Mass incarceration in the United States constitutes a national economic and social disaster on a scale far in excess of the common criticisms of it heard today. Canada should pay full attention before it chooses to increase incarceration following any current American models.
The direct costs of American prisons include food, clothing, shelter, transportation and health care. Managing this high risk population 24 hours every day requires correctional salaries, training, equipment, legal expenses and real estate. Extra costs are incurred for sexually transmitted and infectious diseases, riots, violence and escapes. Direct costs build and maintain a full-ride welfare state of 2.3 million prisoners and the correctional personnel to manage them. The courts force additional expenditures under the name of the Constitution whenever prisons are deemed cruel and unusual punishment.
Indirect, human and economic costs equal or exceed direct expenditures. Collateral social costs include increased welfare payments and social services for the children and families of the incarcerated, because child support payments from offenders usually stop once a prison sentence starts. Children grow up without parents. Increased suicide and mental illness among prisoners, and the stunted development of human capital, affect most prisoners. The majority of prisoners do not perform much useful labor, and their earnings, job skills, education and entrepreneurship opportunities suffer or disappear. The destruction of marriages and families and the imbalance in sex ratios outside prison, particularly in African-American communities, cause long-term harm. Families of incarcerated persons frequently have to drive long distances for visitation. A new pariah class in which African-Americans are increasingly overrepresented increases the racial divide on economic, social and educational dimensions. Lowered rates of fertility result from these developments.
The stigma of a felony conviction disqualifies former prisoners from public housing, educational loans, welfare, food stamps and most jobs. While work is considered critical to rehabilitation and reentry into society, most employers refuse to hire convicted felons. This dilemma forces many released prisoners back into a life of crime, continuing the constant cycle of recidivism.
Many Americans care little about the plight of America's least favorite people and justifiably reason that prisoners deserve their fate. The question becomes whether the United States deserves the developments brought on by mass incarceration. Macroeconomic disadvantages, the expansion of big government, a huge increase in the welfare state and the decline in personal liberty all prove that mass incarceration is harmful to the nation as a whole.
Incarceration is not a vital feature of the American republic. Incarceration as we now know it did not exist when the U.S. Constitution was written. In fact, the Declaration of Independence re-directed the most successful form of punishment, transportation, to Australia. Capital, corporal, shaming, banishment and monetary punishments, definitely not incarceration, are promoted in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The modern penitentiary is less than 200 years old and has been largely ineffective during that time, except for incapacitating offenders from committing crimes while they are behind bars.
The economic consequences of modern American incarceration justify substantial reforms. Incarceration reduces what labor economists call the “participation rate,” the percentage of the population employed at a given time. A great body of modern American prisoners are maintained by the labor of law-abiding people, when throughout history offenders have been made to work for the benefit of society at large. This support by law-abiding people is compounded by the total welfare state created inside the modern prison. Federal and state governments expand at the expense of the private sector. While welfare payments to the children and family of prisoners may pay for some living expenses, all of the prisoners’ living expenses are paid by the state. Unemployment is under-reported in unemployment statistics, which subtract prisoners from the workforce instead of counting them as unemployed, which most are once incarcerated.
Lost opportunity costs represent perhaps the greatest loss to society. Most prisoners are idle most of the time, and what they might be earning under full employment in the private sector equals or exceeds the direct costs for maintaining 2.3 million prisoners. (In the 1800s, a prison in New York made profits four times greater than the cost of running the prison). As a result of incarceration, commercial and tax revenues decline except those generated to serve the welfare state microcosms. The demographic changes wrought by incarceration exacerbate the macroeconomic disadvantages. Most of the 2.3 million prisoners in the United States are able-bodied and the majority enter prison as young people. In a nation of aging retirees, the subtraction of this many able-bodied young workers skews the labor force in a bad way.
