The prison industry at Canaan is not the problem. Rather, it is very much symptomatic of a much older, deeper, and entrenched policy that builds prisons, buys votes, and destroys lives. Currently, there are approximately 2,500,000 men, women, and children imprisoned in federal, state and local penitentiaries and jails that stretch across this country from its most exciting cities to its smallest and isolated rural communities. No matter their locale or size, they imprison not people, but broken dreams, misguided visions, and failed policies. Each year, that number grows exponentially. Already out-of-control, at the current rate, by the year 2020, the number of prisoners nationwide will reach epidemic proportions.
Currently, there are 10 million convicted felons in the United States, or about 20% of its adult population. Something is very much broken here. To suggest that a society can be described as healthy which at any given time jails upwards of 10% of its people, indeed 25% of prisoners worldwide, at the same time its population is less than 5% of that same world is to turn day into night… an exercise in perverse delusion… or perhaps the best indication that “tough on crime” is but a relentless cheap campaign slogan that plays to the moral agenda of the powerful few while it targets people based largely on race, class, and politics.
The so-called war on drugs has gone on for too long, causing far more societal damage than the underlying drugs themselves, or any short-term economic law enforcement “benefit” generated by their criminalization. Currently, approximately 60% of all federal prisoners are incarcerated because of victimless drug offenses fueled by the desire of offenders to get high or to help others to do so. Another 10% or so of the prison population is comprised of non-violent white-collar offenses.
America’s love affair with drugs is both seamless and timeless. It dates back to the earliest days of the Republic when more than a few of its well-heeled founders enjoyed snuff to ease pain, pass time, or simply escape. Some things don’t change.
Today, sentences for federal drug offenses continue to be draconian and often run into decades of real prison time. While use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes is now lawful in some three dozen states, several dozen prisoners nationwide are doing life sentences with no chance of release because these victims stand convicted of multiple pot offenses and nothing else.
It’s far too easy, and too slick, to simply say that drug offenders make personal choices driven by character weakness or financial greed and thus should not be heard to complain… not in a country where the chase for profit has embraced an addictive tobacco and alcohol industry of death that kills tens of millions of Americans each year through disease and violence… and has for a century or more.
Today, in Pennsylvania, where the Canaan prison complex sits like a mausoleum for the living dead, there are fourteen federal prisons of all security levels ranging from camps to maximum security and a private facility which collectively imprison almost 15,000 prisoners. Nationwide, there are more than 250,000 federal inmates.
Annual costs per federal inmate are approximately $23,000 for minimum security camps, $27,000 for low security, $28,000 for medium security, and $36,000 for high security prisons. Costs per inmate housed in community corrections (residential re-entry centers, and home confinement) for the BOP are approximately $27,000. By contrast, the yearly cost of community-based supervision by probation officers is approximately $3,500 per offender. Dollars alone, the stark, indeed dramatic, difference between building prisons or new probation offices is breathtaking, all the more so considering the recidivism rates. For those so-called offenders who stay at home with support from their families, employed or acquiring real skills, re-arrest figures remain no worse or lower than that for those locked away for the same offenses while their families slip further and further into poverty and despair.
Can it be that the high-growth prison industry in Pennsylvania, indeed nationwide, has become a political perk for politicians such as the late and all-powerful US Senator from the Keystone State, Arlen Specter, who built jails and thus bought votes from his constituents all the years he served as one of the Senate’s most powerful lawmakers and, for many years, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Through his reign, Pennsylvania saw an unprecedented growth in its federal and state prison system while not a single new university was built during that time.
In Pennsylvania, almost 60% of the federal inmate population, which mirrors the country as a whole, is locked away in camps or low-security level facilities. By their very nature, such prisons are filled by those who have been convicted of non-violent drug or white collar offenses. Based on their history, they present no risk or danger to the broader community. They remain, however, imprisoned far from their homes and community at tremendous costs to their families and society as a whole… doing often long, and always lonely, time for retribution’s sake and little else. Today, such prisons are running almost 50% above capacity.
Imagine how much better, healthier, and wiser we could all become overnight with a 60% (if not greater) drop in the federal prison population and the billions it costs to maintain these human warehouses nationwide.
“Count time, count time, count time,” echoes throughout Canaan as the lights dim and another night of darkness takes hold.