Violent Prison Riots Are Only the Latest Sign of Our Dysfunctional Criminal Justice System

This article was reprinted from The Faster Times. Faster. Smarter. Funnier: Go to for the latest in News, Politics, Science, Arts, Health, Nonsense, and everything else.

The recent riot at the prison in Chino -- the California Institution for Men -- was a terribly fitting capstone to months of downward spiral in the state. The overcrowded, underfunded prison, seething with racial tensions, exploded, leaving 175 inmates injured, one dormitory destroyed by fire and another smashed to uselessness, and all 1,600 prisoners evacuated with nowhere to go.

The prison situation is not California’s only socio-economic crisis, but it’s certainly one of the most instructive, showing how dysfunctional government, irresponsible politics, and incoherent policy can push a system to the breaking point. The riot came just days after a a court ordered the state to release over 40,000 inmates because the state’s overcrowded prisons violate Constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. And in the meantime, what few prison social programs there are that alleviate some of those conditions are getting slashed further in the latest round of budget cuts.

How did this happen? First, just consider the numbers. After California voters passed a number of get-tough-on-crime laws in the 1980s, the prison population in the state grew from about 20,000 (where it had been since the 1960s) to 167,000 today. That means that in 20 years, California found over 140,000 more people to put behind bars. And despite the boom in prison building, every single facility in the state is overcrowded. NPR’s Laura Sullivan, in a devastating report well worth listening to, points out that Folsom Prison, once looked to as a model for incarceration, now holds over 4,400 inmates in a facility built to hold 1,800:

Voters [in the 1980s] increased parole sanctions and gave prison time to nonviolent drug offenders. They eliminated indeterminate sentencing, removing any leeway to let inmates out early for good behavior. Then came the “Three Strikes You’re Out” law in 1994. Offenders who had committed even a minor third felony - like shoplifting - got life sentences.

And just as in today’s health care debate, no matter how bad things are, there are always powerful players invested in maintaining the status quo - in this case, the California correctional officers union. Sullivan reports that the union has grown from 2,600 members to 45,000 since 1980, salaries have increased substantially, and the union has poured money into advertising for get-tough-on-crime laws and the politicians who support them.  And yet despite the 30-year hiring blitz, the prison population has grown so much faster, there aren’t nearly enough correctional officers to guard it. At Chino, each dorm of about 200 inmates had as few as two guards, who were of course quickly overrun when the riot erupted.

Meanwhile, California’s recidivism rate is the highest in the country, at 70%. The court ruling ordering the release of inmates “accuses the state of fostering ‘criminogenic’ conditions that lead prisoners and parolees to commit more crimes, feeding a cycle of recidivism.” Shoplifters and small-time drug offenders and parole violators are being thrown in with violent felons, and essentially being assimilated into a culture of greater criminality.  Kara Dansky, Executive Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, tells On Point:

Increasing studies are showing that prison actually has an effect of increasing crime in many ways.  If you look at it at a local level, what the data shows is that in communities where increasing numbers of people are being sent to jail and prison, crime in those communities goes up…and there is speculation that it’s actually the conditions in prison that are causing these increasing crime rates.

Dansky acknowledges that the increasing incarceration rate does have some correlation to the decrease in violent crime over the last couple of decades, but notes that the latest studies suggest that it’s been responsible for only about a quarter of that crime reduction. It’s not hard to see plenty of other factors that played a role in reduced crime: the burgeoning economy of the 90s, the subsiding crack epidemic, the increased funding for community policing.

But what’s really at the heart of the country’s prison crisis is a moral problem. And I don’t mean that in the usual sense -- that we have a moral obligation to treat prisoners decently. In creating the largest prison system in the world over the last 30 years, America has engineered not a public safety or rehabilitative system but a vast punitive system. And that’s a moral choice. In the quote above, Dansky was responding to a caller who suggested that we could reduce prison costs by making conditions worse. Why spend money on facilities or care at all when prisoners have, after all, given up their rights by committing crimes?

I don’t mean to suggest that that caller represents a majority of Americans. But especially in a state like California, which requires direct voter approval of so many budget items,  it’s politically easy to get voter approval and funding for locking people up -- but very difficult to get approval and funding for prison upkeep and rehabilitative programs. And that’s largely because we’ve chosen to decide our funding priorities according to what people deserve. That’s a moral choice.  And we have to decide how much money and energy and resources we’re willing to devote to making sure people get what we feel they morally deserve.

