The Root of the Problem

Over-Incarceration and Money

One area of our economy is growing. But that’s not good news. I’ll explain what I mean, next on BreakPoint.

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Eric Metaxas

On my last two broadcasts, I talked about the abuses and other violations of human dignity that are all too common in American prisons and jails. While many factors contribute to these abuses, one stands head and shoulders above the rest: America incarcerates far too many people.

This won’t come as a surprise to long-time BreakPoint listeners: Chuck repeatedly made this point over the years. But what might surprise you is the role that money plays in our over-reliance on incarceration.

Plainly stated, there’s money to be made in operating prisons and supplying them with everything from food to phone service.

And when there’s money to be made, politics will follow. And politicians make the laws about whom to lock up and for how long.

One example involves Arizona’s controversial immigration law. No matter how you feel about the law itself, how it became law is disturbing. News outlets such as NPR documented the role played by lobbyists for the private prisons industry in drafting the bill and ensuring its passage. For instance, thirty of the bill’s thirty-six co-sponsors received campaign donations from the industry.

From the industry’s perspective, it was money well-spent. An internal document discovered by NPR described the detention of immigrants as the next big market—and that one company expected “a significant portion of [its] revenues” to come from this market.

Another example is a New Orleans Times-Picayune series of articles describing how Louisiana became the “world’s prison capital.”

Louisiana’s incarceration rate is more than twice the national average, three times that of Russia and nearly five times that of Iran. Behind this dubious distinction lies “cold, hard cash.” As the Times Picayune tells readers, “a majority of Louisiana inmates are housed in for-profit facilities, which must be supplied with a constant influx of human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt.”

The biggest beneficiaries of this arrangement are local sheriff departments, which operate their facilities as businesses with the profits paying for local law enforcement.

The state pays them $24.39 a day, well below the national average, for each state prisoner they incarcerate. As a result, many “inmates subsist in bare-bones conditions with few programs to give them a better shot at becoming productive citizens,” since the cost of doing better would cut into the sheriff departments’ profits.

Naturally, those who benefit from the system make sure that Louisiana has some of the harshest sentencing practices in the world: for instance, “a two-time car burglar can get 24 years without parole.”

As Burl Cain, the warden at Angola prison, told the newspaper, “Something has to be done . . . about the long sentences . . . Some people you can let out of here that won’t hurt you and [they]can be productive citizens . . .”

But that won’t be easy given the financial incentives now in place.

This is especially sad because there’s an alternative to over-incarceration and the system that wastes lives and leads to the kind of abuses I’ve highlighted. It’s an alternative that should interest Christians because its principles are derived from Scripture. And it’s an alternative that lies at the heart of Justice Fellowship, our criminal justice reform ministry founded by Chuck Colson. We’ll talk about it tomorrow on BreakPoint. Please tune in.


Further Reading and Information

Corporate Con Game
Beau Hodai | In These Times | June 21, 2010

Louisiana Is the World’s Prison Capital
Cindy Chang | The Times-Picayune | May 13, 2012

Prison economics help drive Arizona immigration law
Laura Sullivan | National Public Radio | February 22, 2012




As it seems to operate now, Ben, it really is a repugnant industry. Someone alluded to socialism earlier, but privatization seems to be the real problem in some cases. They sell themselves as delivering the service at a savings, and jurisdictions take them up on it, as if saving money should override all else.
Uprooting the Problem?
Is there any research on the fiscal impact of incarceration on certain industries and different levels of government (city, state, etc.)? If not, then it's something that might be worth commissioning. If the impact is high for certain industries (i.e., real estate) and you use the data to help corporations make sense of it in terms of profit, perhaps they'll divert some of their philanthropic funds to become involved in fighting over-incarceration and recidivism. If towns and cities recognize the fiscal impact it's having on their tax dollars, they'll avoid passing legislation that leads to over-incarceration and invest in programs to reduce recidivism. It doesn't make sense for cash-strapped cities and states to pay so much for prisons, but the politicians who accept funds from stakeholders in the prison 'industry' need a little something to keep them on their toes -- such as a website that prominently displays what funds they received and what legislation they supported and highlighting individual lobbyists who work in that industry to give them notoriety -- and to discourage people from wanting to be in that industry.
A timely article
on NBC News this afternoon:

Prisons and Welfare Socialism
Scandalous indeed, but sounds exactly like our socialistic welfare govt. system! Create a 'solution' that really exacerbates the problem but tell everyone it's a 'solution' and that it is helping them! All the while, it creates more problems but of course you blame something or someone else since you've obviously got the 'solution' and are helping everyone. The cycle continues in perpetuity until the masses finally wake up and see that the 'solution' is really the problem and they've been duped! One of the greatest examples of this is the Planned Parenthood and US Govt. 'free sex agenda'! Thanks for all you do and God bless in Christ!
Thanks for pointing out this scandalous situation. I remember reading a few years ago about a judge taking bribes to give harsh sentences to kids. I had no idea the sleazy influence of money has become so legitimized and common as you've described here. Sadly, too many people will not be bothered by this. There isn't much sympathy for convicts, and even less inclination to spend enough money to treat them humanely.