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.