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America, Prison Capital of the World

Article by Stephen Cox.
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The California prison system, euphemistically known as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, employs more people than any other state agency. It has 69,000 authorized positions. Between 1998 and 2009, its budget almost tripled, reaching $10.3 billion dollars in the latter year – despite the fact that the number of people in prison had increased by only 9% during the period. (I’m using the Department’s own figures here.) 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, despite the fact that I, unlike 85% 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 only about $20,000 per year, per inmate, and of that only $4300 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% more inmates than Florida, had almost 500% more homicides in its prisons. When homicides are combined with deaths from “accidents” and drug and alcohol intoxication, that percentage is about 550.

It needn’t surprise anyone that giving more money to “corrections” may not be the best way to solve its problems (any more than giving more money to government schools is the best way to solve the problems of education). But giving more money is exactly what states have been doing. According to a recent report from the Pew Center on the States, between 1987 and 2007 state expenditures on prisons rose nationally by 315%. During the same period, the number of people in prison rose by only (!) 169%, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The Pew report shows that even Florida gives 9.3% of its general fund to corrections, with California slightly behind, at 8.6% – an indication that the total amount of money that a state spends on prisons isn’t influenced so much by the nature of the prison regime as by the amount of money that taxpayers “contribute” to the state. One way or another, the prisons are going to be given their due proportion of the take.

Any problems with the prisons – and there are a lot – 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?

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