Prisons provide different things to different people. For some, they ensure a far-away place to send people who have done harm to someone you love. For others, they offer jobs and a way to put food on the table. And for others still, they are simply warehouses, where loved ones, neighbors, and friends are sent in historically unprecedented numbers.
What’s clear is that prisons have become an immense part of the US political economy, incapacitating over 2 million Americans every year, at an annual cost of $50 to $60 billion. With only 5% of the world’s population, the land of the free has roughly 25% of the world’s prison population.
So what sustains our prison system? What beliefs and messages are used to justify such an enormous financial and human expense? More than anything, prisons are said to make us safer. They are the foundation of America’s current public safety paradigm, and have been since the early 1980s when the great prison expansion began.
Yet how often do we ask if prisons actually make us safer? More often than not, we simply assume that the answer is yes. However, a vast body of research has started to challenge this fundamental assumption. Taking in this growing evidence requires that we look beneath the popular “tough on crime” narratives that have helped to elect so many politicians, and that we honestly assess the condition of our neighborhoods and towns.
A few facts, to start us off:
1) The large majority of prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses, yet only a small minority of our public safety resources are going to battle drug addiction.
2) Most people who pass through our criminal justice system have also passed through our foster care system, with estimates ranging from 60-70%.
3) In marginalized urban areas, the widespread removal of residents further weakens the social bonds that are needed for neighbors to look out for one another.
What do these facts mean? At the most basic level, they mean that prisons rarely get to the root causes of crime and violence. They do not treat the addictive behavior that makes the USA the world’s number one drug market. Neither do they care for the tragic numbers of neglected children and youth who will be housed in penal institutions when they grow up. Nor do prisons make dangerous neighborhoods stronger, creating instead as intense dependence upon police, lawyers, judges, probation officers, and prison guards to resolve even the most basic conflicts.
Without question, there are countless cases where sending people to prison has provided temporary safety for families or neighborhoods, providing much needed relief from dangerous individuals. However, the addiction, abandonment, and abuse that create dangerous people goes largely unaddressed in our society. If what we really care about is safety for our cities and towns, then we must take a hard look at our public safety paradigm, and revisit our most basic assumptions.
Los Angeles people: For more on this issue check out the L.A. Poverty Department’s theater piece, State of Incarceration, mid-June.