Thursday, March 13, 2008

Life Behind Bars

One of the responsibilities of my current job is to go to a medium security prison once a week to oversee the educational programs that are carried out there. It has been interesting to spend this time on the other side of the razor wire.

Over 7.2 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at year end 2006 -- 3.2% of all U.S. adult residents or 1 in every 31 adults. (Corrections Statistics)

Justice Works reports that 600,000 people return to communities from corrections facilities each year.

What is the consequence to our society that we so routinely lock people up? How is this practice serving us? How is it limiting us?

I cannot help but remember the classic study attempted by Phillip Zimbardo at Stanford University in which students who agreed to participate in the experiment were randomly assigned to be placed in the social role of being either "prisoners" or "guards". The experiment had to be stopped early due to concerns for how those roles were negatively affecting the students.

Some have said the same forces were at work in Abu Ghraib where military detainees were inexcusably tortured. However, closer analysis shows there were plenty of differences between those two situations.

When we cover the unit on deviance my students and I get into lengthy discussions about the appropriateness of prison for various non-violent offenses. Who does it help? What alternatives are possible?

One of the interesting growth industries cropping up lately has been the emergency of Prisons for Profit - privately run corporations that build and run medium and maximum security detention facilities for hire such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

An intriguing statistic I found was that "In fact, from 1975 to 1985, the serious crime rate actually decreased by 1.42 per cent while the number of state and federal prisoners nearly doubled" (Smith 1993). On the face of it that doesn't seem to make much sense. But as writer Phil Smith explains "The number of people sent to prison is actually determined by policy decisions and political expediency. Politicians of all stripes have sought cheap political points by being "tough on crime.".... He later goes on to caution:
"The most worrisome aspect of prison privatization is the inevitable emergence of a private "prison lobby" concerned not with social welfare but with increasing its dividends, not with doing good, but with doing well. Sentencing guidelines, parole rules, corrections budgets, and new criminal legislation are areas in which private prison operators have a vested interest and could influence policy decisions. They could also benefit by manipulating public fear of crime. Unlike most other public policy arenas, criminal justice policy is largely determined not by the realities of crime but by its perception. That the fear of crime is exploited by politicians and "reality television" programming is a truism; but imagine a full-fledged corporate public relations campaign designed to whip up crime hysteria in order to increase profits."

Whether it is Prisons run by the state or by private companies, the reality is that lots of jobs are generated by keeping ever increasing numbers of men and women locked up.

As Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans wrote in 1998: "The building and maintenance of prisons are big business. Investment houses, construction companies, architects and support services such as food, medicine, transportation and furniture, all stand to profit by prison expansion. A burgeoning “specialty item” industry sells fencing, handcuffs, drug detectors, productive vests and other security devices to prisons."

They go on to say: "Prisons are also a leading rural growth industry. With traditional agriculture being pushed aside by agribusiness, many rural US communities are facing hard times. Economically depressed areas are falling over each other to secure a prison facility of their own.

Prisons are seen as a source of construction, local vendor and prison staff jobs, as well as a source of tax revenues. An average prison has an annual payroll of several million dollars.

Like any industry, the prison economy needs raw materials. In this case the raw materials are prisoners. The prison-industrial complex can grow only if more and more people are incarcerated for longer periods -- even if crime rates drop."

With all that in mind...I cannot help but wonder as I go through the clanking metal doors every Tuesday, how do these concrete cages for men and women serve our society? How do they harm us all, no matter what side of the fence we are on?


Jen said...

Have you read Freakonomics? The author uses statistical analysis to tie crime rates to birth rates with implications about legalized abortion.

I remember the Zimbardo study from my sociology classes. I've never heard of "prisons for hire" before, but it does bring up some very interesting questions!

Belladonna said...

My brother has also recommended Freakonomics - I just haven't picked it up yet. I have a gift certificate for just waiting for me to make a many books, so little time. I'll definitely have to add this one to my list to get to.

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