Tag Archive for penal system

The Economics of Incarceration in Arizona

MoneyThe economic side of the penal system is something we look at a lot. In so many cases, the return of preventative programs vastly outstrips the return we see from imprisoning people. Our documentary is titled It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing because that is, quite simply, the case.

Of course, there are also darker sides of the economic angle that bear scrutiny. When we speak of the economic factors, we are talking about ways in which to spend less and achieve better results. For some others, it is a matter of how much can be made from the business of incarceration.

Laura Sullivan has a very illuminating piece on NPR (you can read it or listen to the audio) focusing on this very subject. She takes a look at the spiderweb of business interests that stand to reap serious financial gains from Arizona’s new immigration law. [Note: this is not a debate about the law itself, but an examination of the way in which the prison industry has influenced the letter of the law for its financial gain. Comments debating immigration law will be considered off topic and not published.]

While there has been both forceful opposition and support for the law, it would behoove both sides to look closer at the way the law came about. NPR did some digging:

NPR spent the past several months analyzing hundreds of pages of campaign finance reports, lobbying documents and corporate records. What they show is a quiet, behind-the-scenes effort to help draft and pass Arizona Senate Bill 1070 by an industry that stands to benefit from it: the private prison industry. The law could send hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to prison in a way never done before. And it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to private prison companies responsible for housing them.

What follows is a hard look at the influence of lobbyists. It starts with the Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce, who claims the bill was his idea. His stated stance is that Americans need to look at the cost of not enforcing our laws and securing the border. The interesting part is that instead of bringing his idea up on the Senate floor, he instead brought it to a meeting of a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that took place last December at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C.

If you look at the composition of the group, an interesting picture develops:

It’s a membership organization of state legislators and powerful corporations and associations, such as the tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., ExxonMobil and the National Rifle Association. Another member is the billion-dollar Corrections Corporation of America — the largest private prison company in the country.

Both members of the Corrections Corporation of America and Pearce are not only members but also sit on several of ALEC’s boards. Model legislation was developed at the Hyatt, legislation that was adopted almost verbatim four months later. Pearce claims that even though lobbyists were in attendance, he did not go to meet with them, but rather to meet with other legislators:

Pearce may go there to meet with other legislators, but 200 private companies pay tens of thousands of dollars to meet with legislators like him.

As soon as Pearce’s bill hit the Arizona statehouse floor in January, there were signs of ALEC’s influence. Thirty-six co-sponsors jumped on, a number almost unheard of in the capitol. According to records obtained by NPR, two-thirds of them either went to that December meeting or are ALEC members.

That same week, the Corrections Corporation of America hired a powerful new lobbyist to work the capitol.

This is an economic angle that we need to watch. There is no way to fight the bloating of our prison system without realizing that this is big business. There are so many jobs and so much money wrapped up in the penal system that it’s truly frightening. The approach to imprisonment being taken in Arizona and many other places seems to view an increase in the number of people incarcerated as a good thing, since, after all, it creates jobs and salaries. The fact that it costs taxpayers far more than the alternatives does not enter into that kind of logic.

This is not merely a problem in the areas near the border when immigration is such a massive issue. On the first of last month, I wrote about the astounding and disturbing state of affairs in Canon City, CO, the town with 13 prisons. Just to put it into perspective, Canon City has 36,000 residents, which makes it roughly one prison per 2,700 people. Sounds like big business to me, especially since one of those 13 is the Supermac, the new “Alcatraz of America.”

It does not matter whether this happens in Arizona, Colorado, or some other state. The fact remains that we have 5% of the global population and roughly a quarter of the world’s incarcerated here in the U.S.A. If the trend of embracing the corrections system as a revenue-generating business continues, those numbers will become even more out of balance.

So, as the prison system in Arizona hits a major growth spurt, I’d like to leave you with two short quotes to keep in mind:

‘When we provide treatment, we can cut recidivism rates down 25, 35, sometimes 40 percent.’
– Douglas B. Marlowe, J.D., Ph.D., Chief of Science, Policy and Law, National Association of Drug Court Professionals

and

‘It makes long term economic sense to try and take care of these people in a humane way, and help them heal.’
– Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., Senior Fellow, Child Trauma Academy

Source: “Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law,” NPR, 10/28/10
Image by AMagill, used under its Creative Commons license.
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“It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing” Wins Second Place at Bayou City Inspirational Film Fest

It's More Expensive to Do Nothing - A documentary form Humane Exposures Films

Click on the image for larger size

HUMANE EXPOSURES films is proud to announce that It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing, our documentary about the flaws in our penal system and their possible solutions, has taken second place at the Bayou City Inspirational Film Festival (BCIFF) in Houston, TX.

We would like to thank everyone who has attended the festival, and everyone who has shown us support so far! Each one of you is an important part of the process as we work towards change, so thank you all!

The BCIFF is presented by the PROGRESS Arts Group, a nonprofit arts and education organization. Here is a little bit about the festival:

The Bayou City Inspirational Film Festival (BCIFF) was founded by its executive director, Shanda Davis, to showcase diverse film and video projects that:

* Educate and enlighten us on political, social, psychological, economic, health, religious, and a variety of other issues,
* Offer hope and encouragement as well as inspire us to contribute towards the betterment of society and
* Display positive relationships, morals, individual, and family values.

