How the Prisons Hold Us Captive

Published May 19, 2011

After years of deficit financing, California is hurtling toward bankruptcy. Yet in the midst of the budget turmoil, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has just negotiated yet another Rolls-Royce contract with one of the biggest beneficiaries of state government: the prison guards’ union.

The deal was so friendly that even the state’s mainstream media began to criticize it.

The California prison system employs more people than any other state agency. It has 69,000 authorized positions.

Soaring Costs in California
Between 1998 and 2009, its budget almost tripled, reaching $10.3 billion dollars in the latter year – even though the number of people in prison had increased only 9 percent during the period, according to the Department’s own figures.

As of 2009, the average cost of maintaining an inmate in this system was more than $49,000, of which about a third was spent on healthcare. That is more than twice what my own excellent healthcare insurance costs me and my employer, the University of California, even though I, unlike 85 percent of the inmates in California prisons, am over 50 years old and therefore have higher real healthcare costs than the average California inmate.

Now, if you think this picture is representative only of California, you are right – in a way. Florida, which is demographically comparable in many respects, and also has a “modern” prison system, spends about $20,000 per year per inmate, and of that only $4,300 is spent on healthcare.

But which state has the better prison system? One measure – bleak and basic – of a prison’s success is the extent to which it prevents its denizens from suffering needless death. The latest comprehensive state and national statistics on this, provided by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, cover the period from 2001 to 2007. They show that California, with 70 percent more inmates than Florida, had almost 500 percent more homicides in its prisons. When homicides are combined with deaths from “accidents” and drug and alcohol intoxication, that percentage is about 550.

Soaring Costs Nationally
According to a recent report from the Pew Center on the States, between 1987 and 2007 state expenditures on prisons rose nationally by 315 percent. During the same period, the number of people in prison rose by 169 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Any problems with the prisons – and there are a lot of them – are unlikely to be solved by increased taxation and expenditure. At present, it’s difficult to say how much the 50 states spend, per convict, on their prison systems; their reporting methods vary a good deal. The best estimate is something over $30,000 a year. Yet prisons are almost universally regarded as failures by the people who pay for them.

What can be done?

“Private prisons” are a potential means of making penal institutions more efficient and more humane, but they have never succeeded in clearly demonstrating their benefits – mainly because they are commissioned by the state and are governed by its customs and regulations. Under these conditions, private prisons have only so much ability to innovate.

Drug Decriminalization
Another way of getting a hold on “corrections” is to reduce the size of the prison population by decriminalizing drugs. This idea, which is good in itself, would undoubtedly help reduce both crime and the prison population. In 2008, “drug offenses” accounted for 26 percent of new male inmate admissions in California, and 33 percent of new female admissions. California wasn’t far from the national average.

Any patient review of individual inmate records shows that a very large portion of the prison population leaves, never to return, at the end of even a short sentence. Every opportunity must be taken to reduce sentences – no matter what the crime – to the deterrence level. Some habitual criminals, and many criminals of passion, are not deterred even by the prospect of a long sentence, but many other people are deterred just as much by a one-year as by a five-year jolt.

There is a myth, assiduously cultivated by cinematic sensationalists, that prisons are naturally places where people are constantly being murdered and raped, and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. That is a cynical assumption, embraced by both the modern conservatives who demonize “criminality” and the modern liberals who want to feel sorry for “imprisoned people,” without ever getting serious about safety and good order in the prisons.

During the past two centuries, most prisons in America have been incompetently managed. Yet, as demonstrated by the most extensive sociological study of prison operations (Close Control, by Nathan Kantrowitz), prisons can be run in such a way as to maintain safe conditions for both guards and inmates. It takes some rationality, and it takes some dedication, but it doesn’t take as much money as California currently spends on its dangerous, badly administered joints.

Stephen Cox ([email protected]) is professor of literature at University of California-San Diego. His most recent books are The New Testament and Literature (Open Court Publishing) and The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison (Yale University Press). Used with permission from