e-mail us


We love our prisons more than prisoners


Americans remain a peculiarly punitive people. They seem convinced that poor people are poor because they are lazy and don't want to work and that the best way to treat people who commit crimes is to toss them in the slammer and throw away the key.

Getting "tough on crime" by building more prisons, giving longer sentences and tougher parole conditions is an election favorite that passes with little question in our public rhetoric. Slashing education and welfare spending is regarded as the way to make people more "competitive" by having to fend for themselves without public "handouts." The impression most Americans have is that such policies will make us both more "moral" and save money at the same time.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The policies that are being forged in the name of being tough on crime and forcing the poor to lift themselves up by their bootstraps will be paid for by our children. The price will be both higher crime rates and much greater costs for incarcerating prisoners. It will be higher than the cost would have been to educate these adults when they were children and to help their mothers with welfare payments, thereby allowing them to care for their children and get marketable job skills. This bleak future can already be discerned by looking at our present prison policies, particularly in California where I am presently teaching.

The United States imprisons far more of its population than any other developed country, 250 people in 100,000. The percentage is even higher in California, where more than 388 in 100,000 of the populace are in prison.

This prison population is about 34 percent Hispanic, 31.5 percent black and 29.5 percent white. The 5 percent "other" is mostly Asian.

California's total population is about 62 percent white, 22 percent Hispanic, 6 percent black and 10 percent other (mostly Asian).

These figures tell us that blacks are imprisoned at a rate of more than five times their numbers in the state's population; Hispanics at more than 1.5 times their numbers; and whites at less than half of their numbers.

Sixty percent of the crimes for which prisoners are incarcerated in California are nonviolent property or drug violations. The average age of the prisoners is 32. About 7 percent are female. Almost all of these prisoners have problems with drug and alcohol abuse and their average reading level is that of an eighth-grader.

California prisons remain overcrowded at 175 percent of capacity despite the huge prison-building program in the 1980s that cost $6.2 billion. The debt repayment for building new prisons is expected to reach $10 billion by 2000. In addition to these building costs, California spends about $24,000 a year to house each convict. To save money, it has continually slashed rehabilitation services in the prisons. Fewer than 4 percent of the male population participate in prerelease programs. Less than 60 percent have employment in prisons, usually in work that will not give them jobs on the outside, such as prison teams that clean the freeways. Pay averages eight to 13 cents an hour for women, a bit more for men.

This means that prisoners can make about $5 a week to be spent on cigarettes and the like. Savings are unlikely. So the average prisoner leaves a California prison with only the $200 in gate money in his or her pocket, few clothes or personal belongings, no marketable job skills or experience, no high school diploma, 8th grade reading skills and a drug problem. Since California law demands that parolees return to the county where their crime was committed for parole supervision, this means they must spend part of their money on a bus ticket to return to the area where they previously got into trouble.

The parole officer carries a caseload of 300 or more persons and thus can do little more than check for parole violations, such as traces of drugs in the urine. There are few programs to help parolees get housing, job training, learn how to interview for and keep jobs, get an education or get drug and alcohol therapy. About 82 percent of those paroled are returned to prison, mostly for technical parole violations, not new crimes.

One can only conclude from these figures that prison building is a big business in California and there is little incentive to reduce the prison population with prerelease and postrelease programs that might make it possible for former prisoners to become integrated into the work force.

The few exceptions to this pattern only point up the crying need for such programs. Sr. Terry Dodge of the Congregation of Sisters of St. Louis runs Crossroads, a small halfway house for women parolees in the college town of Claremont, across from the theological school where I am teaching. She has room for six women at a time and can keep them for six months, during which time they enroll in a 12-step program for drug and alcohol therapy and pursue education, job training or both in a caring family environment. About 70 percent of those who go through her program complete their parole and stay out of prison -- a reversal of the statistics for the state as a whole.

Many who go through the Crossroads program keep in touch with Terry and former residents as part of their ongoing support community. Some go on to become counselors for other women looking for a similar helping hand. The success of the Crossroads program proves that genuine humanitarianism works.

To treat convicts and parolees as human beings of worth in whom we invest time, money and human caring is right on every level. It is far more cost-effective than punitive warehousing of people who have been written off as subhuman. The more than 100 women prisoners Crossroads has helped stay out of California prisons have saved the state millions of dollars.

Today's punitive policies toward welfare, education and prisoners are sowing the wind; we'll reap a whirlwind in the coming years.

Our politicians crow that we are saving money by slashing welfare and education and curtailing rehabilitation programs that "coddle criminals." The reality is that we are shaping an even larger percentage of our population to lack education and job opportunities and thus be destined for an ever more expensive prison system that offers them no future except a revolving jail door.

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 1997