Loving Those State Prisons

Here is how prison policies made in Oklahoma and Washington take on a life of their own. Once prison operators, prison employees and community tax collectors learned they could profit from harsh, lock-'em-up drug control laws, a powerful political force was born to keep prisons full. 

During the 1980s and 1990s, tough-on-crime policies, especially drug control laws, overfilled America's prisons. State and federal prisons held only 315,974 inmates in 1980. By 2000, that number had skyrocketed to 1,321,137. When inmates in city and county jails are added, America's total prison population topped 2 million in 2002.

Prisons, however, are not reserved for violent offenders. In 2002, for example, 1,235,700 simple drug-possession arrests were made in the United States – about half of them for possession of marijuana. While not all of those arrested end up behind bars, the rush to lock up nonviolent offenders was, in large part, responsible for setting off America's prison-building boom.

A new study by Sarah Lawrence and Jeremy Travis at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center in Washington tracks how prisons became a growth industry in America.  In "The New Landscape of Imprisonment: Mapping America's Prison Expansion," they found nationally that "during the last quarter of the 20th century, state prison systems grew from 592 prisons to 1,023 prisons – an increase of 73 percent."

In 1979, 20 state correctional facilities, including prisons, operated in Oklahoma. By 2000, that number grew to 52, with 14 being privately run.  Seven facilities in Oklahoma County and two in Cleveland County are located near the capital city. Two more are in each of Tulsa, Hughes, Atoka, Pittsburg, Muskogee, Kay and Greer counties.

The U.S. Census counts prisoners where they are incarcerated, and federal and state agencies distribute funds based on this census data.  The more prisoners counted in a town or county, the bigger will be its share of tax-funded goodies from Washington and Oklahoma City. This gravy train includes a slice of $200 billion a year in formula grants from Washington to all state and local governments for Medicaid, foster care, adoption assistance and 169 other programs.  In addition, the same data are used to allocate state funds for community health services, road construction, law enforcement and public libraries.

Regular paychecks roll in for 4,983 prison employees in Oklahoma. And don't forget the incomes of employees of private firms that directly sell food, fuel, clothing and furniture to prisons. No wonder Oklahoma towns become addicted to this prison economy.

Spreading prisons across Oklahoma can actually perpetuate a large prison population.  As more towns become economically dependent on state prisons holding more than 22,429 inmates in 2002, the greater is the likelihood grass-roots support will grow for politicians who favor putting nonviolent people behind bars.  After all, it's in the self-interest of these towns to keep their prisons full and their local economies booming.

When prisons boom, everyone wins except the nonviolent inmates and the taxpayers. Politicians in Oklahoma City can show how tough they are on crime. Private prison operators and their investors make money. Prison guards pay off their mortgage and support local businesses. Even the tax collector gets his cut.

Now that the jailhouse economy is going strong, the political reforms needed to abandon this old drug war mentality will be much harder, if not impossible, to get through the legislature in Oklahoma City and Congress in Washington.

Chances are taxpayers are stuck with the cost of keeping 2 million men and women behind bars well into the future – not because justice demands it, but because the economic benefits of the prison business are working to keep it that way.

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