The Cost of Imprisonment

Matthew Braunginn, New Leaders Council Wisconsin

Part sixteen of The New Leader series The Arc of Justice: Examining the Failures of the Criminal Justice System and the Hope of Progressive Reforms

“Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of the social problems that burden people who are ensconced in poverty. These problems often are veiled by being conveniently grouped together under the category “crime” and by the automatic attribution of criminal behavior to people of color. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages…prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.” — Angela Davis, Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex

As Angela Davis so eloquently captures, the prison industrial complex (PIC) was launched and is maintained to uphold a racialized caste system within the United States. This is the crux of what Michelle Alexander talked about in the New Jim Crow.

Economic scope of Prison Industrial Complex

How big is the PIC? Currently, it costs the United States $182 billion a year. To put that into perspective, it would cost the United States roughly $47 billion a year under a plan put forth by Bernie Sanders to create “free college.” There are estimates that it would cost the federal government $20 billion annually to “effectively end homelessness.”

15 states spend more on incarceration than education — none of them traditional “southern” states either, with “progressive” California leading the way. These state numbers are muted in that they don’t include the money spent on law enforcement and other apparatuses of mass incarceration. One of the best local indicators of the size of the PIC is how much cities spend on police, with many spending as much 25–35 percent of their general funds on police, often the single largest budget item in a city. Only a fraction of that amount goes toward “programs of social uplift.”

Most of the investments into the PIC go into government-run/state entities. Currently, about half of the money spent on this complex is spent on staffing needs, making the PIC one massive government jobs program and raising one of the biggest reason why the PIC is defended: it is a jobs creator. “The government payroll for corrections employees is over 100 times higher than the private prison industry profits.” Seven percent of state prisoners and 18 percent of federal prisoners are incarcerated in private prisons. Where private prisons have flourished is within immigration detention facilities. In 2016, “private prisons held nearly three-quarters of federal immigration detainees.” The private prison industry is a money maker, raking in roughly $374 million a year in profits, with private immigrant detention companies bringing in $4 billion in 2017.

There has also been recent growth in monitoring programs pushed as “reform” but that are actually lobbied for by private companies ready to profit off of them, such as electronic monitoring devices and for-profit probation. This is just the latest example of private entities looking to make money off racialized oppression. But private prisons and other private entities are not the drivers of the PIC. The roots and fuel have been racism and maintaining white supremacy as the dominant social order. Like much of American history, private entities found ways to profit off the oppression of Black and Brown Americans - they benefit from the racialized order but are not the drivers or origin of it.

Human Scope and Impact of the Prison Industrial Complex

Currently, 2.3 million people are locked in cages, almost twice the amount of China and almost 25 percent of the world’s prison population is in the United States. The vast majority of humans incarcerated are in state and local jails and prisons. But this system goes beyond prison walls, with 3.7 million people on probation and 840,000 on parole, making over seven million people who are controlled by the U.S. justice system.

The racial breakdown of those incarcerated is alarming as well. Black Americans make up 13 percent of the US population yet 40 percent of the prison population. Latino populations make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and 16 percent of the prison population. White Americans make up 64 percent of the U.S. population, yet are 39 percent of the prison population. And Native Americans are .9 percent of the U.S. population yet make up one percent of the prison population. These disparities are seen at every level of the criminal justice system.

As the documentary 13th, The New Jim Crow, Slavery by Another Name, and other works have pointed out, the modern incarceral state can find its origins in Convict Leasing. Convict Leasing started shortly after the Civil War with the explicit intent on reinstituting the racial order in the South that reconstruction attempted to dismantle. When you add the multitude of ways racism was baked into the criminal justice system. Starting slave catchers being part of the origin story of the professionalization of US law enforcement, where all law enforcement effectively served as slave catchers. Then the fugitive slave act of 1850 deputizing the entirety of the free U.S. population to police Black bodies. These two things combined sit at the root of many behaviors of the policing of Black and Brown bodies today. This is seen where typically a white person decides a person of color does not belong, seen with “Permit Patty” and other viral videos. Calling the police by such a person ends up becoming a threat of safety to a Black person, wielded as a historical weapon.

Weaponized law enforcement combined with the legacy of convict leasing still plays out today with many in prison participating in prison labor, which is almost indistinguishable from slave labor. With prisoners in Louisiana working in cotton fields, or prisoners in California being paid $1 an hour to fight fires with many being youth and most unable to actually become firefighters after release. These are just a couple examples of an explosive practice all across the country, with many having their voting rights stripped away from them. These are humans who have become nothing but property of the state, being exploited for economic gain by the State.

Convict Leasing was tied together with “Black Codes” which created laws that were disproportionately and intentionally targeted towards Black Americans. These laws would often restrict Black Americans from owning property, as well as vagrancy laws where a Black person would be arrested for a minor offence. They would then be shipped off, or leased, to a company often to “work” on the very plantation they were just “freed” from. A line can be drawn through the legacy of Black Codes to this day, from Broken Window Policing to Stop and Frisk, the ever-present Drug War, and more. Just as with the legacy of slave catchers, the policing of Black bodies leads to incarceration, and many times death for just being Black- from lynchings, to race riots, or to Emmett Till’s, Eric Garner’s, and Sandra Bland’s of the world.

The rise of the PIC can go hand in hand with the escalation of the War on Drugs, which was started by President Nixon as a way to target Black and radical left populations. It’s conception and growth, as with every institution in America, had racist origins. This system is used as a form of social control against Black and Brown populations, explicitly and implicitly. Through the long-framing since the end of the Civil War of the innate criminality of Black Americans, making every Black person within the United States a suspect and possible criminal this industry grew.

