Tag Archive for inmate

Debtors’ Prisons: Feeding a Vicious Cycle of Recidivism

Money macroPicture an inmate at the end of his sentence. The barred gates of the jail open up, and he steps out into the fresh air of freedom. Let’s assume this is an inmate who has been wholeheartedly reformed, kicked his bad habits, and has a determined attitude about rebuilding his life.

Then the bill comes. Not the rent or the bill for utilities, but a bill for the legal fees incurred, plus fines. Suddenly, that inmate ends up back in prison through no fault of his own except for lack of resources.

This is the picture presented by Charlene Muhammad of the New America Media as she examines the new findings presented by the ACLU:

After a year long investigation into the assessment and collection of fees associated with criminal sentences in Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, and Washington, the ACLU reported in ‘In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons,’ that courts across the U.S. were profiting from debtors’ prisons by violating a Supreme Court decision ordering courts to investigate a person’s inability to pay before returning them to prison.

Since the poor and the minorities are disproportionately represented in the average jail population, this raises a number of disturbing issues. Since Muhammad’s article is quite long (and is highly recommended, by the way), we’re going to focus on one of the people she has interviewed, Geri Silva.

Silva is the director of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes Law, and she raises many valid points. For on thing, in a country where right to counsel is axiomatic, the idea of making everyone pay the fees and fines irrespective of their financial means is ridiculous. That right to counsel exists to protect those who have no means:

[Silva] said the irony is that states are jailing people in ‘cash-strapped’ cities for failing to pay their legal fines, but turn around and pay triple or quadruple that amount to put people in jail.

‘It sort of leads one to believe that perhaps jails and prisons are money making enterprises for the states. All roads lead to prison and all thinking leads to the fact that if they’re filling these prisons, it’s not about public safety obviously but it has to have something to do with financial gain for the industry itself,’ Ms. Silva said.

[Silva] reiterated ‘In For a Penny’s’ position that men and women who are re-entering into society from prison already face tough obstacles. They have to try to rebuild their lives with reduced or no incomes, worsening credit ratings, poor housing prospects, and greater chances of recidivism.

Think back to the hypothetical inmate: Will he make it out of the jail with that same attitude after this, or will it kill the idea that he can be a productive member of society? After all, he’d played by the rules, and through no fault of his own ended up in prison again. How would you feel?

Muhammad writes,

‘How far will they go? Who are they trying to kid with this? How do you get blood out of a turnip? How does somebody who can’t pay, pay? Will they then find the one person who had their nails done or something instead of paying? Is that what they’re going to do to justify this insanity,’ Ms. Silva asked.

According to Ms. Silva, all of these issues that hang over a poor person who has been incarcerated stems from America’s building an industry that is skewed, sinister, uncivilized, and centered on punishment. Ask taxpayers if they would rather pay $600 in legal fees or thousands in jail costs and they would pick the more sensible route of less costs, she said.

Which brings us back to one of our recurring themes: It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing. Once more, the imbalance between taxpayer expenditure for jail costs is staggering compared to the cost of defraying these fees. As taxpayers, we would love to know that our taxes are not only being deployed to an effective program, but also that they are being reduced due to that program’s efficacy. It is, as they say, a no-brainer.

Consider the massive amount of cash it takes to run a jail or prison. Think about the cost of everything, from guards to food to laundry, but also about the number of staff needed to ensure a smooth operation of the facility.

Let’s close with one more remark from Silva:

‘The industry itself is tremendous. Can you imagine what it takes to run, say, California State Prisons in terms of food services, clothing, armaments, initially the building trades? It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that a great number of people are getting fat off of so it’s so disingenuous for them to say they’re losing money because people aren’t paying their fees,’ Ms. Silva added.

Should we be paying for this, or should we demand fiscal responsibility and a new approach?

Source: “Report: Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons Devastating the Poor,” New America Media, 10/20/10
Image by Kevin Dooley, used under its Creative Commons license
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California to Shift Prison Population?

