Money for nothing

Sunday’s New York Times (3/11/12, Erica Goode) has a long article entitled “Rethinking Solitary Confinement.” More than a half-dozen states have been taking steps to reduce the number of inmates in solitary confinement, including Mississippi on which the story focuses. The author notes this effort represents an about-face to an approach that began 30 years ago when the “get tough on crime” movement took hold in this country. In 1994, Georgia, never one to be outdone, thought the “three strikes and you’re out” laws of neighboring states were for sissies and did them one better — strike one, strike two, you’re gone! As a result of this kind of thinking, Georgia now spends over one billion dollars a year locking people up. In a country where the incarceration rate is the highest in the world — did you know that despite the U.S. representing only 5% of the world population, we are home to 25% of the world’s inmates? — Georgia ranks fourth among the fifty states. That bears repeating. Georgia ranks fourth in our country in its rate of incarceration, and that’s in the country with the highest such rates in the world. We have locked up one in seventy Georgia adults. And according to a recent report from the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform commissioned by Governor Deal (Georgia’s conservative Republican governor), the explosive growth in Georgia’s prison population can’t be explained by a rise in crime. Nor has the billion dollars we are spending made a dent in rates of recidivism. Nope, we just lock them up, provide little in the way of any services that will help them stay out of jail, and then lock them up again.

What then explains the booming growth rate? It turns out the answer is pretty simple. 60% of our state’s inmates are in jail for drug and property offenses and the proportion is growing. As a state, we’ve been very successful building new prisons and hiring more prison guards. But wait! All of a sudden a number of state legislatures, including our own, are starting to re-think this strategy.

Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections now says “If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they will behave… That was the culture and I was part of it.” His views have changed 180 degrees. By 2005, 44 states had built super-max prisons, including his own, and dramatically increased the use of solitary confinement where prisoners are let out of the cells only a few hours a week, fed through slots in doors, denied access to education and work programs, and face severe restrictions on seeing any family members who wished to visit. Treated like animals seems like a reasonable description except that in today’s zoos, one could never get away with such conditions.

As the number of these facilities grew, prison systems felt the need to fill them. Today, the residents of these special cells bear little resemblance to the serial killers and terrorists we imagine filled such places. According to Mr. Epps, who also serves as the president of the American Correctional Association, we started out isolating inmates we were scared of, but ending up adding many we were simply mad at. The effect? Well, one effect is the production of mental illness. One in ten inmates in Mississippi’s infamous Unit 32 were declared seriously mentally ill. The absence of human interaction can tend to do not such good things to people’s pyschological state. But we’ve known this for a long time –centuries in fact. Another effect? That brings me to the punchline of the story. Why the change of heart now?

“it’s just too expensive to hold someone in a segregation bed” today, says Angela Brown from the Vera Institute of Justice who works with a number of states to find alternatives to segregation. Unit 32 was closed in 2010. A few guards rebelled at this action taken by Mr. Epps. Some resigned; others were fired. One resident who had been housed there for more than 20 years worked his way to greater privileges. “Was it scary? Absolutely.” Mr. Epps said. “But it worked out just fine. We didn’t have a single incident.” A dose of greater humanitarianism and think of the money it saved.

The financial crisis Georgia is facing is giving it reason to examine who we lock up, how long we keep them in confinement, and how they are treated once there. Money can make strange bedfellows, but whatever the reasons for these new initiatives, it’s a welcome change in my book.

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3 Responses to Money for nothing

  1. Here’s another chilling statistic: Over twenty thousand immigrants now languish in federal prison for no crime other than entering the United States without a valid visa. In the January 30th issue of The New Yorker, there is an outstanding and horrifying article by Adam Gopnik called “The Caging of America” ( ) in which he cites the brutal truth about incarceration in this country — that we have six million of our citizens in jail today– and “in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.” The choices we are making — and I believe it’s not an accident that HALF of all black men without a high school degree will spend part of their lives in prison — are costing us more than just the expense of running prisons. It is costing us our humanity, and the productivity and creativity of our populace.

  2. Beatriz Illescas says:

    Well I still tend to be not welcoming to changes when the reason behind them is not the one that should be- but that is my rebellious side. I always hope human beings are going to act precisely because of that humanitarianism and not because trying to save money.
    I like to read your posts- most of them :)- because it is a safe way of keep on learning
    What your wife added here is also very important and enlightening. And it makes me feel so angry because they are not criminals (immigrants that enter the country illegally)- a good number of them at least, yet they are deprived many times of that that keeps us human, why? because they dare to dream? and in the case of those with major crimes I suppose, the punishment is make them pay again and again to the point of making them less human but with which purpose?, they are already paying.
    Or like these Guatemalan young girl who has been detained in TN for more than one year because her baby had a “bizarre fracture” which has been proven -thousand of times- to have been an accident; or even worse, another young girl who is in jail waiting for her trial because her baby had some diaper rash so she was accused of cruelty.
    And so on…
    I agree with you-it could be the other way around
    “if you treat and individual as if he were what he could be and ought to be, he will become what he can be and ought to be” (Cant remember who wrote this )

  3. Ginger ONeill says:

    Hi Larry,

    I missed this poignant and heart-wrenching blog last week. Who would have thought the silver lining would be money, but that is likely going to be the case for really increasing access in higher ed. If there were hybrid courses in high school that would create more time to fulfill the college gen Ed requrements there, then students with limited funds could go to a community college and get their undergraduate. The students that typically go to community colleges for associate only degrees could obtain most of their degree out of the traditional classroom. It is a matter of having the write learning platforms like the Open Learning Iniative (OLI) or something along the lines of Kahn Academy. The new four-year degree for those that could afford it 20 years from now would be a combo undergrad and masters completed in three or four years. I am just trying to wrap my brain around how my four girls are going to put their children through college or whatever it will be referred to in 2032.

    College costs are a big bug-a-boo of mind!


    P.s. I have a whole new group of folks to pray for. Thanks for bringing to light this good news for Georgia and the other states getting on that band wagon.

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