We Love Our Prisons More Than Prisoners

By Ruether, Rosemary Radford | National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 1997 | Go to article overview
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We Love Our Prisons More Than Prisoners

Ruether, Rosemary Radford, National Catholic Reporter

Americans remain a peculiarly punitive people. They seem convinced that poor people are poor because they are lazy and don't want to work and that the best way to treat people who commit crimes is to toss them in the slammer and throw away the key.

Getting "tough on crime" by building more prisons, giving longer sentences and tougher parole conditions is an election favorite that passes with little question in our public rhetoric. Slashing education and welfare spending is regarded as the way to make people more "competitive" by having to fend for themselves without public "handouts." The impression most Americans have is that such policies will make us both more "moral" and save money at the same time.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The policies that are being forged in the name of being tough on crime and forcing the poor to lift themselves up by their bootstraps will be paid for by our children. The price will be both higher crime rates and much greater costs for incarcerating prisoners. It will be higher than the cost would, have been to educate these adults when they were children and to help their mothers with welfare payments, thereby allowing them to care for their children and get marketable job skills. This bleak future can already be discerned by looking at our present prison policies, particularly in California where I am presently teaching.

The United States imprisons far more of its population than any other developed country, 250 people in 100,000. The percentage is even higher in California, where more than 388 in 100,000 of the populace are in prison.

This prison population is about 34 percent Hispanic, 31.5 percent black and 29.5 percent white. The 5 percent "other" is mostly Asian,

California's total population is about 62 percent white, 22 percent Hispanic, 6 percent black and 10 percent other (mostly Asian).

These figures tell us that blacks are imprisoned at a rate of more than Five times their numbers in the state's population; Hispanics at more than 1.5 times their numbers; and whites at less than half of their numbers.

Sixty percent of the crimes for which prisoners are incarcerated in California are nonviolent property or drug violations. The average age of the prisoners is 32. About 7 percent are female. Almost all of these prisoners have problems with drug and alcohol abuse and their average reading level is that of an eighth-grader.

California prisons remain overcrowded at 175 percent of capacity despite the huge prison-building program in the 1980s that cost $6.2 billion. The debt repayment for building new prisons is expected to reach $10 billion by 2000. In addition to these building costs. California spends about $24,000 a year to house each convict. To save money, it has continually slashed rehabilitation services in the prisons. Fewer than 4 percent of the male population participate in prerelease programs. Less than 60 percent have employment in prisons, usually in work that will not give them jobs on the outside, such as prison teams that clean the freeways. Pay averages eight to 13 cents an hour for women, a bit more for men.

This means that prisoners can make about $5 a week to be spent on cigarettes and the like.

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