JailInteresting things are happening in the California penal system. Both sides of the aisle, left and right, have plans for a big change in the way the prison system works. Of course, much of this is being fueled by the massive deficit facing the state.

It seems that the shortage of cash on the part of the government has those in power trying to find ways to shift the prison population into less costly venues. Michael Gardener, a writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, explores the details in his recent piece in Sign on San Diego:

The state’s plans to ship low-risk prisoners to local jails could cost counties revenue and are raising fears that inmates may be released early. Transferring non-sex offender prisoners to county jails are centerpieces of dueling plans put forward by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Senate Democrats as they scramble to close a $19 billion budget gap.

The foundation of both proposals is to save the state money by offering counties incentives — including cash and greater alternative sentencing authority — to accept more prisoners.

The initiatives are drawing resistance from San Diego County supervisors, statewide law enforcement groups and Republican lawmakers.

‘Counties are very concerned and very suspicious,’ said Greg Cox, a San Diego County supervisor.

A variety of arguments, pro and con, are being presented by both the media and the political class. Suppporters stress that, if implemented, plans like this would give the counties greater lattitude to explore alternative methods such as drug treatment, supervised probation, and others methods that are slowly gaining steam as our prisons fill past the bursting point with mostly non-violent offenders.

On the flip side, the counties are wary of state-proposed programs due to the fact that state payments have usually lagged well behind the costs burden that the programs represent. The cost trail will be important to examine, since it will be one of the major factors fueling this debate. Another one, and by far the most important from a human standpoint, is the offenders themselves. While the phrase “early release” ring warning bells for many in California, it is important to examine whether these people truly need to be incarcerated.

What are your thoughts? If you live in California, we would particularly like to hear your pros and cons on this subject.

Source: “State’s plans to send prisoners to county jails worry officials,” Sign On San Diego, 08/25/10
Image by Tim Pearce-Los Gatos, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Digital Prisoner Tracking: Orwellian Surveillance or a Step Forward?

Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing TimeOne of the persistent issues in the American penal system is that it is massively overcrowded. A plethora of reasons for this abounds, as a simple Google search will show. The solutions have been in shorter supply.

Graeme Wood, a contributing editor for The Atlantic magazine, has a very interesting column in the September issue (available to us now courtesy of the magazine’s website). In it, he looks at the concept of “turning prison inside out” by using electronic surveillance. For those of you who recall the ankle unit worn by Martha Stewart after her trial, that is the kind he talks about.

Should we bring more inmates out of prisons and into society — if they can be properly monitored with an ankle device? Will this have a positive, tangible effect on recidivism? On prison overpopulation? As crime rates have gone down, the average sentence term has grown longer, leaving our penal system overloaded with inmates.

This would not be as large of an issue if inmates were reformed. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case, as Wood notes:

But that isn’t the case either: half of those released are back in prison within three years. Indeed, research by the economists Jesse Shapiro of the University of Chicago and M. Keith Chen of Yale indicates that the stated purpose of incarceration, which is to place prisoners under harsh conditions on the assumption that they will be ‘scared straight,’ is actively counterproductive. Such conditions — and U.S. prisons are astonishingly harsh, with as many as 20 percent of male inmates facing sexual assault — typically harden criminals, making them more violent and predatory. Essentially, when we lock someone up today, we are agreeing to pay a large (and growing) sum of money merely to put off dealing with him until he is released in a few years, often as a greater menace to society than when he went in.

It would seem that finding alternatives to incarceration makes good economic sense. Could the use of devices like this allow us to ease the pressure on our strained-to-bursting jails and prisons? Wood outlines a tripod of benefits from using the tracking devices, summed up at the end of the following excerpt from his article:

Devices such as the ExacuTrack, along with other advances in both the ways we monitor criminals and the ways we punish them for their transgressions, suggest a revolutionary possibility: that we might turn the conventional prison system inside out for a substantial number of inmates, doing away with the current, expensive array of guards and cells and fences, in favor of a regimen of close, constant surveillance on the outside and swift, certain punishment for any deviations from an established, legally unobjectionable routine. The potential upside is enormous. Not only might such a system save billions of dollars annually, it could theoretically produce far better outcomes, training convicts to become law-abiders rather than more-ruthless lawbreakers. The ultimate result could be lower crime rates, at a reduced cost, and with considerably less inhumanity in the bargain. [Emphasis ours.]

