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With stricken budgets, many states have been cutting prison populations. But vested interests are resisting prison closures
by Sadhbh Walshe
The US department of justice released a report this week (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/newsroom/pressreleases/2012/ojppr121712_2.pdf) showing that 26 states have recorded decreases in their prison populations during 2011. California boasted the biggest decline of over 15,000 prisoners and several other states including New York and Michigan reported drops of around 1,000 prisoners each. This is the third consecutive year that the population has declined, and as a result, at least six states have closed or are attempting to close approximately 20 prisons.
This should be welcomed as good news considering that pretty much every state has been going over its own version of a fiscal cliff for the last several years and out-of-control corrections budgets play a significant part in that. But sadly, because incarceration has become a virtual jobs program in many states and because certain corporations are profiting handsomely from the incarceration binge that has been in place for the past few decades, the reduction in prison populations and prison closures is being met with huge resistance.
According to a recent report by the Sentencing Project called On the Chopping Block (http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/On%20the%20Chopping%20Bloc...), which detailed all the prison closures and attempted closures in the past year, several state governors have been dragged into legal battles with state employees and unions who want the prisons to stay open. In Illinois, for example, Governor Pat Quinn's decision to close down four state facilities, among them the troubled Tamms super maximum security prison, has been challenged in court by the prison employees' union (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-02-23/news/ct-met-illinois-state...), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The closure of the Tamms facility alone is estimated to save the state $21.6m next year and $26.6m each year after that. The court ruled in the governor's favor in the last round of litigation, but AFSCME is working to litigate again to try to authorize funding so these prisons can stay open.
In New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo has met with similar opposition to his (mostly successful) attempts to close down unneeded state prisons, including several juvenile facilities. The juvenile facilities had been mired in controversy for years (http://www.alternet.org/story/150530/ny_gov._cuomo_scores_victory_to_clo...), due to outrageous costs and allegations of mistreatment of the kids who ended up there. Yet, the closure was met with fierce opposition from state employees because of fears of job losses. Cuomo addressed the subject and the underlying problem of tying economic prosperity to incarceration levels in his 2011 state of the state speech:
"You have juvenile justice facilities today where we have young people who are incarcerated in these state programs who are receiving treatment that has already been proven to be ineffective; recidivism rate in the 90th percentile. The cost to the taxpayer is exorbitant. For one child, [it costs] over $200,000 per year. The reason we continue to keep these children in these programs that aren't serving them but are bilking the taxpayers is that we don't want to lose the state jobs that we would lose if we closed the facilities.
"I understand the importance of keeping jobs. I understand the importance of keeping jobs, especially in upstate New York. I also understand that that does not justify the burden on the taxpayer and the violation of civil rights of the young person who is in a program that they don't need [and] where they're not being treated, hundreds of miles from their home – just to save state jobs. An incarceration program is not an employment program. If people need jobs, let's get people jobs. Don't put other people in prison to give some people jobs. Don't put other people in juvenile justice facilities to give some people jobs."
Try telling that to the private prisons, which are funded by the taxpayer but which also need to generate revenue to keep their shareholders happy. For them, the bottom line is keeping their prisons full, regardless of need or cost. Last year, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) came under fire when it emerged that they sent a letter to 48 states (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/14/private-prisons-buying-state-pr...) offering to take over any prisons going spare – with the small caveat that they be guaranteed 90% occupancy for the next 20 years.
GEO Group Inc, the second largest private corrections company, has also been working (http://bigrapidsdailynews.com/node/4009) behind the scenes to keep prisons open that don't need to be. At the end of the last legislative session in Michigan, lawmakers authorized the re-opening of a prison, the North Lake Correctional Facility, that had been previously operated by GEO before it was shut down, amid much controversy, in 2005. As Michigan was one of the states that reported a decline in its prison population last year, the fact that a for-profit facility has been re-opened has met widespread skepticism. According to the Sentencing Project's Nicole Porter, "the fact that this GEO facility has been reopened when other state facilities remain closed is indicative of politics and not need."
There are better uses of taxpayer dollars than to maintain high levels of incarceration simply to enrich the shareholders of for-profit prisons or to maintain prison jobs. During the 2012 budget talks in Colorado, a proposal was floated to re-appropriate over $5m from private prisons to support child literacy and other programs to help the needy and disabled. Such "radical" ideas are still in the theoretical stage, but at least there are glimmers of hope that mindsets are shifting. Reallocating resources towards other social services would create better jobs that would not rely on the loss of certain people's liberty and would ultimately be far more beneficial to the public.
As long as states keep viewing incarceration as a jobs program, however, there is little hope of meaningful change.
© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited
Sadhbh Walshe is a film-maker and former staff writer for the CBS drama series The District. Her opinion pieces have also been published in the Chicago Tribune and Irish Times.