Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Dateline: January 1, 2009


When I came to prison, the system held about 20,000 unfortunate souls, guarded and administrated by several thousand public servants. Thirty years later, the system is bursting at the seams with ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND!—count ‘em—100,000 prisoners nervously guarded and administrated by a bloated bureaucracy that has equivalently swollen by FIVE HUNDRED PERCENT! That nearly seventeen percent annual increase has outpaced the Dow Jones, Standard & Poors, and NASDAQ indexes to a current budget of over $2.5 billion a year.

Now the Tampa Tribune reports that Florida citizens must bankroll the construction of nineteen more prisons over the next five years to contain the still-burgeoning prison population. In this era of economic collapse, decreasing tax revenues, budget deficits, widespread home foreclosures, job losses and bankruptcies, something’s got to give. How can we possibly afford to imprison an even greater percentage of our citizenry? It’s simple—we can’t. We must look in a new direction.

As someone who has lived under the long arm of the law and order, lock ‘em up and throw away the key criminal justice “philosophy” of the 1970’s, it seems clear that something drastic must be done to arrest these developments.

Open your eyes, people! This isn’t working. Cut four percent here, four percent there, that sounds good, but at the end of the day all we’ve done is dig the hole deeper. And the deeper we dig this giant prison hole, the harder it will be to climb out of it.

It makes dollars and sense that a new “philosophy” of crime and punishment in Florida must be implemented before this system swells to such gargantuan size that it collapses and implodes, creating problems unknown, unexpected, and unforeseen by our current “experts.”

From inside the fences we can see the seismic waves signaling the forthcoming 9/11 corrections collapse of the twin towers of crime and punishment. Why doesn’t the public pull its collective head out of the sand and do the right thing before it is too late? Good question. Now, for some answers.

You can’t unbuild a prison. It is a fact in Florida if you build a prison they will come and fill it. It is another fact that prison construction costs are one of the biggest hidden ripoffs you’ll ever find. Someone should check and see if that Ponzi-schemer, Bernie Madoff, invested in prison construction over the past twenty years.

I live in a concrete “cell” of a hair less than sixty-seven square feet. I share that sixty-seven square feet with a push-button toilet, a sink, two steel lockers, steel double bunk beds, and a cellmate. There’s not much room to maneuver. Close quarters.

We hear that word, “infrastructure,” frequently these days. Our nation’s infrastructure is aging and crumbling, and must be replaced at a cost of trillions of dollars. Along with that, all those cheaply-constructed prisons that were hastily built to house the current population of 100,000 people are aging and crumbling, too. Forget about the nineteen new prisons they want to build. We need to worry about the ones we have now that are falling apart and the escalating repair costs they require.

You think it’s tough living in a small bathroom-sized cell with another person 24/7, wait until you’re locked inside that cell with the water pipes broken, non-functioning toilets, and no drinking water for eighteen out of the past twenty four hours, as we have done this day, January 2, 2009. This is not a rare occurrence. We went for weeks without water a few months back when they had to dig up and replace several hundred feet of cracked pipes. And it is only getting worse. There is little money available for maintaining these aging prisons.

They price these prisons by the cost per cell. I don’t have the exact figure—you bet the DOC does—but some years back I was astounded that new prison construction averaged out at $50,000 a cell. $50,000! For my sixty-seven square foot cell, that comes out to about $746 a square foot. That’s right—$746. A square foot. Where is Conrad Hilton when you need him? Where are the rare carpeting and wood paneling, the gold toilet fixtures?

Those are the old numbers. The “new” numbers talk about $100,000 per cell, almost $1500 a square foot, or $120 million for a twelve hundred man prison. How can they get away with that? How can we afford it? We can’t.

Once you build them, the problems are just beginning. Now you have to pay to keep them running in perpetuity.

What is the greatest expense item in the prison department’s budget? Not construction, not prisoners’ food, not health care, but payroll, the salaries for the guards and administrators, and they never go down.

Recently I wrote about the high cost of prison discipline, how the “costs of incarceration” are increased by the lost “gain time” resulting from bogus and undeserved disciplinary reports written by malicious and vindictive guards. Those costs could be up in the millions, but they pale when compared to the incredible bi-weekly payroll checks sent out to the thousands of corrections employees.

Do you want to save a quick million dollars? Prison rules require all prisoners to be “clean shaven,” which entails issuing two disposable razors each week to 100,000 people, or over ten million razors a year. Surely those razors cost at least ten cents apiece, or over one million dollars. Dispense with the clean shaven rule, as many states and the federal government have done, let those who want to shave buy a cheap razor from the canteen, and shave off a million dollars from the budget. Chicken feed. That’s not a drop in the bucket.

Would you rather save a bigger chunk, up in the millions of dollars in health care costs? Quit selling tobacco products in prison, and ban all smoking on prison property for staff and prisoners. Millions upon millions.