It is a good argument, and Wood presents a lot of upsides to the approach. Still, there are also all the issues endemic to a surveillance society a well. An argument could be made that this is a slippery slope, with the increasing usage possibly hiding just below the horizon.

As it happens often with social justice issues, benefits must be weighed against the more Orwellian factors when considering this situation. Which side do you find more logical? Let us know, leave a comment!

Source: “Prison Without Walls,” The Atlantic, 09/10
Image copyright Susan Madden Lankford, from the book “Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time.” Used with permission.

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Recidivism May Be Worse Than We Think

Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing TimeRecidivism: returning to a behavior pattern despite negative reinforcement. It’s a term most often used in cases of criminal activity or substance abuse. It is a chronic problem in the penal systems around the world, not just in the United States.

A few years ago, the BBC examined recidivism rates in the U.S. and the U.K., with some interesting results (via the Wikipedia entry for “recidivism”):

As reported on BBC Radio 4 on 2 September 2005, the recidivism rates for released prisoners in the United States of America is 60% compared with 50% in the United Kingdom but cross-country statistical comparisons are often questionable. The report attributed the lower recidivism rate in the UK to a focus on rehabilitation and education of prisoners compared with the US focus on punishment, deterrence and keeping potentially dangerous individuals away from society.

While the actual statistics may be a bit out of date, the idea on what fuels the disparity is worthy of note. The U.K. approach is geared towards reintegrating inmates into society by giving them tools with which to operate within its strictures. The programs taking this approach are popping up across the U.S. as well.

Still, the sheer number of people returning to jail after their initial term is staggering. What’s worse, according to a new study conducted in Memphis, Tennessee, those numbers may be higher than we have previously thought. Michael Lollar, a reporter for The Commercial Appeal, gives us the details:

[...U]p to 94 percent of former inmates will be rearrested and up to 81 percent will wind up behind bars again.

The numbers are part of a 20-year study that shows recidivism is far worse than statistics usually indicate. It is the only study done over such a long period of time, tracking inmates who were first jailed at the correction center between 1987 and 1991, says psychologist Dr. Greg Little…

Drs. Greg Little and Kenneth Robinson, founders of Correctional Counseling Inc., began the study in order to track the effectiveness of their treatment program as opposed to “traditional” incarceration. One reason that their numbers show a greater increase is, they say, grounded in methodology. Lollar’s article explains:

Tennessee Department of Correction studies show recidivism rates of about 51 percent over a three-year period, and national studies show recidivism averages of roughly 65 percent over three years. But Little and Robinson say the numbers keep going up over time, and the numbers are higher because most studies don’t count re-incarcerations that took place in other states or in courts other than the original case. For instance, an inmate released on state probation or parole is seldom counted as a recidivist if later jailed for a federal crime.

Even if their numbers prove incorrect, the ones they purport to replace are bad enough. Once jailed, more than half of all inmates will face a return to prison in their fairly near future. I think we can all agree that a system that is less than 50% effective is far from being in good working order.

The questions remain: How do we reduce the rates of recidivism? Does rehabilitation have a greater overall effect than simple punishment? Are there other techniques that can aid in rectifying this unfortunate situation? Let us know your thoughts in the comments – HUMANE EXPOSURES wants to know!

Source: “Recidivism,” Wikipedia
Source: “Recidivism rate worse than statistics indicate, Memphis-area study finds,” The Commercial Appeal, 03/07/10
Image copyright Susan Madden Lankford, from the book “Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time.” Used with permission.

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