necessary how are other staff members with less knowledge and training ever going to receive promotions to take the place of those who retire? They can and await their turn in the barrel to follow suit, retire and be rehired to earn more money like their predecessors did.
This procedure does nothing more than require an annual increase in funding of tax dollars to keep the status quo of those long time DOC employees and "reward" them by their receiving pensions and a substantial annual salary, for no more work then they were performing prior to retirement. An additional fact that can't be denied, is that DOC staff who retire are in worse physical condition than the younger staff members. They are mostly out of shape and of an age that quick responses and reactions to situations reduces their ability to respond to an emergency situation in a timely and efficient manner. Not only are they being overpaid, but they're efficiency is not up to the standards required for working inside a prison facility.
The national drop in crime rates are offset by state and federal laws that now require inmates to serve as much as 85% of their sentences, put in place mandatory minimum sentences for drug and gun possession and use, truth in sentencing and similar laws that have been enacted over the past two or three decades. Each of these laws were designed with one purpose in mind - create the need for more prisons, more staffing and a way to keep beds full for the longest possible time. I know, you want to respond with: "but we were told it was necessary to protect us from escalating criminal acts". Not so. The Bureau of Justice Statistics is a pretty well informed agency that keeps tracks of crime and crime rates, and they disagree with the claims of increasing crime and crime rates. It is just not so.
Why are we being misled and to what purpose? Simply put it is for profits to private US Corporations. I mean, after all the state has no interest or desire to house more and more offenders and provide them with longer sentences, in the face of diminishing crime rates. Their purpose is to rehabilitate offenders and release them back into their communities as productive citizens. Warehousing offenders without any attempt at rehabilitation is simply too damn costly and disrupts state budgeting - and serves no real social or community purpose. No, this is being done by corporations and their lobbyists through conduits into state Legislatures through outfits such as ALEC that I've mentioned previously.
To them warehousing of prisoners is a money making enterprise and they just can't get enough of them. With each new inmate entering the prison gate of privately owned or operated facilities,these corporations hear the melodious cha-ching of money flowing into their left pockets. Using inmates in their prison industry operations causes another cha-ching of money flowing into their right pockets.
Government subsidies for incarceration are paid through tax dollars, period. The states pay these corporate interests, but it is with the money taken out of your paychecks in the form of taxes. Federal detainees are another "product" for these private prison corporations. A louder cha-ching is heard with each one brought to a detention facility. Ahhhh...enter SB 1070 in Arizona where CCA has been losing money due to a drop in immigration apprehensions. Something was needed to boost apprehensions and fill the beds - wallah a new state Immigration Law!
All of us read the paper, listen to the news or watch it on TV. We know that with the economy in the situation it's been in for the past 18 months, money is tight from coast to coast and every facet of business and social programming are feeling the squeeze. Everything except the prison industrial complex, which is booming and expanding like never before, as we continue to flood their facilities with more and more of our neighbors, friends and family members.
Jobs are disappearing like never before. Along with their homes, cars and material possessions are are also disappearing at an alarming rate. In some cases this results in law abiding citizens turning to some form of illegal activity - drug dealing, stealing, fraud and other criminal acts - to put food on the table for their families. Sure, they all tried unemployment and other social programs to make ends meet and provide for their families, but the jobs just haven't materialized and their benefits have run out. Kids have to eat, there has to be money for heating and transportation, schooling and medical care. So it's no surprise that some have found it necessary to break the law to simply survive.
Once that step is taken those who engineered or helped our economy to collapse - and profit from the outcome - smile serenly as they await the arrival of each new "inmate" and the accompanying cha-ching, cha-ching's.
Now we as tax payers are footing the damn bill for apprehension, prosecution and incarceration of our community law breakers. Some percentage of those funds should be going toward reducing the prison inmate populations, rehabilitation and other programs to alleviate the burden placed upon us for this continuing revolving door policy. But those funds are going right along with the rest of our tax money into the left and right pockets of the profiteers.
Think for a moment about prison and think back to the articles and shows highlighting what impact our economy has had on prison facilities. As usual, the current situation demanded cuts in Corrections appropriations (your tax dollars). First to go were basic and secondary education programs funded with tax dollars to educate prisoners while in prison to provide an opportunity for them to become better able to be employed upon release. Second to go were the substance abuse and similar programs funded by tax dollars. Next went vocational and other training programs funded with tax dollars (they left prison industry operations in place though). Next several states took the unprededented step of deciding the inmates received too many calories in their diets, so 2800 to 3200 per diem diets were cut back to 1800 to 2200 calories per day (hell we pay for their food, we ought to be able to determine what they get and how much of it, right)? Now the daily caloric intake consists mainly of items such as meat substitutes consisting of soy and soy byproducts, all but eliminating most meats and natural proteins.
