Downsizing the Prison-Industrial Complex
One problem with the last 30 years in the United States is that we built all of these prisons and now they stand as an argument for their own preservation. Against hypothetical visions of a future with both fewer prisons and safer, more vibrant communities, hulking brick-and-metal warehouses for the “bad people” seem, to many, like a safer bet because, hey, we’ve already built them. I suppose I would just say: We have to get over that.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in the spirit of his inaugural message that “an incarceration program is not an employment program,” will seek to cut 3,000 prison beds in his 2011 budget. That’d be the largest single-year reduction in over 10 years, but considering New York would still have 61,000 prison beds left, it’s not like Cuomo’s proposing some kind of radical flinging-open of the prison doors. Plus New York’s not exactly flush in cash these days, so maybe this sounds like a good idea! But of course, the problem is that the politics of closing prisons are dicey (second in diceyness perhaps only to the politics of closing military bases), so instead of closed prisons it looks like what New Yorkers may actually get in 2011 is just another report by yet another blue-ribbon panel:
… instead of designating specific prisons for closing in his budget — a move that would harden opposition to his budget, perhaps implacably, among lawmakers whose districts are home to the facilities — Mr. Cuomo will appoint a task force of lawmakers and prison officials to come up with a consolidation plan after the budget is passed, people briefed on the plan said.
Donn Rowe, the president of the state correction officers’ union, expressed dismay over the proposal, saying, “The closure of any additional facilities could pose a clear and present danger to the public.”
Meanwhile, the New Orleans City Council is scheduled to vote this Thursday on how big of a new jail to build. The proposal on the table would cap the new Orleans Parish Prison at 1,438 beds — quite a downsize from the city’s original proposals. It would also require the city to close the tents and temporary buildings currently housing inmates. You can sign a petition to the City Council here, via Color of Change, but first, read up on the issue here, at the Times-Pic.
What both of these stories reflect is that downsizing the prison-industrial complex is not easy. However, it’s not as though we don’t have empirical data to wield against the scaremongering of prison guards’ unions who, understandably enough, want to keep their jobs. To that end, here’s a talking point you can use, provided by the Pew Center’s Adam Gelb at yesterday’s session of the John Jay College Crime in America Symposium:
A decade ago New York and Florida each had about 70,000 prisoners. Today, Florida’s prison population is now over 100,000, and New York’s is under 60,000. Taxpayers in which state got a better deal? These stories lay the groundwork for additional reform.
As you may know, criminologists have been stumbling all over themselves for years to try to explain how and why crime dropped so dramatically and steadily in New York City. Well, it’s worth noting that New York has apparently managed to maintain those declines even while also shrinking its prison population. When you look at crime and incarceration stats nationwide, it’s easy to make facile equations between the drop in violent crime over the past 30 years and the growth of the prison population. But when you actually break down the data by state, you see that, for instance, crime declined less steeply in California in the 1990s than elsewhere notwithstanding its tough three strikes law, and that crime continued declining in New York even after New York’s prison population also started falling. You also see that very similar states in terms of demographics and crime rates often have dramatically different incarceration rates. This is not to say that incarceration rates are unrelated to crime rates, only that the relationship is complicated and so you should not be afraid to challenge anyone claiming that the solution to crime is prison, or that it’s impossible to close prisons safely, to provide some hard, state-by-state data to back up their claims.