Of all the myriad failures wrought by checkbook government/lobby legislation, one would be hard pressed to find one more total than the “justice”/punishment matrix. My aerie in Boylan Heights, a bit father from Dorothea Dix hospital than the Central Prison hospital/psych ward climbing from the mud, gives me a fine perch to ponder that incarcerees suffering from mental illness outnumber those being served by North Carolina’s dysfunctional mental health system by a factor of four. North Carolina has time traveled to where we were before Ms. Dix pioneered the end of the use of the gaol for medical cases.
The why of it is the same as that which delivered the state and nation to their present unenviable economic position … money itself. Crime does in fact pay … if you’re in the prison business. Since the end of the last century the primary entity experiencing an uptick in fortunes via a symbiosis of get-tough stance toward crime and the launch of yet another disastrous, failed “War,” the one on drugs, has been Incarceration Inc. triumphantly heralded by a piddly few hundreds of jobs, mostly in employment-starved rural areas. “They are the economic drivers,” said Rep. Alice Bordsen, D-Alamance.
The private prison business enjoyed a run of spectacular profits and increased stock values aided by a handful of lobbying firms working for industry leaders: CCA, Cornell Corrections, Corrections Properties Trust as well as prison builders Ray Bell Constructions and Centex Rooney, who were delighted to build spaces for North Carolina’s share of this county’s prisoners. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, and 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
None of this came cheaply. Despite the glowing promises of privatization, the losers in Pax Corporatica’s War on Crime/Drugs have cost you a bundle, reflected by a 2004 US Bureau of Justice Special report, State Prison Expenditures, displaying an upward, alpine slope in contrast to the minimal effect on crime — with no end in sight. The numbers, please.
According to the SBI’s figures, NC’s index crimes, including the non-violent sort, stand at a fairly consistent 5000 or so per 100,000. Yet from 1971 to 2005 incarceration rates jumped by l00 per 100,000 every three to six years, from 143 to 742. That’s 40,000 new prisoners caught up in get-tough policies that helped create a disgraceful, dehumanizing go-go gold rush in human captivity. One North Carolina prison cell costs $80,000. One prisoner requires around $25,000 a year for accommodations, funded by the Department of Corrections current annual budget of $1.3 billion. Following some public relations disasters in the late nineties, notably a couple of Tar Heels’ escape from a private Texas facility, the state took control of private facilities in 2000, although lobbyists kept the bucks rolling in. Private out-of-state prison construction firms were contracted to build leased cells the state will operate for 10,000 predicted guests. Over the 20-year lease period, via a complicated series of trusts and contracts, these new prisons will end up costing the taxpayer $100 million more had the state simply bought them.
Although the prison model has failed on any number of levels, the human qualities are the most compelling. When everyone in a community has a relative or friend who has been in prison, the stigma of having being an ex-con no longer has the same effect. This is borne out by a look at rates of recidivism. The zeal for incarceration and that the state spends nothing to prepare prisoner for release has had a negative effect on tamping crime and may in fact have contributed to increases in certain categories. It is cliché that prisons are schools for drug use. What is becoming better known is while a mere third of US prisoners were convicted of violent crimes, the majority of the remaining are casualties of the War on Drugs, whose share to the nation’s prisons are up 1200 percent since 1980.
Much white drug activity is conducted behind doors owned by the drug users while outdoor drug markets are a fixture in impoverished, urban areas where drug dealing may well be the only job, subject to the scrutiny of law enforcement and a system based on low-hanging fruit and cultural bias, profiling, that has no basis of fact. The disparities are amply displayed by statistics showing black high school seniors drug use at three quarters the rate of white seniors and white seniors being admitted for drug-related hospital emergency room visits three times as often as black seniors. The inequities are even more starkly seen in the 2007 paper by the Justice Policy Institute, “The Vortex: The Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug Imprisonment and the Characteristics of Punitive Counties.” In Forsyth County, NC, black folks are 164 TIMES more likely than whites to become victim to a sort of ritual sacrifice, the deathless sort of death of the prison sentence. Our system seems to be uncannily adept at creating an endless supply of what the thriving prison business calls “product,” serving to deprive threatened communities, a whole culture, of men, no longer available to be potentially turned toward a positive presence, gone.
The “get tough” trends of the last few decades nurtured money making ventures that are trafficking in human flesh emptied the cup of so-called progress filled in the years since the Civil War. It is beyond irony that descendants of the same ethnic group freed by that catastrophic, defining American conflict are the agents of profit today. There is a place in this state where the same people the war was supposedly fought over are imprisoned by the entity who “freed” them, on the site of the old Vann place, one of the larger North Carolina slave plantations out in the middle of scrubby piney cotton land, where the Meherrin River meets the Chowan. Although NC amended its statute allowing private prisons to forbid out-of-state prisoners, the Feds retained that privilege, hence the Geo group’s River’s Correctional Institution in Hertford County, most of whose guests are low-level D.C. drug offenders.
Besides the shattered lives, communities and costs, prison “solutions” rob from society people who could add to the society — and the taxes they would pay. Proponents of prison solution point to numbers of incarcerated as “success” when in fact the numbers represent failures on a multi-layered grounds.
I was working on this piece when I was preempted. When the vehicle of preemption was US Senator, Jim Webb of Virginia’s introduction of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 the emotions following were quite different that the string of robust curses that would have typically followed.
“The reality of what we’re doing right now is that all this incarceration has not stopped drug usage at all,” Webb was quoted on NPR’s Diane Rehm show.
Already Senator Webb’s courageous position has drawn together an unlikely spectrum of supporters, the usual expected “bleeding hearts,” plus traditional conservatives like Senators Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
With all of this squarely in the wind, much as with the two by four and the proverbial mule as an attention getter, now that the State’s revenue has had its knees swept from underneath it, we might perhaps consider doing a little preemption ourselves, flipping what would be viewed in other cases as an unpleasant necessity into a avenue for positive growth. Within Governor Perdue’s looming choice of which prisons to close and by extension which to overcrowd to levels dangerous both to inmates and staff lies an opportunity to experiment with lowering levels of imprisonment and attendant reaping some economic/financial benefits. The vast oceans of squandered revenue could be put to better use. I point to the so-called “Missouri Model,” for an example, where that state has deferred juvenile offenders to a rehabilitation center instead of incarceration. The program has created a great positive change in young peoples’ lives and state budgets. Following Missouri’s lead, The New York Times reports that California was able to reallocate almost $100 million by lowering its incarceration rates. There is no reason North Carolina could not expect positive gains were all those funds spent on prisons allocated to ensure that every person had minimally a roof, food, medicine … and education.