The Bayou City Inspirational Film Festival’s mission is:

* To provide a viable platform for independent filmmakers and artists from around the world to showcase their works,
* To provide awareness to the world about the variety of educational, inspirational and positive works available and the need to integrate more of these types of works into society,
* To provide a networking platform for filmmakers and industry professionals and
* To showcase the artistic excellence of children & youth in Houston and surrounding areas and provide scholarships to assist them in furthering their arts education.

For those of you who have yet to see the film, here is the trailer:

If our film hit home, or even if you just have an interest in this issue, please take a moment and share it with a few of your friends. The wider audience we can reach the better chance we have of not only alleviating the trials of those stuck in the vicious cycle, but also doing it in a way that reduces the cost to society and government. It truly is much more expensive to do nothing!

Source: “The Bayou City Inspirational Film Festival,” BCIFF Website
Image copyright Susan Madden Lankford, from the HUMANE EXPOSURES films documentary “It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing.” Used with permission.
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“Prison Valley”: The Town With 13 Prisons

PVlogoThere is a place in the U.S. where prison defines the culture of the area around it. That city is Canon City, Colorado, and it is described on the Prison Valley website as:

A town in the middle of nowhere with 36,000 souls and 13 prisons, one of which is Supermax, the new ‘Alcatraz’ of America. A prison town where even those living on the outside live on the inside. A journey into what the future might hold.

The idea boggles the mind. When you start to remember every news item you’ve seen over the decades about prison overcrowding — and realize that each year it’s getting worse — that boggle becomes a chill. Sixteen percent of Canon City’s population are prisoners.

Now you can visit Canon City as easily as you can fire up your web browser. Journalist David Dufresne and photographer Philippe Brault have created an interactive web documentary about the town. Once you start it, you get a narrated drive into the area telling you about the prisons and the settlement that grew up around them. Narrated sequences alternate with interactive experiences to allow you a very organic and in-depth view of the area.

Alison Herd, a writer for Radio France Internationale, comments on the interactive and the social-media-driven aspects of the project:

[...U]sers can check into a room at the motel with a personal Facebook or Twitter account, attend the Dead Warden ceremony run by the Correctional Peace Officers Foundation, visit the prison museum or find out more about the Supermax prison (known as the ‘Alcatraz of the Rockies’).

Above all, the work invites you to go beyond the film, to take part in online debates and exchange emails with people who appear in the documentary.

‘For me, web documentary needs interactivity,’ says photographer Philippe Brault.

‘In Prison Valley we tried to bring debate into the issue of locking people up. That was the ultimate goal: to set off from a small town in Colorado, surrounded by thirteen prisons, soon to be fourteen, and have that story generate debate.’

That is something we applaud. Our own offerings here at HUMANE EXPOSURES are also geared towards expanding the conversation around these topics and exploring possibilities for substantive change. (Just take a look at the items we cover daily on this blog.)

So, please watch Prison Valley. If the awards mean anything, you’re in for quite a ride! Just take a look at what the piece has garnered already in 2010:

Awards:

Official Selections:

It’s a fascinating use of technology and an important study of where the out-of-control penal system could lead if substantive changes are not made. To watch the film, click on this link: Watch Prison Valley Now.

Source: “SOS photojournalism: web docs to the rescue?” Radio France Internationale, 09/1/10
Source: “Prison Valley,” Prison Valley, 2010
Prison Valley Logo, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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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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America’s Prison Plight

Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing TimeIt is no secret that the American prison system is rife with problems. It is the personal stories of women in our penal system that led our own Susan Madden Lankford to create Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time, in which she juxtaposes black-and-white images taken in jails with quotes and personal narratives from the incarcerated.

This window into the incarcerated life, its hardships, and its social ramifications, is especially important in the modern day, a day when our penal system is bursting at the seams. David C. Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington, D.C., attributes this to the “Three Strikes” laws and other mandatory minimum-sentencing laws. He asserts that the overly harsh sentencing is responsible for not only causing the prison population to skyrocket, but is also culpable for the fact that approximately one in 11 of the imprisoned are there for life.

There are many aspects to this breakdown. Craig Welkener of AOL News brings us some of the disturbing facts in his recent opinion piece on the subject. Take particular note of the last two items, which directly affect imprisoned females:

The problems with today’s prisons are well documented. Conditions are deplorable. Here are a few facts:

  • Federal prisons are being operated at 160 percent capacity. Mandatory minimum sentences are putting thousands of nonviolent offenders in prison, for disproportionately long terms.
  • Approximately two-thirds of prisoners released each year will be back behind bars in some form before three years have passed.
  • Mental health care is woefully inadequate.
  • Prison rape is a moral outrage rampant across America. More than 60,500 inmates reported sexual abuse in 2007 (the actual number of rapes is likely far higher), and nearly 1 out of every 8 juveniles in custody became a victim of sexual assault from 2008 to 2009, according to a Department of Justice study.
  • Most states still allow the shackling of women during labor and delivery, often causing permanent scars. This unnecessary and humiliating procedure is opposed by the American Medical Association, the Rebecca Project for Human Rights and virtually anyone else who knows about it.

In short, the system is not working.

Those last two items in particular seem like something from the Middle Ages, yet they are faced daily in modern America. All of the factors listed by Welkener contribute to the additional trouble that former inmates have in reintegrating themselves back into society.

Take a look inside these walls, a bracing look at fellow humans fighting circumstances that dehumanize: Take a look at Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time. Unfiltered and presented in the words of the jailers and the imprisoned, it will take you into the chiaroscuro world of the female inmate, a world never seen before in quite this way.

Source: “Opinion: Why Obama Should Take on Prison Reform,” AOL News, 08/17/10
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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