One injustice is being remedied: the cost of prison calls

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Calls to and from inmates at America’s correctional institutions have long been an exorbitant expense for the loved ones of inmates.  These mothers, wives, husbands and children of the incarcerated have had to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars a year to speak with their loved ones.

I have personally felt the sting of expensive correctional calls: in one month, I spent about $150 on phone calls, getting a 15-minute phone call every other day.  For every $20 I deposited into my phone account for the inmate to call me, $6.95 of that was eaten up immediately in “administrative fees”.

This month, however, the FCC did right: it capped the cost of correctional phone calls.  Read more here.

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Budget Trends Show That the U.S. Values Prisoners Over Children

The American prison system is in dire need of a fundamental transformation. This system built on mass incarceration is costly and ineffective.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, about 25% of the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in America, even though it hosts only 5% of the world’s population. Harsh sentencing practices such as long minimum sentences and harsh penalties for minor drug possession have filled up our prisons to populations that rise above those of Russia and China.

The US spends far more money imprisoning its citizens than educating them. The following gif compares the costs of educating a child vs the costs of housing a prisoner.

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Housing a prisoner costs roughly five times as much as educating a student in California, Washington and Utah. In dozens of other states, the cost of imprisoning someone is far more than double or triple the cost of educating a student.

If state budget trends reflect policy priorities, then the U.S. currently values prisoners over children. A report released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that the growth of state spending on prisons has far outpaced the growth of spending on education in recent years. “After adjusting for inflation, state general fund spending on prison-related expenses increased over 140 percent between 1986 and 2013. During the same period, state spending on K-12 education increased only 69 percent, while higher education saw an increase of less than six percent.”

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In fact, since 2008, spending on education has declined in a majority of states.

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In an interview with the Huffington Post, Michael Mitchell, a co-author of the report and a policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, suggested that education spending could actually help lower incarceration rates. “When you look at prisoners, people who get sent to prison and their educational levels are typically much lower than individuals who are not sent to prison,” said Mitchell. “Being a high school dropout dramatically increases your likelihood of being sent to prison.” He added that those dollars spent locking people could’ve been dollars spent to provide pre-k slots or financial aid.

The report suggests that states’ spending practices are ultimately harming their economies, while not making the states especially safer. The authors of the report conclude that if “states were still spending the same amount on corrections as they did in the mid-1980s, adjusted for inflation, they would have about $28 billion more available each year for education and other productive investments.”

The U.S. incarceration system is basically an inversion of its education system. Although the public school system in this country is inherently flawed, children emerge with knowledge and skills that allow them to contribute more effectively to society. On the other hand, the harsh prison system systematically fails to rehabilitate its inmates. Nearly two-thirds of the inmates released every year return to prison. Those that manage to remain outside of it are often worse off than before they were incarcerated, as they face discrimination in housing, employment and political participation.

If more money were spent on sustaining an education system that met the needs of all of its students, maybe so much money wouldn’t be spent on putting people behind bars.

“The types of investments to help people out of poverty and break that school-to-prison pipeline are investments in early education, helping youth stay in school and getting them on college campuses,” said Mitchell.

Mass Incarceration: Increases Crime, Destroys Lives

The idea is simple and seemingly a truism: round up all the bad guys, lock ‘em up, and crime will go down. The American criminal justice system has obviously bought into this idea: current incarceration rates show that 5% of the American population will have been imprisoned at some point in their lives (bjs.gov).

The problem with this logic, and the prevailing criminal justice system, is that it is a fallacy. Mass incarceration, unequivocally, DOES NOT decrease crime or recidivism. In fact, the opposite is true.

There are two main reasons why the “Lock ‘Em Up” approach is such a colossal failure. First, that mass incarceration does not act as an effective deterrent to crime, and second, that imprisonment ruins life prospects and therefore increases recidivism rates.

The majority of people do not need a major deterrent not to commit crimes. People are social animals, and the drives for acceptance and social acceptance (in addition to morals) are more than an adequate barrier to an outsider life of crime. However, the majority of people begin their criminal careers between the ages of 15-25, when they are most impulsive and don’t think in the long term. Even if getting caught and a harsh sentence are highly likely, the mind set is often “It won’t happen to me”.

This issue is compounded by the fact that getting caught isn’t necessarily certain and that sentencing length is all over the map- a landmark study by Michigan professor Mueller-Smith showed that sentencing was highly dependent on what judge gets your case or how busy the courts are in a given period (quartz.com).

The second reason may truly be the root of why mass incarceration is such a tragically flawed policy. It ruins lives. Socially, economically and spiritually.

Take the case of Jay* (name changed), whom I know personally. Jay was the All-American hero growing up: Eagle Scout, active in his church, Co-Captain of the football team, and joined the Army Reserves after graduating high school. An avid outdoorsman, Jay had his fair share of extreme sports injuries and ended up getting prescribed Oxycontin for a particularly bad shoulder injury. Within 6 months he was addicted, and ended up turning to heroin when the Oxycontin became too expensive.

Like most drug addicts, Jay ended up in jail because of his addiction. He had never stolen or become violent: he was arrested trying to shoot up in a bathroom at the mall where he worked. Jay describes what happened when he woke up from his drug detox in jail:

“I realized I had a felony now- I was a felon. I had lost my right to vote, lost my job, lost pretty much everything. I knew I could handle jail; it was what my life would be like after I got out that terrified me. Who hires a felon? Who marries a felon? I felt my life sucked away from me.”