In addition to decrease of the private sector in relation to the public sector, we also see the creation of an expanding and very inefficient double government monopoly. Under the Hawes-Cooper and Ashurst-Sumners Acts, passed during the Depression, prison-made goods are denied the status of being made in interstate commerce and cannot be transported across state lines. While more recent federal legislation permits some exceptions, the exceptions establish their own set of debilitating restrictions. Most states have their own legislation restricting prison labor and industries. Prisoners can make goods for the federal and state governments, but those governments do not have to purchase their requirements from prison industries. Almost all American prison industries today operate on the “state use” basis. So, prison industries usually have to sell to the government, but the government does not have to purchase their output. Governments control the supply of and demand for prison-made goods and hold their manufacturing workers hostage, a double or perhaps triple monopoly over a system of punishment that has always failed of its original purpose of rehabilitation. Meanwhile, Chinese prison-made goods enter the U.S. against the law
with impunity, because it is difficult to determine whether components are made in Chinese prisons.
The total costs of mass incarceration have never been computed. A defensible figure is $50,000 per prisoner per year or $115,000,000,000 per year, twice the actual direct expenditures. A significant portion of the free workforce in essence works to support 2.3 million largely idle prisoners. The larger correctional population, which includes those on parole, probation or awaiting trial on bail, is 7.3 million Americans, and it is an additional drag on the economy. In Canada, it costs four times more, about $100,000 in direct costs alone, to keep a prisoner locked up for a year – which means some economies of scale are at work in the U.S. and maybe prison is nicer in Canada.
The economic and social inefficiencies and disadvantages of mass incarceration are surpassed only by the ineffectiveness of the punishment itself. Recidivism rates remain high, and over half of released prisoners are re-arrested. Prison gang activity has increased markedly over the last few decades. Many contend that prison is crimogenic, that it actually increases crime in the future. It makes the children of incarcerated parents more prone to criminal activity. From the perspective of a behaviorist, it is a poor form of learning because the punishment is delayed too long from the criminal behavior sought to be controlled. Further, the behavior most often taught in prison is to follow prison rules, not succeed on the outside. Prisoners requiring solitary confinement, extremely damaging torture according to knowledgeable sources, are more frequently those who cannot obey prison rules, but they are not usually the worst offenders in terms of their criminal convictions. Solitary confinement is on the rise for disciplinary and security reasons, but it is more expensive and proven to cause mental illness.
Several policy changes would help in the U.S. and Canada. To increase rehabilitation prospects, restore peace to prisons and decrease costs to the taxpayer, the U.S. should put its prisoners to industrial work in the private sector
with no wage and hour laws and very little labor regulation, except for safety regulations. To pass, such deck-clearing legislation must probably restrict manufacturing to producing goods now made exclusively overseas. To reduce the size of the prison population, sentencing reform should restore more discretion to the sentencing judge; reduce the number of mandatory sentences; permit the imposition of traditional corporal punishment in lieu of incarceration; and utilize more community supervision in the form of metal collars worn around the ankle or neck and electronic monitoring. Separate treatment for the mentally ill as practiced earlier in our history and mandatory substance abuse treatment will also divert individuals away from prisons reserved for those deemed dangerous or harmful to society. Some states have started deporting inmates who are illegal aliens.
Politicians recognize the budgetary concerns stemming from mass incarceration. Under current economic conditions and economic rivalry with China, the macroeconomic harm stands out more clearly. Civil rights advocates emphasize and explore the disproportionate incarceration of people of color. The enormity of the current prison crisis is somewhat masked by concerns over the disparate racial impact or expense to the taxpayer. These concerns are very important, but they only represent a few dimensions of the entire disaster. Trying to make an ineffective punishment fair is ultimately futile. Substantial expense reduction without changing the nature of the institution is impossible. Correctional expenses cannot be cut further without putting the prisoner to hard labor, which would be good for the prisoners as well as society.
What’s not clear today is the urgency with which we need to enact any and all of these sound reforms. The urgency is not solely because the system discriminates, nor because it is foreign to our system of liberty and not the punishment exacted when the Constitution was written. While the expense is increasingly onerous, even that only speaks in one dimension. All of the reasons must be brought together, and we must see that they feed off each other, swirling in a downward vortex, dragging the United States down. America needs reforms
now . . . before the U.S. falls behind other nations in the world.