Of Mice and Men: The Economics of Imprisonment

Posted on October 11, 2013


Criminal defense lawyer to over 100 cases, David R. Dow, came out on the TEDx stage in Texas last year to talk about one of his clients who got the death penalty.  Once a 5-year-old boy chased down by his mother with a butcher knife, then raised by an older brother who committed suicide, then moved from foster home to foster home, then in the company of a gang, then ramping up his rap sheet, this young man had a life full of such events that one day, the prospect of murdering another person made total sense–something, that most of us could never really imagine.

The point of the talk was that we tend to debate whether death to a such criminal should or shouldn’t be the redemption for a victim’s wasted life, when a bigger realization begs to be addressed: that long before there is a full-blown murderer and a tragic murder, there is a person whose life is already wasted, has been wasted, since childhood.  “80% of the people on death row are people who’ve had exposure to the juvenile justice system” and / or come from extremely dysfunctional homes.

Mr. Dow’s career observations throw into stark horror, the consequences of the infamous Pennsylvania judges who colluded with private juvenile detention centres to send over 2,000 kids to jail from 2003-2008:

“After the briefest of hearings — the average length was four minutes — kids were dispatched to detention centers in which the judges had a financial interest. If parents were unable to pay the costs of detention, their children were sometimes held longer. One teenager’s Social Security survivor’s check, from his father’s death, was garnished to pay the costs.” Undue Process: Kids for cash and The injustice system.  Abbe Smith for NYTimes.com

Undue Process

It’s hard to accept, that as a developed society, there could be the negligent, let alone purposeful, sacrifice of children for profit.  But these judges confirmed that unmitigated evil exists by further cultivating the roots of criminality in these kids to be their cash cows.  And for a long time during their tenure, their “service to society” went unquestioned.

Of course, it does make sense on some fundamental civic level to protect functional society from those who disrupt it; to allay the fears of the masses against random terror or gross mischief by putting the bad guys away.  But, what part of that is distorted by fear-mongering by those who have created a business model, capitalizing on one of our most reactive, base emotions?  As with the Pennsylvania judges, there are fortunes to amass, congregations to control and people to enslave if one plays fear just right.  And a couple of cultural things may have conveniently primed us: there is the news media, which depends on panic.  Then, there is the insidious diet of Hollywood antagonists who are invariably heavily accented pan-icidal un-/non-Americans.  The facile antidote is usually the predictable DC and Marvel superhero recycled in every summer blockbuster, or the law and judiciary drama series where salaried criminal justice workers are the heroes.

New York City, the backdrop for no less than a zillion of these law enforcement / judiciary drama series, holds up its actual reputation as a centre of corrections perfection by seriously funding its jails.  Recently, AlJazeera America summed up these stats about Riker’s Island:

“A recent report found that jailing an inmate in New York City for one year costs more than four years of tuition at an Ivy League university.

The Independent Budget Office found that in 2012 it cost the city $167,731 to hold each of its daily average of 12,287 inmates, or about $460 per inmate per day.

Undergraduate tuition at Harvard University is $38,891 annually, or $155,564 for a four-year degree.

Of those inmates, more than 2,000 were being held for drug offenses, surpassing the number for murders or robberies.

The majority of inmates are African-American (57 percent), followed by Hispanics (33 percent), whites (7 percent) and Asians (1 percent), a New York City Department of Corrections report said. The majority of inmates come from less affluent areas of the city.”

When you consider that the poverty line in the US is $23,050 or when the NYC’s Department of Social Services boasts how relatively cheap babies are:

Tenn Pregnancy

…or that 48.5% of people in SubSaharan Africa manage to live on less than $1.25 a day, $167,731 is some serious per capita skrilla.  At 12,287 inmates, Riker’s Island is a $2 billion a year economy.  The size of the California citrus industry or over a third of Las Vegas’ Gaming Strip revenues for the 2009 year end.  All on a 1.6 square-kilometre postage stamp next to Manhattan.

And while it is a bastion of security jobs, meal contracts etc., ethically, society must endeavour to shrink, not grow it.  Knowing this, politicians made a plan.  Last year, in an effort to reduce the “returning-customer” rate of young male inmates released from Riker’s Island, 50% of whom come back, Mayor Bloomberg’s private foundation and Goldman Sachs set up a social impact bond scheme to back a not-for-profit to host training, education and programs to reintegrate the men into society.  If it works, society benefits and Goldman Sachs makes a profit.  It’s a $9.6 million project, of which Goldman Sach’s has an exposure of $2.4 million, those generous bastards.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dow, has this infographic about early intervention:

Screen shot 2013-10-10 at 11.02.56 PM

Apparently, frugal ol’love and hugs can potentially save a city 16/17ths of their crime bill, moreover, save it from murders.  Recidivism reduction schemes?  Their rendered moot in prevention strategies.  I think any of us, who has spent quality time with a 5-year-old, already suspect this.

