Masking social deficits with bars

A local television news program recently reported the objections of Little Rock Pastor Wendell Griffen of New Millennium Church to the proposed construction of yet one more prison in Arkansas. We applaud Griffen. His opposition to prison expansion is well-founded and rational.

In a letter addressed to Gov. Mike Beebe on Wednesday, Griffen urges the governor to oppose the Board of Corrections’ vote to move forward with the construction of a new state prison. He writes: “I am writing to urge you to oppose those plans and impose a moratorium on new prison construction in Arkansas.”

Matt DeCample of the governor’s office flatly rebuked Griffen’s request: “The governor’s not going to issue a moratorium on building prisons,” DeCample said.

We don’t expect that he would. Prisons in Arkansas are big business. For that matter, prisons everywhere in the U.S. are big business.

Prisons supply many in Arkansas with jobs, supplier contracts, construction projects and all manner of supporting businesses. From a purely capitalistic perspective, the American thirst for mass incarceration is an overwhelming good.

Unfortunately, this “goodness” masks an awful truth about our society: The U.S. uses prisons to cover the fact that we have a large core of people unprepared for participation in the labor force. We also use prisons as the primary means of mental health “care” and substance abuse “counseling” for the American underclass.

Writing in the 1930s, social scientists George Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer describe the theoretical function of incarceration. They argue that prison is designed to “render, docile the recalcitrant members of the working class, it deters others, it teaches habits of discipline and order, it reproduces the lost hierarchy. It repairs defective humans to compete in the market place.”

Were it only so. Prisons in America fulfill few of these promises. Even so, prison construction has marched forward at an alarming rate.

There are approximately 2 million inmates in state, federal and private prisons throughout the country. According to the watchdog group, California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.”

The United States has locked up more people than any other country — a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. Statistics reveal that the United States holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population, but only 5 percent of the world’s people. America spends an estimated $74 billion per year to incarcerate people. This is greater than the Gross Domestic Product of 133 nations.

Rusche and Kirchheimer also offer a theory relevant to this unbridled expansion. They maintain that punishment is inextricably linked to social forces, most determinative among them the motive for profit. According to a recent report by the Justice Policy Institute, the country’s two largest private prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group – jointly amassed annual revenues in excess of $2.9 billion dollars during 2010.

Accepting that there will always be a need for a strong prison system, we question the necessity of this continued growth. What if we spent the projected $75-$80 million in construction costs on education instead? What might that get us?

A recent study by the Legal Momentum Family Initiative and the MIT Workplace Center concludes: “Every dollar invested in quality early care and education saves taxpayers up to $13.00 in future costs.”

A recent Texas state study observed a similar effect, concluding that “every dollar invested in the state’s higher education system eventually returns $5.50 to the (state) economy.

Compare that with the return on incarcerating someone: zero dollars. Yes, prisons have value. They fulfill an important social function. They also suck the life blood out of other equally important social endeavors, education chief among them. In the end, we can either build schools (education) or we can build prisons. If we don’t build one, we’ll definitely build the other.