With all the foregoing programs and benefits eliminated and diets cut back you'd think us tax payers would be saving a bundle of money, right? Uh, no. You see we allowed widespread privatization of all things "prison" over the past thirty years - mostly during the era of Bush as Governor of Texas, and Jeb Bush in Florida, then George W. as President. Everything that could possibly be turned over to private corporations were gladly given to them with the blessings of our state governments and without any real interst on our parts. This privatization means prison healthcare is now private and provided by companies like Prison Health Services. Food is "catered" by DOC contracts with the likes of Aramark and Trinity Food Service. Profits from the sale of hygiene and food items no longer go into the general revenue funds, instead they are received by companies like Keefe Commissary Network where prison canteen operations were privatized and sold. Inmate housing has become more and more dependent upon private prison corporations, so if there are any savings to be had from reducing programs - or diets - to the inmates, it goes to those private corporations. Something as simple and everyday as phone calls from prison have also been privatized, with phone services provided at exorbitant rates by AT&T, MCI and comparable private corporations. In Florida in 2005 the DOC received 53% $18 million dollars) of all profit made under their phone contract with MCI.That figure represents the increased costs borne by family and friends of prisoners. They were forced to pay those rates or lose contact with fathers, sons, brothers, sisters and mothers.
So no, the cost of incarceration doesn't decline, in fact it is increasing even while crime rates continue to decline. Profits are set and margins must be maintained. If these corporations are to make profits and pay ever-increasing dividends to their investors, the money has to come from somewhere...and the taxpayer's pockets fill the bill nicely.
What does all this mean? It means we're not getting our money's worth. Funding for those programs research has shown us works to reduce recidivism - education, training and substance abuse - have been diverted to paying the corporations for merely housing and feeding inmate populations. Rehabilitation is no more. You commit a crime, you go to jail, then prison and work for a corporation, get released without any money, training or education and then reoffend and go back to prison and your old job. This cycle repeats over and over tens of thousands of times per month across our country. Double dippers, corporations and their investors and the lawmakers in the pockets of both reap the benefits.
I suggest it's time that we really evaluate the cost of prison and demand that the tax dollars that we provide are used for something other than fattening up semi-retired corrections officials and corporations and campaign contributions to lawmakers. Money needs to be used to prevent crime, reduce recidivism and turn the lives of offenders around and provide them with an opportunity to become a supporter within their communities instead of a pariah upon them. Let's face it, the system is broken and does not work as it is now operated. The millions and millions of tax dollars now being used for all forms of incarceration are dollars diverted from education and healthcare programs in every state. The amount of funding for prisons exceeds the expenditures for education and healthcare in almost every state.
To continue to defund education in order to pay for the housing of more than two million of our citizens - with no hope of that ever turning around - is simply non-productive and a waste of our money and resources. Similarly we yell and scream about healthcare and how we're supposed to pay for it, while we continue to use that money to warehouse criminals.
Unless and until we make a conscious decision to attack crime and recidivism head on by educating those offenders without an education and providing programs to reduce dependence upon drugs and alcohol - in place of incarceration - and really address the mental health issues suffered by millions (instead of simply sending them to prison to get them off the streets) we will continue to spend billions with no return on our investment(s). If prisoners go to prison and are released with the same addictions, education and behavior that put them there in the first place, what has been accomplished? Nothing but the rest of us footing the bill for their housing, food and care for whatever term of imprisonment handed out.
I say it's time to take private corporations and their ilk off society's tit. Let us invest instead in programs and actions that really reduce crime and incarceration instead of encouraging it by continuing to fund non-productive systems and programs that simply increase the costs without providing a resolution or single benefit in exchange for our funding. In the face of articles warning us about the need for more prisons and tax dollars to pay for them, do you feel safer in your home? Or at work? Are you confident enough of our criminal justice system and prisons to allow your children to play in the street in the evening, or walk to and from the store around the corner now? No, and that's a direct result of allowing this problem to continue as is. In order to actually be safer in your home or office, it's necessary to correct the behavior of those who you perceive as a threat. That cannot and is not being done currently with warehousing of those who commit a crime. Instead our tax dollars should go toward eliminating the drug dependency that caused the behavior in the first place, or to get the perpetrator off of days filled with alcohol consumption that led to domestic violence. Those who are just not educated enough to avoid doing something stupid, need education instead of imprisonment.
Once we change direction and put those millions of tax dollars to use preventing crime and prison sentences and identifying and then addressing the causes of such behavior, we'll all be safer, more at ease and have more money in our collective pockets. Corporations now profiting from incarceration and prison labor can go someplace else to find their "gold at the end of the rainbow..."