Because a punitive system is inarguably more expensive than a rehabilitative one. It costs an average of $29,000 a year to keep someone in prison, but just $1,250 for probation and $2,750 for parole. And if you added just a tad to that $29,000 for rehabilitative and/or job training programs, you might be able to insure that those prisoners never come back.  Folsom Prison has a 75% recidivism rate. But in 20 years, not one inmate who participated in the prison’s Braille program, learning to translate books for the blind, has ever returned. Of course this year, that program’s been cut back to just 19 inmates out of 4,400.

But especially after 30 years of politicians one-upping each other in toughness on crime, it’s a hard political sell. In the long run, giving criminals good conditions, good health and mental care, and programs to help them be better citizens might be better for us all. But that doesn’t sound enough like punishment.

This moral/punitive streak isn’t just about prisons.  An increasing number of health care town hall attendees are protesting the possibility that taxpayer-funded health care might go to illegal immigrants. "Illegals" aren’t covered in any bill under consideration, but New York Rep. Anthony Weiner is one of the only politicians who was willing to tell constituents at a town hall that covering illegal immigrants is cheaper than forcing them to go to emergency rooms. (A campaign in California aims to restrict what little coverage there is by making children of illegal immigrants ineligible for any state benefits, including health care. The measure’s sponsors say their intent is to persuade illegals not to come -- to prevent so-called “birth tourism” -- but it seems pretty punitive to me.)

But even if enough people were convinced that providing better conditions to prisoners, or health care to illegal immigrants, were cheaper and statistically better for society as a whole … would we support it?

In a 2006 essay Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of a radical new approach to chronic homelessness in Denver. Given that a homeless person with chronic substance abuse problems can cost a state an estimated one million dollars over ten years in hospital visits, substance abuse treatment, and police work, the city decided to see what would happen if, instead of managing homelessness, it simply ended it: it took over one hundred chronically homeless people, gave each an apartment, and assigned case workers to manage them.  It turned out to cost a third of what these homeless people would cost the taxpayers if they stayed on the street.  But, writes Gladwell, it was extremely difficult for people to get behind:

From an economic perspective the approach makes perfect sense. But from a moral perspective it doesn’t seem fair. Thousands of people in the Denver area no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand-and no one offers them the key to a new apartment. Yet that’s just what the guy screaming obscenities and swigging Dr. Tich gets. When the welfare mom’s time on public assistance runs out, we cut her off. Yet when the homeless man trashes his apartment we give him another. Social benefits are supposed to have some kind of moral justification. We give them to widows and disabled veterans and poor mothers with small children. Giving the homeless guy passed out on the sidewalk an apartment has a different rationale. It’s simply about efficiency.

Even the promise of millions of dollars in savings … cannot entirely compensate for such discomfort.

Given the option of a prison system that was cheaper and more rehabilitation-focused, it’s entirely possible that many Americans would opt to spend more money on punitive measures -- or measures that seem morally fair.  We could have a “punishment tax” to fund more prisons and more guards, who could be charged with making sure prisoners don’t get too comfy. That’s a moral and social and economic choice we need to make, but that of course isn’t the way the debate is framed.

The other option is the track we’re on right now: we can keep trying to bring down that $29,000-a-year cost per prisoner. We could have tent camps instead of prisons, less food, no health care.  If prisoners got sick or died, well, they gave up their rights when they committed a crime.  Already, one California inmate per week dies of treatable or avoidable illness.)  And since prisoners are likely to emerge from these conditions as even more hardened criminals, perhaps we should think about not letting them out at all. I’m not trying to be melodramatic; I’m just gaming out the logical conclusions of the strains of thought that are politically popular -- or palatable -- right now.

In the end, the moral question around the prison crisis is as much about us as it is about the inmates themselves.  It’s possible to believe that convicted criminals don’t deserve anything at all, while still believing that our vast punitive system of overcrowded, violent, criminogenic prisons is something that shouldn’t exist in the United States.

The original version of this article can be found here at The Faster Times.


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