(This was written almost two years ago. It was meant to be an opinion piece in the local newspaper. Knowing that even liberal people are uneasy with prison issues, I strove to make the rhetoric as conventional as possible. The paper rejected it.)
A February 29 AP story notes that the United States leads the world by far in both the percentage and the actual number of citizens it incarcerates. Even China with a population four times as large, a dictatorial regime, and an arbitrary justice system is left far behind. Our one-time competition in this field – apartheid South Africa and the old Soviet Union – no longer waste their national resources keeping such vast numbers behind bars.
Make no mistake; it is a substantial commitment of resources. Estimates in different states vary widely, but most spend in the range of $20,000-$40,000 every year for each prisoner. As a whole the states spend about seven percent of their budgets on corrections, amounting to $44 billion, a figure that has more than doubled in the last twenty years, even when adjusted for inflation.
Corrections officers understand that the very “frills” that sometimes annoy outsiders (such as HBO or weight rooms) are essential at present staffing levels since they occupy many inmates for long periods of time with little supervision. A corrections teacher in the New York system has about twenty inmates in a class. In a building where I worked for six years, there were four such classrooms: including porters and other programs almost a hundred men were typically overseen by a single officer. But, unlike daytime television and athletic pastimes, education has been proven by study after study to reduce recidivism -- by 33% in the recent comprehensive OCE/CEA Three State Recidivism Study of state-held prisoners. Similar results are available across the country. When college was allowed, not a single B.A. recipient in California’s Folsom prison re-offended after release. This kind of success, one would think, would lead those concerned about crime to advocate more such programs, but the very opposite is the case.
Of course, reducing crime to begin with is even better than reducing recidivism. Here, too, the answer is clear. Crime is overwhelmingly economically motivated. Only a few inmates are sadistic or pedophiliac or otherwise psychologically damaged; most simply sought to make money in socially destructive ways such as drug-dealing. Given another option, most are smart enough to take it. The great majority of New York inmates come from only a few blighted neighborhoods. How many students from affluent suburban high schools end up incarcerated? Those from the upper middle class are not morally superior; they simply have more options.
Racism remains a potent factor in American corrections. One in nine black men between 20 and 34 is imprisoned. Very often my class was made up entirely of black and Hispanic students. The occasional white person was more likely to be from Albania than Albany. The rate of imprisonment of African Americans is not only seven times that of whites; it is also seven times the rate at which apartheid South Africa locked up blacks in 1993. According to a study reported in the Wall Street Journal a white ex-con has a better chance at getting a job than a black man without a record.
A serious commitment to a renewed war on poverty would reduce the number of offenders more effectively than any “get tough” policy. A secure job with good union benefits would provide every worker with a motive to stay out of trouble.
I am speaking of social policy, not of morality. As I always told my inmate-students, whatever they did to harm people remains their own moral responsibility regardless of social factors. They have brothers and sisters who, subject to the same pressures, influences, and temptations did not take the foolish path into crime. However, morality is an individual matter that cannot be legislated. Creating better opportunities for American youth both before and after incarceration can be done. To build a better America for the future, both for those who would otherwise be criminals and for potential victims of crime, we need social programs that provide something closer to an even playing field for all and that seek to reintegrate offenders into society rather than stigmatizing them.
William Seaton worked for ten years in education programs of New York state prisons.