Smoking-related health costs are skyrocketing. Recent studies have shown that secondhand smoke kills a minimum of 46,000 Americans a year from heart attacks. Although state and federal laws forbid smoking inside prison buildings, including dormitories, most guards don’t even try to stop it. Sometimes I’ll walk down the hall to the water cooler and almost choke on the billowing clouds of smoke pouring out from cells. The tiny TV room is even worse. One person surreptitiously lights up and threatens the lives of two dozen others. Quit selling tobacco products and reduce medical expenses.

That is a bigger drop in the bucket. We can do better than that. How? How can we save ten percent—$250 million a year, every year, starting in a year? Reduce the prison population ten percent—10,000 prisoners—reduce the staff ten percent—close ten percent of the prisons. Impossible? Not hardly. Tough times call for extreme measures. Let me tell you how.

Prison is a revolving door. Criminals get out, criminals come back in. The actual recidivism percentages are debatable and up for grabs. Some say fifty percent get out and come back in within three years of release. Some say two-thirds. Certain crimes result in higher recidivism rates while certain others are very low. Some prisoners never get out, but grow old in the decades inside, then die. But for the last ten to twenty years of those long sentences, those aging, toothless (literally) old men cost the taxpayers $100,000 to $200,000 a year and more, depending on their medical conditions. I heard of one man whose outside hospital cost $250,000. And he’s still kicking, running up an incredible tab.

Forget about rehabilitation. There wasn’t room in the budget. They cut that out over twenty years ago. The fact is that prison is a young man’s game. I see teenagers coming to prison every week, getting younger. They are mostly uneducated, ignorant, drug-addicted, ruthless, uncaring about society, amoral and uninterested in change. We are growing bumper crops of these people, and doing little to prevent them from coming to prison, or doing their short bits of two or three years, getting out, re-offending, coming back in for two or three years, hustling in and out of that revolving door, doing life on the installment plan.

We have two classes of prisoners I propose we focus our budget-cutting attention on the young and the old, the short-timers and the long-termers. I admit I have a self-interest in this. I am a long-termer, having spent thirty-one years in prison (that’s another story), and I happen to know for a fact that if they let me out tomorrow, I would spend the rest of my days as a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen, contributing to society. I’m not the only one. There are thousands more like me, men who’ve served decades in prison, rightly or wrongly, who, if they were released tomorrow would never see the inside of a prison again. Some of these men are fifty-sixty-seventy-eighty-even ninety years old. It’s ridiculous to keep them all in prison.

Let them go. If the person is fifty years old or more, has done twenty years in prison or more, put them on the list to be released. Take the oldest 5,000 prisoners in that category, screen them, and let them go. Don’t just kick them out the front gate and leave them to the wolves, but give them a chance to get out and stay out. You can do it. Try it—you’ll like it. Reduce the prison population by 5,000 of the oldest, sickest, least likely to re-offend, and save the state close to $125 million, or more, a year.

That’s half the plan. Now for the short-timers. That’s where they usually focus their early release attention, those serving the last thirty, sixty, or ninety days in prison, kick them out a little early, save a few million. Even so, there are hardcore law-and-order types who scream when somebody suggests “early release” of a month or so, people who are determined to squeeze the last drop of blood from the turnip, no matter how much it costs. For those people I say, get over it. We have to stop nitpicking. They’re going to get out soon, anyway. Go ahead and save everyone some money.

Make a list of the 5,000 prisoners with the least time remaining on their sentences. See where the numbers fall, It might be six months, even a year. Evaluate the list, figure it out. I’m not advocating for sex offenders—put an asterisk by their names, deal with them separately. Take 5,000 of the youngest, shortest-time serving, non-violent prisoners, and let them go. Save another $100-125 million dollars this year. Add it up—we’re talking a quarter billion dollars here. Close some prisons, don’t open them up. Cut the staff. Cut the budget. Put fiscal responsibility to the forefront.

I’m not saying it will be easy. It will take work. There are many considerations, such as re-training and re-hiring all those extra prison guards into different jobs, implementing the abandoned educational and vocational programs back into the prisons so that the remaining prisoners can be prepared for law-abiding lives in society. Education and job training are the biggest bargains in crime fighting, and the first ones to be cut when money is tight. That makes no long-term sense.

In addition, we as a society must rethink our ideas on crime and poverty, work toward reducing the precursors to crime, the unemployment, widespread drug use, failed school systems, the broken-down family structures that foster child neglect and abuse, all our societal ills that guide an innocent child down a crooked path that leads to eventual imprisonment. The money we spend to keep that eighteen-year old in prison for eighteen more years could have been better invested on the front end, when there was still hope for intervention, to save the life of that child and his brothers and sisters, to prepare them for college, rather than prepare them for trial.

Let’s do something drastic. Let’s do the right thing. What do we have to lose? A quarter billion dollar debt


Anonymous said...

New prison construction costs are about $350/sf in Florida; about $450/sf in California.
A recent 1,200 man prison was built in Florida for about $60M.

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