But when was the last time we did right by a 5-year-old?

– this year, Philadelphia closed 23 schools and opened up a $400 million prison instead.  (What’s up Pennsylvania?!?)

– Canada, not to be outdone, has a $580 million super jail that opened this past spring in Edmonton, while cutting 180 full-time teachers and 350 school staff.

– etc.

So, as with Mayor Bloomberg, many solutions tend to involve wringing hands and rolling up sleeves to work on the aftermath, which I understand is as immediate a need as is prevention.  My favourite is this inmate knitting program in Maryland:

Screen shot 2013-10-11 at 3.22.57 AM

But, throwing a $10 million recidivism program at a $2 billion gorilla won’t do enough, neither will mittens–although they are awesome.  Why?  Because there are steroidal elements out there flexing to make money on the supply of government-subsidized prisoners, which puts crazy pressure to create criminals.  By some measures, including all parolees, inmates and people being processed, the US has 3.7% of its population in the system–the highest in the world.  11.5 million paid-for chattel.  Or even if it’s just the 1.6 million actually incarcerated, it is big business.  Jobs.  Developer contracts.  Supply chain services.  Small town industries.  Add the fact that 10% of the industry is privatized, for-profit, makes this catching of mice and men, an awful, awfully real game.

There are cases of governments like Philadelphia or Edmonton, whose priorities are out of whack, then there is the growing debt-load or even bankruptcy of regional governments becoming the norm, which opens up talks to privatize prisons.  One private prison company infamously wrote to 48 states wooing them with $250 million if the state could promise a facility with a 90% occupancy rate over 20 years.  And how exactly can a state, perhaps desperate to capitalize on such a deal, adequately supply enough inmates?

Apparently, they can cave into the demands of the lobbyists of these corporations and:

  • make more things criminal (giving rise to the confusing distinction between narcotics that can make you feel good, but kill you and the legal drugs that can be bought behind a store counter, that can also make you feel good, but kill you)
  • give longer prison sentences for light crimes
  • make it easier to be imprisoned i.e. the ‘3 strikes rule’ regardless of the nature of the crime

And unofficially:

  • target communities that can’t afford legal representation; don’t know their rights; have low voter turnout and are political ghosts.  (This can result in maximum sentences for lesser crimes.  For instance, in Connecticut it is possible for a rapist to get 2 years, while selling 1kg of marijuana as a 1st offense can get a maximum of 20 years.  Shocking, perhaps to Canadians).
  • there is a suggestion that prison corporations are the real financial backers of gangsta rap: to glamourize the thug life and lure young vulnerable men in the prime of their lives to cages; more prisoners mean more government per-head funding

The profit margins apparently are gained by compromising services–some private prisons are plagued with lawsuits for sexual assault by staff, and insurrection.  And studies have shown that there are no cost efficiencies by private prisons.  So, having suffered some PR nightmares in the US, these super prison corporations have been lobbying Canada.  Frankly I would rather hear about households setting up as private prison franchisees with re-enforced spare bedrooms!  Prison AirBnb.  Imagine, $167K per year to watch over a minor offender.  Private debt and mortgages would be paid off.  Prisoners would get a family.  Fear be damned.


Knowing this, is it enough that we care for and hug our children?  Is it enough to build parks and summer camp programs?  We will never know how well these  prevention efforts work; their effects may not be measurable in an election cycle or maybe even within a politician’s lifetime.  But like all things whose effects aren’t immediate in our political socio-economy: climate change, the environment, health, social stability, education–the fate of an at-risk child, however invisible, is there and vulnerable to be nudged into a particular trajectory or fate with every short term decision.  Let us not forget that it’s 80% of death row inmates who have been shaped by negligence or made to bend to the will of profit over and over again.

Mr. Dow observed the uncanny childhood histories of 80% of his death row inmate clients.  The grinding machinery of an industry awaits to devour them.  What chance do we have of seeing the greatness of a once vulnerable thing, if we don’t actively protect it from being another log to fuel our insatiable economy?

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