Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Downsizing the Prison-Industrial Complex

with 2 comments

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.


Written by sara

February 1, 2011 at 1:28 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Hi Sara,

    Great perspective on how people commit to sunk costs in the arena of social spending. I wasn’t really aware how huge the prison industry had grown until the NPR series on ALEC – that the industry had helped to drive the national debate to such an extend was very surprising to me (I suppose I should be more cynical). Do you have any thoughts on Mark Kleiman’s work? I saw that you had linked to pieces where he was featured, but I didn’t come across anything on him specifically.

    I guess it’s a chicken and egg problem, but do you think that the communities where the inmate population mainly comes from need to see much more overall social improvement before peoople will move to reducing the use of prisons? Baltimore City recently elected a “law and order” state’s attorney, for instance, and the city’s police force is much bigger than other cities of comparitive size (on a per capita basis). To get political buy in on something like the HOPE program in the city doesn’t seem very feasible, even with a declining murder rate.

    Any thoughts on ways people can get more involved on the issue on state and local levels?

    Thanks again for the great blog (I arrived here via the TNC Blogger Superhighway, BTW).



    February 3, 2011 at 9:50 am

    • Hi Aaron,

      Thanks for the comment, and for reading! I think Mark Kleiman’s work has many virtues, not least among them that his methods of argumentation and proof are, for whatever reason, convincing to folks who you might think would fancy themselves “tough on crime,” so I think he’s been key to broadening the conversation. I don’t know, though, what if any research has been done on how transferable HOPE might be to other states (and also, it’s worth noting that for all HOPE’s virtues, Hawaii’s criminal justice system generally is hardly a model — it outsources most of its prisoners to private facilities in Arizona, and the incarcerated population is quite disproportionately native Hawaiian).

      I do not have any great answers on the problem of high-crime, high-incarceration areas like Baltimore, but I do have some suggested reading (off the top of my head):
      – Bill Stuntz of Harvard Law School has a law-review article called “Unequal Justice,” 121 Harvard Law Review 1969 (2008), in which he argues that we can trace the racial imbalances of incarceration to the decline of local involvement in the criminal justice system, downloadable here: – the idea being that if local actors are involved, they can strike the right balance between “kids who need to go to prison” and “kids who don’t.” His suggested solutions are better-funded police, more jury trials, and vaguely defined crimes so juries can exercise discretion. I don’t know about the last one but think the first two would probably be good ideas, although you’d also basically need to overhaul police-community relations for the first to work, which is no easy task.
      – There has been some coverage of the Ceasefire program, which is an interesting approach to gang violence and public drug sales, although I think the empirics are somewhat fuzzy as to how successful/transferable it is. In any event, here’s the New Yorker article (paywalled, unfortch):
      – East Palo Alto once had the highest per capita murder rate in the country. (EPA is a lower-income, mostly minority pocket of Silicon Valley that was unincorporated into any of its neighboring affluent cities and had essentially no tax base until they built a big box shopping center a few years ago.) Granted it’s very small (I think ~30K people), but their efforts to turn around the community are an interesting case study. Their police chief is involved in reentry programs.
      – There was this Current TV documentary on guns: . The documentary itself was mostly TERRIBLE – “hey, these crazy people in Kentucky love guns! but in Camden, New Jersey, guns wreak havoc!” – but it’s among the many video sources out there where you can see an urban SWAT team and get a sense of how militarized the urban police have become.
      – And I would be remiss if I didn’t note Cory Booker, who seems to have had remarkable success in Newark both with stemming violence and promoting reentry programs — I definitely don’t think Cory Booker is replicable, but maybe this shows that the real key is dogged leadership. Also most of the coverage of Booker is pretty fawning, so I would be curious as to whether there are any more skeptical takes out there (just to play devil’s advocate) – I’ve always been impressed by Booker (and surprisingly so as I’m usually pretty nonplussed by politicians), but from my outsider’s vantage point, I just don’t have a good sense of how much Booker is a darling of the chattering classes vs. how much buy-in he actually has within Newark. One of many e.g.’s:



      February 3, 2011 at 11:44 am

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