Prisons commit greater crimes than inmates

One in 100 American adults is behind bars. That’s 2.3 million people total. America imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world. China runs a close second, but of course, China has four times as many people as the U.S and is also a Communist dictatorship. America’s incarceration rate is higher than every country in Europe combined. In fact, the prison population in the U.S. is equivalent to five Luxembourgs.

American prisons offer a grim portrait of our country’s underclass. 1 in 36 Hispanic adults are currently incarcerated, as is one in nine black men aged 20 to 34. One in three black men will be imprisoned in his lifetime. Although illegal drug use is equally prevalent among white and black males, a black man is five times more likely to be arrested. A higher percentage of the black population is currently imprisoned in America than in South Africa at the height of apartheid.

When one percent of your population is housed, clothed, fed and supervised by the state, there’s going to be an inevitably hefty price tag. It costs an average of $23,876 to imprison someone for a year in the United States. In Rhode Island it costs $45,000, the same as a year’s worth of tuition, room and board at Brown University. Our own state of Connecticut spends as much money on its prisons as it does on higher education. In twenty years, average state spending on corrections has nearly quintupled to $49 billion. Although crime rates are dropping, this number continues to climb.

And it isn’t paying off. America has the highest homicide rate out of all industrialized nations. In the world ranking, Iraq is only three places ahead. The idea that the prison system makes us safer is based on two principles. The first is that the threat of incarceration deters crime in the first place. The second is that criminals are isolated from society and rehabilitated, so that on release they won’t offend again. But the current prison system has failed to fulfill either of these postulates. Since the 80s, crimes rates have fallen as incarceration rates have climbed. It is not the threat of arrest that has affected crime rates, but rather the economy, the rate of unemployment and drug use. In the 1990s, the states with the least rapidly rising incarceration rates actually experienced the most dramatic drops in crime.

Prisons also typically fail to rehabilitate. In fact, they actively do the opposite. Inmates are exploited for cheap labor and endure overcrowding, brutality and poor services. They don’t cure criminal minds, but perpetuate violence. The United States increasingly builds its prisons as giant Supermax facilities — concrete and steel and stark efficiency. Inmates are often kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and, thanks to new technology, have almost no interpersonal interactions. Advocates have long criticized these units as responsible for mental degeneration and derangement. The United Nations has denounced them as inhumane. A recent spat of lawsuits have claimed that Supermaxes violate the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Although American prisons are financially and ethically grievous, the incarceration rate continues to skyrocket with hardly a peep from politicians. This may be because the prison system impacts our society’s most disempowered. Once you’re convicted of a felony, you are stripped of your rights as a citizen. (In seven states, a quarter of the entire black male population is permanently ineligible to vote.) The fact that the prison system acts as an often-privatized, productive growth industry for the country (the third largest) offers tangible economic benefits that keep politicians tight-lipped. After all, prisons need to be built, prisoners clothed, supervised and provided for. Looking for access to a 35 billion dollar industry, corporations, defense giants and investment banks are eager providers.

And so the prison-industrial complex is born: a conglomeration of special interests that encourages more and more spending. The prison-industrial complex demands constant and ever-increasing growth, even though this translates into more human lives in cages, more racist policing and more Supermax units. The same corporations that fuel the prison industry also fund politicians, to the tune of $33 million in 44 states in the 2002 and 2004 elections. It is therefore not so surprising then that the prison system has never been the top of the agenda for any liberal or conservative politician.

It is often difficult for people to garner much sympathy for the victims of our prison system. In the popular imagination these people are vicious murderers, rapists and pedophiles. However, perpetrators of violent crime make up a vast minority of inmates and even the worst criminals are human beings, the majority of which have grown up in poverty and abusive households. The prison system is the way our society deals with the poor, drug-addicted, homeless and mentally ill. Sixty percent of inmates are illiterate. 60 to 80 percent have a history of substance abuse. Two-hundred-thousand suffer serious mental illness. In a Colorado Supermax, a quarter of the inmates are on anti-psychotic medication. When released, these people will experience restricted employment opportunities, often prohibited from getting federal loans or public housing. In this way, our prison system disenfranchises the already destitute.