In fact, this tough on crime rhetoric grew out of a racist dog whistle to signal white voters that they, as elected representatives would be representing their values and the protection of white people from the criminal other. This rhetoric, and indeed ideas became pervasive in both political parties and across the political spectrum. Here with the first SWAT teams were formed in response to the Black Panthers and were quickly turned on broader Black populations. Where no-knock raids quickly became commonplace, at times using armored vehicles to bust into houses. The militarization of police originated in the response to Black radicals protecting themselves from police brutality and has been turned onto Black and Brown communities ever since. And since then have been used in the drug war in escalating fashion, as well as a continued use, as seen in Ferguson and Baltimore, against Black protests and uprisings.

The cost on humanity is large with roots deep in history. The United States has a long history of breaking up families and locking children in cages, from enslavement to juvenile justice. A history where the so-called moral justification is rooted in just as much racism as the caging of children and ripping apart of families at the border. The human cost of broken families and communities is massive, leaving us a question of what to do?

Moving Forward

Do victims of crime deserve justice? Yes, but many if not most incarcerated are there for crimes of poverty and indeed the rise of the PIC came along with the post-industrial collapse which started in Black America and larger economic collapse of Black America. What is a crime of poverty? It means if a person did not exist in a state of poverty then these crimes would not have been committed. Many have locked out of the legal economy, only to turn to an illegal one to survive. And even if prison was justice, it is not, it’s effectiveness in turning around criminal behavior is abysmal, with a “Bureau of Justice Statistic study finding inmates released from state prisons have a five-year recidivism rate of 76.6 percent.” Indeed there is an economic, moral, and effectiveness argument to make prisons based upon rehabilitation over punishment, such as in Norway. But even if the change was made, there are far too many people in cages within the United States. But the growth of the PIC shows little correlation to actual crime rates, with Michelle Alexander pointing out “Incarceration rates, especially black incarceration rates, have soared regardless of whether crime is going up or down in any given community or the nation as a whole.

Yes let’s legalize marijuana in a just way by freeing those jailed for possession, and making sure those most impacted by the drug war have an entryway into the legalized market. Yes to sentencing reform, yes to ending unpaid prison labor, yes to felon voting enfranchisement, yes to ending cash bail, yes to ending the criminalization of homelessness, yes to that and so much more. But that is just the start. We must not just reform from the PIC but divest from it.

At every level of government, those active in the progressive movement, those who claim to fight for human rights must begin calling for the human and economic divestment from the prison industrial complex and instead call for the investment in humanity, in policies of social uplift. Many of the progressive policies being pushed to the forefront must be tied hand in hand with the dismantling of the PIC. Not only is this the just thing to do, but it will also help cities and states afford initiatives which dig up the root causes of crime, to unpoison the soil which ripped the human dignity from so many Black, Brown, Yellow, and poor people residing within these borders.

Indeed this divestment is directly tied to the fight for clean water, housing, food, environmental justice, and economic opportunity. With a dysfunctional federal government and mounting infrastructure needs, especially in the face of climate change states and cities need resources, yet have been refusing to divest from this human and economic black hole. Continued investment by cities and states robs them of precious resources that could be invested in preventative measures and structural changes.

What would be programs and policies of social uplift? Housing first, which has become a staple is one of the most essential, it also is cost-effective by paying for itself. This helps end the over policing of homeless and solves sending the Sheriff for evictions. Tied with divestment strategies, cities and states can free up money for larger projects in eviction prevention and even longer-term investments such as baby bonds.

Baby bonds would essentially create a trust fund, progressively scaled to match family income and wealth, to create a fund a child can gain access to when 18. When they gain access they would have access to a financial advisor and would only be able to use the funds on an asset or wealth building measure, such as starting one’s own business or student loans. A North Carolina Cherokee reservation has shown the social impact such policies can have, cities and states can take this up now. By addressing generational wealth gaps, states and cities can invest in a multi-generational initiative to get at root causes.

Even larger initiatives, such as states taking swaths of the Green New Deal, which brings together economic justice, racial justice, and democratic justice (meaning the rights of democracy) to the fight for climate change - climate change is indeed an issue of civil and human rights, and any talk of civil and human rights without it is incomplete. Divestment and investment is key for states and cities in preparing for climate change, with energy inefficient and dangerous water infrastructure, need to retro fit all our buildings, transportation investments in EVs and multi-modal transit, building electrification, shifting the energy grid to alternative energy sources, University R&D investments for new and emerging technology, the list goes on. These investments are also job opportunities in thinking about economic development, especially in green workforce development.

We must change how we look at the prison industrial complex. It is a system designed for racial oppression which is robbing us of human and economic resources. It is one robbing us of our human dignity, aiding in our spiritual and physical death. By divesting from it and investing in measures of human uplift, of the best of humanity only then can we then begin to save ourselves from the darkest behaviors of humanity. We must think of initiatives that invest in the core thought of “what makes a thriving human being?” Prisons are not that, it’s an investment in breaking humanity and by continuing to sink resources into something that doesn’t work, states and cities are limiting their ability to invest in root causes, economic opportunity, and the growing needs of the 21st century.

There is no place in the progressive movement for the caging of human beings, be it at the border or at your county jail.

Matthew Braunginn has worked locally in Madison, WI, which holds some of the highest racial disparities in arrests and incarceration in the nation, around issues of police accountability and innovative ideas of reform- organizing and serving locally on a city ad-hoc committee reviewing policies and procedures of the Madison Police Department. He also works for COWS, with the Mayors Innovation Project, exploring ways to address problems cities face using the high road of sustainability, equity, and democracy.