That crucial political issues tend to get reduced to bumper stickers in the mass media is no surprise; that this happens so frequently on college campuses is sadder but no less surprising. Sometimes sloganeering merely renders discussions silly and formulaic. In some cases, however, platitudes actually cause grave social problems to be ignored.
Few suffer more as a result of bumper-sticker thinking than the millions of Americans who currently reside behind bars. From bulletin boards across campus come exhortations to build “schools not prisons.” From the other end of the political spectrum come calls of “No frills for prisoners,” heard in innumerable legislatures in recent years.
These slogans are emblematic of the flaws in popular discussion of the American penal system. Liberals often forget that prisons are a necessary evil; conservatives tend to forget that prisons are frequently more evil than necessary. Liberals forget the benefit of prisons; conservatives forget the cost; as a result the millions of individuals utterly dependent on the state are shunted out of the fiscal and political agenda.
It should not be forgotten that in two decades of escalating levels of incarceration, rates of violent crime have dropped nearly everywhere in the nation. The decline in crime rates is not entirely due to mass incarceration, but it strains credibility to suggest that the role of prisons in improved public safety was not a considerable one.
Critics of the justice system often point out that a huge percentage of the current prison population is made up of people imprisoned for involvement in the drug trade. This is true, but not necessarily pertinent to questions of public safety. Studies have shown that involvement in the drug trade strongly correlates with the commission of violent crime. It may well be that violent crime has plummeted because so many of those who otherwise would have committed it spent their years in prison rather than on the streets.
Nonetheless, many American prisons are so plagued by squalor and violence that to preserve the status quo is morally abhorrent. Depriving someone of their liberty is punishment enough; they should not have to spend their time behind bars in constant filth and fear. Those who want to save money by eliminating “frills for prisoners” merely add insult to injury.
The “schools not prisons” mantra is perhaps more dangerous for its compassionate veneer. Take for example the claims made by Stephen Osserman on this page a few weeks ago: “While these services are cut Connecticut continues to pay $90 million a year to hold New Haven residents in jails around the state. The vast majority of these people who are being held are nonviolent offenders arrested for drug possession or sale. Connecticut has spent over $1 billion in the last 10 years for prison construction alone. Imagine the possibilities if just some of this money was invested in New Haven schools and into activities for youth, into comprehensive treatment facilities, or into creating more living wage stable jobs so that more people could afford to spend time with their children.”
By suggesting that building prisons is a foolish diversion of resources from beneficial social projects, the liberal slogan ignores the moral imperative of devoting resources to caring for the country’s enormous prison population. This population is in great need. One of the greatest detriments to the quality of prison life is overcrowding, which makes living conditions both unpleasant and unsanitary. Worse yet, it makes supervision of inmates far more difficult for correctional officers, which results in increased violence among inmates.
To examine such claims, take the example of Washington, D.C., which ranks fourth nationally in per-pupil spending. The District has also long been known for the horrific defects of its correctional system. Judges and government inspectors have cited the D.C. jail for severe overcrowding and deplorable sanitation. After years of nominal improvements — jail officials recently reported that inmates are now supplied regularly with clean linens — the inmate population again reached record highs. Shortly thereafter, the jail hosted a rash of stabbings last month, which resulted in all inmates being confined to their cells for two weeks.
The Washington Post quoted Pamela A. Chase, chairwoman of the Fraternal Order of Police’s unit at the Department of Corrections, who said that the jail staff needed to be increased to handle the current number of inmates. “Budget cuts times an increased inmate population makes for a deadly situation,” she said.
The District’s juvenile detention centers are in an even worse state. Oak Hill, the D.C. facility for detained juveniles, has long been horrifically overcrowded and plagued with violence, culminating in incidents last year in which several young children were sexually assaulted by older inmates.
Or take the case of Maryland, which pays its correctional officers so little that it cannot afford to staff its prisons. Rather than increasing training or salaries for correctional officers, the state instead lowered the minimum age for officers two to 18 years in an attempt to recruit more staff. Veteran correctional officers told The Washington Post that hiring decreasingly experienced personnel endangers everyone in the prison population. Such moves seem like a virtual recipe for increasing brutality between prisoners and between prisoners and guards.
What happens when you don’t fund prisons? You get young children put into facilities with hardened criminals, you get increased jailhouse violence, increasing deprivation of basic human needs of inmates, and progressively less qualified correctional officers.
Regardless of one’s opinion on the value of prisons generally, there is no avoiding the fact that millions of Americans are incarcerated right now, with needs that must be addressed. And meeting those needs takes money: lots of it. Yet the right and left alike seem content to suggest that prisons are a waste of money better spent elsewhere, either because prisons are inherently evil or because their inmates don’t deserve better. The result is a moral blindness to the plight of the incarcerated.
Eli Muller is a senior in Silliman College. His column appears regularly on alternate Thursdays.