The prison system needs to stop expanding in numbers; prisons needs to de-politicize parole, courts need to repeal the three strikes policy and their draconian drug laws and our resources need to be concentrated on those already behind bars. At the moment, drug treatment is available to only one in ten inmates who need it, half the number it was in 1993. Prisons need to provide counseling, treatment programs, education, job training, expanded visiting rooms, family support and extended healthcare. Prisoners may have broken the law, but our prisons, as they exist right now, are committing crimes against humanity.

Claire Gordon is a sophomore in Saybrook College.


  • Behind Bars

    I hope Ms. Gordon has been scared off to write about safe topics after her pummelling over last week's article on phallic worship.
    Isn't there a causal link between the high prison rate and a phallocentric society?
    Indeed hasn't the female prison sensus risen in tandem with the feminist movement's insistence on equal access for women to the stresses and temptations of the phallocentric power structure?
    Similarly, hasn't female blood pressure also risen in accordance with the epidemic of feminist insistence on equal access to a phallocentric capitalism which choreographs constant castration anxiety---from daily Dow Jones' micro-analysis, to Global warming overload alarms, to the hypochondiac
    cavalcade of pharmaceutical remedies (whose risks are more alarming than the illnesses they purport to cure)which greet viewers of prime time television each day?
    Prison? Materialism is a jail without bars.

  • Hieronymus

    "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time."

    Also: the author is ripe for re-education; you know, "A Liberal is just a Conservative that hasn't been mugged yet."

    Further: should the author decide to make a family some day, will she then be strong enough to recant and renounce her views? Children make one swing conservative--at least where it comes to crime.

    All those nifty palliatives sound so great when nothing is at stake, but once something close and personal is at risk--or hurt--liberating the underclass somehow becomes so…secondary.

    Frankly, the burgeoning prison population indicates to ME that prison, currently, just isn't so bad… Want to reduce the population there? Reduce the incentives, i.e., make prison far starker and harsher than it is today.

    [My plan for most non-capital offenses in a nutshell:
    1st strike = extremely harsh but relatively short prison stay with the offense expunged from one's record after a successful post-prison probationary period.
    2nd strike = much harsher and longer sentence, but still shorter than the non-productive stays prisoners "endure" today.
    3rd strike = life imprisonment with no creature comforts.

    Overall, btw, Leavenworth would provide the minimum acceptable conditions for a prison.

    See? Yale supports all KINDS of differeing viewpoints!]

  • Anonymous

    Heironymus is a conservative jerk who likes to respond to anyone slightly liberal… I don't think he even goes to Yale. This is coming from someone with a best friend who's conservative.

    Prison's necessary for most crimes, but there are many people who ARE put into prison unfairly for minor offenses, usually because of race. The author's not suggesting eliminating the prison system, but she's pointing out to the extreme racial imbalance. You want to reduce prison populations? Help the populations at higher risk by providing better education, etc.

  • @Hieronymus

    I don't know what we do without your voice of reason in this morass of liberal relativism and hypochondria. Thanks G-d for conservatism, which according to conventional wisdom (the only kind conservatives approve of), is the end result of old age, children, and being mugged. Yes, children are basically like being mugged, especially when they go to Yale.

    Unfortunately, we still have to figure out to do with all those older, liberal, formerly-mugged parents. They destroy our clean-cut conception of the world. Let's just ignore them, that sounds efficient, and efficiency is good.

    Or we could come up with arguments that are based on reason rather than coy witticisms.

  • Hieronymus

    "Prison's necessary for most crimes, but there are many people who ARE put into prison unfairly for minor offenses, usually because of race."

    Prove it.

  • CIA man Jose

    I say we build more prisons and pass tougher drug laws.

    I am profiting tremendously from my stock in corrections corp. and because the competition is eliminated, I can charge a higher premium on the blow I fly into the country.

  • Recent Alum

    #3: This column was not "slightly liberal." It was a rant and proposed no solution to reduce crime or improve the criminal justice system. I have no idea whether Hieronymus is affiliated with Yale, but his 3-strike plan sounds like a decent proposal with concrete suggestions for improvement, and if fleshed out, it could have made an interesting, thought-provoking column.

  • John

    #6, did you read the entire column? I believe the last paragraph was a list of concrete suggestions.

  • Yale08

    What is this garbage?

    I thought prisons were supposed to punish criminals and protect law abiding citizens?

