mass incarceration

THE SYSTEM HAS TO CHANGE: An Introduction to What’s Wrong With the System and the Costs of Mass Incarceration, by Richard Kirkham

The System doesn’t help prisoners become better people. It doesn’t help us correct the thinking that landed us in Jail or Prison or prepare for release. While we prisoners need to take responsibility for ourselves, most us don’t know HOW to change or where to start. If we knew how to succeed or be productive, or were morally and ethically sound, we wouldn’t be locked up. Prisoners need help to learn to function as positive and productive members of society. We need job training, education, and pro-social and cognitive skills. This is just a fact.

Here’s another fact: most prisoners (76%) will be rearrested within a year of release. There are 2.7 million people incarcerated in America. If we all got released today, 2,050,000 would be back for committing another crime within a year. What does that tell us? Are prisoners just terrible people who hate society and their families and freedom? Or is America’s Criminal Justice System failing prisoners and not rehabilitating or correcting us? 

Another number that’s insane is the average of $40,000 per year to incarcerate a human being in America. With 2.7 million Americans locked up, that comes to $108,000,000,000 annually! One Hundred and Eight BILLION Dollars per year. Let that sink in. That’s what it costs us to imprison our fellow citizens. 

And those Billions of dollars don’t account for the State Services and Public Assistance that most prisoners HAVE TO utilize upon release to survive. To understand why that is we need to understand the financial situation most releasing prisoners are in first.

Prisoners are subject to slave labor under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That’s not inflammatory hyperbole, its a fact, you can look it up. When we ARE paid for our work, the average is between $.30 and $1 per hour, and deductions of 20-75% come out of our monthly pay. Prisoners can’t earn enough in 10 years of working full-time to save enough money to pay a standard first, last, and deposit for an apartment upon release, put clothes on our backs, buy our own food, and pay for reasonable medical insurance. 

Without any savings upon release prisoners look to Public Assistance for their IMMEDIATE cash, clothing, housing and food needs. A cost tax payers carry. Let’s do a conservative estimate and say the monthly cost is $1,000 to cover those basic needs. Multiplied by, let’s say, 100,000 releasing prisoners per month…$100,000,000!

Without any real or relevant job training, money for tools or work clothes or transportation, and with our criminal records, recently released prisoners struggle to find work. This means we HAVE TO CONTINUE to rely on those same State Services for our LONG-TERM cash, clothing, housing and food needs. And, you got it, those costs are STILL carried by tax payers. How about we average that out to 6 months of Public Assistance per releasing prisoner? The total? $600,000,000. And this is not effective in any meaningful way. It doesn’t help any of us achieve independence, it just keeps us alive and warm.

Prisoners who release without Health Care or money to afford insurance go to Free Clinics or Emergency Rooms to take care of our basic medical and dental needs, all subsidized by tax payers. Can we add a few Hundred Million to our total? Sure, why not. $500,000,000.

But that’s not all! Remember our 76% recidivism rate? For every one of the 2,050,000 who will be rearrested within a year of our release, tax payers have to cover the salaries of the Police who rearrest us, the Prosecutors who prosecute us, the Public Defenders who represent us, and the Judges who preside over our cases. I don’t know how to estimate those costs, but I think $5,000 per person seems conservative and fair, right? $10,250,000,000 to pay to put us back through the Courts, and back in prison. Then we just go back to where we began and start totaling the numbers again. Are we out of our minds?!?!

And this doesn’t account for the families who are missing a mother or father and breadwinner in the home, who have to rely on Public Assistance. Or the children we have to incarcerate because their parents weren’t there for them and they turned to criminal or violent behavior. Or the Nursing and Hospice care for the parents and grandparents of our incarcerated. Or the million other economic considerations that no one seems to know or care about. And most importantly, it doesn’t highlight what this does to our communities, our families, our youth, or our future as a country.

We spend Hundreds of Billions of Dollars annually to incarcerate people, and its almost purely punitive, NOT rehabilitative. We then spend Billions to supply ineffective Public Assistance, just to get people by until they have to be locked up again because they couldn’t make it in life. This is truly insane, and we need to change it.

There are solutions. They include ideas that are counter-intuitive to the common notions of crime and punishment. Like investing in prisoners, educating us, paying us fair wages, facilitating communication between us and our support systems, and making positive programming available to every prisoner.

Then there are the things we need to be tougher on: making certain things mandatory for prisoners, not allowing us to waste our time not being productive, insisting on education, savings, and release preparation.

In coming posts I will break down what needs to happen in order to turn our prisons from revolving doors into doors of opportunity that heal people and build them up. Our prisons should take in damaged and misguided human beings, and release them as citizens who are ready and able to contribute to society and benefit their families. It can happen, but the way America views crime, punishment, and prisoners has to change first. 

Wishing you the best in Life, Luck, and Love.

Richard Kirkham
DOC #756060

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