Jay would be branded a felon for life- unable to vote, unlikely to secure a good job despite his college degree and military service, no help for his addiction and generally looked at as a second-class citizen.  All for a non-violent drug offense. That’s the true tragedy and failure of mass incarceration.

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“A Living Death”

“For 3,278 people, it was nonviolent offenses like stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana. An estimated 65% of them are Black. Many of them were struggling with mental illness, drug dependency or financial desperation when they committed their crimes. None of them will ever come home to their parents and children. And taxpayers are spending billions to keep them behind bars.”

The ACLU has published a report on the 3,278 people who are serving LIFE in prison for nonviolent offenses.  Much of this is due to racial sentencing disparities.  Whatever the cause, these thousands of nonviolent offenders are robbed of a life; because life in America’s violent, soul sucking corrections system is not really a life at all.  Read the report here.

No Treatment for Addicts

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A recent report by Casa Columbia found that although 65% of inmates met DSM -IV medical criteria for addiction, only 11% received any treatment while incarcerated.

Our current criminal justice system isn’t “fixing” anything…it ignore the root causes of crime and perpetuates the incarceration cycle.  The phrase “Band-Aid for a bullet wound” springs to mind.  Or perhaps, “Band-Aid covered in arsenic for a paper cut” is more apt.

Read Casa’s Report here.

We Disagree with NAAUSA’s Views on Sentencing Reform

It is no secret that the federal prison population has dramatically increased since 1980. The War on Drugs has caused the prison population to plummet to a current 205,792, with over half of the inmates being convicted for drugs. In a recent paper, The National Association of Assistant US Attorneys (NAAUSA) blatantly states, “our federal prison population is not exploding.” They seem to believe that the drop in prisoners between 2013 and 2014 is enough to warrant their claim. However, that slight decrease certainly does not make up for the large increase that preceded it.

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This was the first of many other “dangerous myths” they attempted to refute on behalf of their position against sentencing reform. The only problem is that many of their claims lack moral, ethical, and logical support.

Another “myth” they attempt to refute is that “the federal prison population is a product of mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers.” They claim that the majority of drug traffickers sentenced in federal court are not being sentenced pursuant to mandatory minimum sentences. However, according to the United States Sentencing Commission, statutes carrying mandatory minimum penalties have increased in number, apply to more offense conduct, require longer terms, and are used more often than they were 20 years ago. In 2010, more than three-quarters (77.4%) of the 19,896 defendants convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty were convicted of a drug trafficking offense.

The NAAUSA says that violent drug dealers aren’t the only ones who deserve lengthy prison sentences. They claim that drug trafficking is inherently violent and that all drug dealing is dangerous taking the lives of thousands of Americans, destroying families, and undermining the moral fabric of our communities, regardless of whether any individual offender engages in an act of violence during the commission of a drug offense. Many communities, particularly those inhabited by minorities, have been torn apart because their fathers and brothers are behind bars. Some of these men were doing what they had to do to feed their families in their poverty stricken environments. The NAAUSA claims that sentencing reform won’t lower our taxes, but the fact of the matter is the United States spends 80 billion dollars per year incarcerating prisoners whom many of which were convicted for non-violent offenses.

In a recent visit to a federal prison to discuss the issues surrounding mass incarceration, Barack Obama said, “Imagine the good we could do, the investments we can make if we did not spend so much money incarcerating non-violent offenders.” He spoke on the case of Bernard Noble, a man sentenced to 13 years and four months for possessing two joints of marijuana. Mr. Noble is a dedicated father of seven who was working full-time and starting a small business at the time of his arrest.

The NAAUSA notes that with the recidivism rates for convicted offenders at nearly 77 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it is highly likely that many of these offenders will revert back to drug dealing once released from prison. This is just another one of many reasons why sentencing reform is necessary. Why are we spending $80 billion a year to house inmates whom many of which have the ability to become productive members of society if given the right treatment?

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The NAAUSA argues that the current federal system and the penalties for drug trafficking present the best approach toward equal justice under the law. But as Barack Obama stated in his speech at the 106th Annual NAACP Convention, “In the American tradition and in the immigrant tradition of remaking ourselves, in the Christian tradition that says none of us is without sin and all of us need redemption, justice and redemption go hand in hand.”

“Releasing 6,000 Inmates’ Isn’t Enough”

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Blakinger’s Post article hits the nail on the head for multiple points:

  • Pre-trial detention – 20% of the inmate population – is incarceration of people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime.  The current bail system means that the poor have to stay in jail until trial while the wealthier can be freed.
  • Incarceration of mentally ill inmates, at least as it currently stands, is doing more harm than good.  The majority receive essentially no treatment outside of some medication.  Outpatient or even inpatient treatment facilities would be less expensive and more effective than incarcerating the mentally ill.
    • (See also the documentary “Into the Abyss” on solitary confinement)

“…prison inherently is a bad environment for drug treatment. About 65 percent of inmates have drug addictions, but only 11 percent are treated, according to a 2010 report by Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Not only do prisons rarely treat addictions, they often make addiction worse.”

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  • Incarceration does no good for and usually harms drug addicts.  Non-violent drug addicts (picked up for drug offenses, petty theft or possession) are given no meaningful treatment in prison.  Often, addictions worsen or “ratchet up” while incarcerated.  Blakinger gives the example of several women she knew who entered jail alcoholics and left heroin addicts.

Economically and humanely, it is evident that America’s current correctional system needs to change.

Read Blakinger’s article here