  • Hieronymus

    To #8: Those were not quite viable; or, if you think THOSE were viable, I offer the countersuggestion:

    Given that humans are free to make decisions pertaining to their lives, rather than get drug treatment, I proffer "drug reservations," i.e., places where any individual can, at government expense, receive ANY and ALL drugs desired. And all one has to do to indicate a desire/readiness to exit the reservation is to remain drug-free (via tests) for, say, three months.

    That you think prisoners need "treatment" indicates the usual Liberal "I know best" stance, denying individual's rights and preferences. If someone likes drugs, well, by all means--let them toast their brains to smithereens, and let us help them do so in a way that keeps them from needing to perpetrate crimes against those who choose otherwise.

    You will likely find some flaw in this argument, but I suggest that it is simply the other side of YOUR coin, and much more practical AND practicable.

    Who are YOU to say what is a "right" or "wrong" choice for an individual with regard to that individual's life choices?

  • lillian c.

    It is easy to talk about any subject before it has personally touched you. Conservatives never commit crimes or go to prison?
    Conservatives don't consider the nation's extremely high incarceration rate their doing? Something to be proud of? I thought they ran the Country, in the most correct way.

  • po'd

    Does the writer of this article need to be reminded that at Yale we are constantly reminded that we shouldn't EVER walk around town by ourselves? According to all of the recent articles about crime in the city, a lot of the criminals here are people who have already been in jail for violent offenses.

    Should we feel so concerned for the criminals well being and liberty that we should happily resign ourselves to riding around in a university shuttle all the time?

  • yale 08

    first, a point of correction. whether or not prisoners "need treatment" shouldn't be closely related to this discussion. rehabilitation is no longer a goal of prison in the USA. this has been stated recently by the federal sentencing commission. the goals of imprisonment are deterrence, incapacitation and retribution.

    second, and more importantly, the justice system is racist. most people who have any clue about drug policy see this as a non-issue. most saliently, there's a huge disparity in sentences meted out for crack and powder cocaine-related offenses. second, the fact remains that pretty much the only people prosecuted for drugs in this country are blacks and Hispanics (when was the last time you heard of a Yale student getting arrested for drugs?). empirical evidence regarding enforcement indicates that drugs in this country are pretty much legal for white people, especially wealthy whites, but not for minorities.

    especially given that the racial makeup of the US prison population is so different from the racial makeup of the country as a whole, the burden should rest with those who dispute the system's racism, rather than those who acknowledge it.

  • Untouchables

    The very same people who cry the loudest about the prison system, are the very same people who will pay the most to stay out of it.

  • new yalie

    To #13

    Oh gawd you are SUCH a tool; can you regurgitate any OTHER dogmas you've been feeding on? Are you able to engage in or cite your own original research or observations, or must you rely on what your teachers and profs have been drumming into you ad infinitum?

  • Yale 08


    I love how you attack me personally, and consider it a legit criticism of what I wrote. These aren't dogmas, they're facts. And you don't need to do "original research" to figure it out (what a ridiculous suggestion!) because the everything I cited is so readily available and so commonly known. I may as well have said "the capital of France is Paris."

  • @ new yalie

    Perhaps you'd like to cite your own research to counter some of the claims made by Yale 08?

  • Anonymous


    great. call someone you disagree with "a tool" and accuse them of being dogmatic. especially when they're saying things that are completely taboo in this country. you are the one refusing to question the prevailing wisdom of this great country of ours…

    look at the facts. prison are failing. people are being put there for a few months and years and can't get a job afterwards. the parole system is screwed up. those are hardly disputable.

    as for the "a liberal is a conservative who hasn't been mugged yet" it is perhaps the dummest saying EVER. the most conservative people (and those most worried about terrorism) are not those who live in new york city, chicago or los angeles. they're voters in regions with little crime (and in the case of terrorism, very little threat of being attacked).

    a conservative is a liberal who doesn't have to think about the world he is living in.

  • Anonymous

    This was a truly excellent piece, focusing on a group of the population that unfortunately we ignore too easily. The skyrocketing prison population and the disgraceful conditions found in prisons are a source of shame for this country. Bravo to Claire for speaking out on the issue. Too bad our politicians rarely do the same.

  • esc4p3

    You speak about a subject, that you no nothing about. I work at Northern (CT's Supertmax) , and the prisoners there are evil men. They are there because they are assaultive. The have to participate in programs in order to leave and go to a lower level facility. You can't get all of your information from statistics. You did not talk to anybody that works for the Department of Corrections. Your research is incomplete.