The Price of America's Prison Gulags

A three-judge panel has tentatively
ruled that "[t]he California prison system must reduce overcrowding by
as many as 55,000 inmates within three years to provide a
constitutional level of medical and mental health care," according to the New York Times.

Taxpayers rightly resent the price tag of the prison system, and many
might understandably think that prisoners should have no right to
expensive care at their further expense. But if the prisons cannot
afford to care for its prisoners, we obviously have far too many.

Now is a good time to seriously reassess the whole system altogether.

There were virtually no prisons in this country when it was founded.
The modern criminal justice system grew out of the institution of
slavery (1, 2, 3).

Prisons exploded in their growth in the 20th century. The Progressive
Era, whose leaders dreamed of recreating society and redeeming mankind
through an active and expansionist state, accelerated the development
of today's system. It grew steadily.

Before Reagan's presidency, there were half a million Americans in
prison or jail and fewer than one and a half million on parole or
probation. Now there are more than two million behind bars and seven million total in the correctional system. In California, prisons grew by 500 percent from 1982 to 2000.

This is madness. And it's expensive.

Some worry about the strain on social infrastructure if prisoners were
mass-released, but they could not possibly cost the state more than
they do now. They would also at least have the chance to create wealth
as workers and consumers in the market, rather than just being a drain
in the public sector.

Each
prisoner costs taxpayers $35,000 a year. Victims are not made whole,
but forced to foot the bill to house their perpetrators.

The state used to have some restitution centers
through which white-collar convicts could work and pay back their
victims as well as some of their detention costs - but these were
closed down last month. State officials said the program was too
expensive.

Only government could lose more money making people work than just locking them up, feeding and clothing them.

Most offenders never get the opportunity to pay restitution, but are
simply jammed in obscenely overcrowded cages. California's system is
designed to hold about 100,000 but instead holds 171,000.

Judges used to have wide discretion in sentencing, which minimized
overcrowding. In 1977, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown stripped judges of
this authority. "Over the next decade, California's legislature,
dominated by Democrats, passed more than 1,000 laws increasing
mandatory prison sentences," according to the Washington Post.

Brutal violence is all too common. Human Rights Watch estimates that nationwide one out of fifteen male inmates is raped. Many prisoners are effectively the slaves of their cellmates.

Gang violence is endemic. The institution has become a totalitarian hell for those inside.

What's worse, most people incarcerated should not be. A quarter of the
inmates are locked up for non-violent drug offenses. They committed no
act of violence against anyone's person or property, and their
imprisonment is part of a destructive drug policy that has boosted
crime, trashed civil liberties, uprooted the social order and corrupted
the whole legal system.

Many
others are in prison for other non-violent offenses against the state -
unapproved gun ownership, tax evasion, and so forth. Many petty
criminals do not deserve anything like today's prisons, and their
incarceration helps no one.

Most prisoners can and should be released. The number of those who
actually must be isolated from society would not lead to overcrowding
or be an ungainly financial burden.

California's recidivism rate is the highest in America. The system does not work.

Indeed, people go in as small-time thieves and come out far worse. They
go in as drug users and come out desensitized to savage violence. They
go in as burglars and come out as rapists. Prisons increase crime.

Conservatives talk about the good old days when there was more
civility, more freedom, lower taxes and less crime. There were also far
fewer prisons. Until the modern system is rethought, we can never
restore the liberty and social peace we once had.