Why Does the United States Have Such an Insanely Large Prison Population? (And How to Fix It Easily)
The current total population of people incarcerated on our little spaceship we’ve named Earth is estimated to be around 11 million out of about 8 billion humans, or approximately 1 in 730 people walking the earth. However, 1 out of about 195 nations on our celestial rock, the United States, currently has locked up about 1 in 6 of those worldwide incarcerated individuals- a curious distinction only matched by the likes of China who has approximately the same amount behind bars, although about four times the number of citizens as the United States to draw from…
This all puts the United States’ incarceration rate at about 1 in 153 adults, with another 4 million or so under other correctional supervision like parole. In total, this means an astounding around 1 in 60 adults in the United States right now are either behind bars or are under some form of state supervision. A further mind boggling statistic in this is that, according to a study by the Bureau of Justice and Statistics, Lifetime Likelihood of Going to State or Federal Prison, a whopping 1 in 11 American men and 1 in 49 women can expect to find themselves at some point in their life spending time in prison. Further, tragically, approximately 1 in 27 children have at least one parent behind bars in the United States right now… On top of this, the cost of incarcerating all these individuals is about $70 billion annually. This means each American adult averages paying just under $300 per year in taxes to house this prison and jail population. Noteworthy, this does not include the massive police and judicial costs that get the prisoners put there in the first place, as well as the ancillary costs of more kids finding themselves under the care of the state, etc. etc.- with it generally estimated that the total cost of it all is somewhere in the ballpark of around a cool trillion dollars annually to the nation when all factors considered.
So this brings up the question- a nation of criminals? Or a thoroughly broken system?
We’ll get into the why of it in a bit, but spoiler, it’s definitively the latter, and in some rather boneheaded, face-palmy, shoot yourself in the foot ways.
But it wasn’t always this way! Before the 1980s, the U.S. and the rest of the developed world had a pretty similar percentage of prison and jail populations. But suddenly, starting around the 1970s the U.S. incarceration rate began to climb- rapidly, peaking at about a 500% increase in prison population in a mere three decades, and only in the last decade and a half has it finally begun to, very slowly, decline, for reasons we’ll get into shortly. But even at the present rate of decline, it will take about seven more decades to get back to incarceration rates seen in most other countries of the world, and that previously existed in the United States.
While you’ll often hear stated this climb was a result of the United States famously deciding to declare a war on drugs, this isn’t actually really what caused the massive rise in prison populace, nor why it’s mostly maintained to this day. As law professor at Fordham Law School John Pfaff notes, as well as why it’s so important to really understand what’s actually happening here, “The reason it’s important to get it right is that if we’re trying to reduce the prison population, we want to make sure we do it correctly—and if you focus on the wrong thing, you won’t solve the problem. So if you think it’s the war on drugs, you might think, ‘OK, if we just decriminalize drugs, that will solve the problem.’ … But just… decarcerating drug offenders—will not reduce the prison population by as much as people think. If you released every person in prison on a drug charge today, our state prison population would drop from about 1.5 million to 1.2 million. So we’d still be the world’s largest incarcerating country; we’d still have an enormous prison population.”
A second hypothesis often put forth is the cause was the rise of private, for profit, prison systems that incentivize prisons to keep people there and coming back. But while there is truth to elements of this, and we’ll get into the interesting details in a bit, private prisons weren’t actually the cause either, and were more of a response to the skyrocketing need for more beds to house prisoners in. As with the war on drugs, this was more of a symptom of the problem, rather than the actual cause.
So what actually happened to cause the massive spike in people behind bars in the land of the free? And how can this absolute dumpster fire of a situation be fixed?
To begin with, while the full answer to all this is as fascinating as it is complex, and we’ll dive into it in much more interesting detail shortly, if you want the 5 second version- in a nutshell, the cause was simply the political push that has more or less continued unabated through today of being “tough on crime”, or the alternate catch phrase of “Law and Order”, initially most famously being a key facet of the political platform of Alabama governor George Wallace, of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” fame.
Speaking of that, this general idea that would morph into “tough on crime” was, in part, in response to a rather curious rise in crime rates that happened around this time with, for example, violent crime rates rising about 400% between 1960 and 1990. What caused this rise in crime is still a matter of debate, and some even conjecture it wasn’t so much an actual rise in crimes being committed, but advancements in police force methods, technologies, funding, as well as a concerted effort to target certain groups. Of course, nothing is so black and white, and diving into the root cause of this extremely complex issue could be a video of its own. But suffice it to say for now, this all saw a popular political push for the country to crack down on crime, helping to get everyone from prosecutors to presidents elected from then to now, with the general promise being that if society does this, there will be less crime, safer streets, and just overall a huge net benefit to society.
But has this actually happened?
No. Not really.
And, stay tuned to the end, because the figures when going the other way are astounding in the contrast and how much the U.S. would likely save and reduce crime if they did take a polar opposite approach. Although as ever, the devil is in the absolutely fascinating details. The world is complex. And you should always be skeptical of overly simple narratives. So let’s dive into the complexity!
Going back to being tough on crime and the war on drugs, President Richard Nixon, the noted bastion of integrity and absolutely never took part in any criminal activity whatsoever as evidenced by the fact that he never spent time behind bars for those incredibly serious crimes he totally didn’t ever commit… Nothing to see here, move along…I mean, he LITERALLY said he’s not a crook. Case closed… And, indeed, it was closed thanks to a pardon he was given by his successor.
In any event, Nixon decided as a part of his platform to get tough on crime and in particular ramp up the so-called war on drugs, something his predecessor Lynden B Johnson had also advocated for.
In yet another facet of this complex issue that could be its own video because of all the nuance in it, it’s noted, perhaps not coincidentally, that the war on drugs, especially in the early going, targeted and punished the use of drugs far more heavily that were more commonly used by individuals of the darker skinned persuasion, as well as hippies of any color, than those who lack such melanin concentrations and peace and love ideals. This has all led to allegations that the “war on drugs” and, indeed, being “tough on crime” in the early going, had more to do with both targeting hippies and black people than it was about the drugs and crime itself. But, as we said, that’s a whole other can of worms deserving of its own videos and an aside too far for this already lengthy topic. We’ll cover it and all the interesting details on all sides another day.
Coming back to the prison population, this whole “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” subplot was later picked up by President Ronald Reagan and pretty much every president since because, as is a theme, being tough on crime is a great way to help yourself get elected, and being perceived as soft on it, a great way to find your opponents alleging you support rapists and murderers, because nuance and accurately representing issues and stances in politics go together like fish sticks dipped in toothpaste.
In the end, the prison population in the nation doubled during Reagan’s time in office, with most pointing to the War on Drugs as the cause. But diving into the numbers, again, this was not the primary cause of the 500% spike in incarceration rates that exists today in the United States. Even at the drug incarceration rate’s peak in 2000, the percentage of people locked up for drugs rose only from 1980’s 8% to peak 24% in 2000, and today sits only around 18%. While certainly getting back to 1980 drug related incarceration rates would reduce the current prison and jail population by about 10%, that clearly wouldn’t even come close to restoring previous incarceration numbers.
So let’s now talk about the specifics of how the general “tough on crime” push resulted in incarceration rates that would have made Stalin blush, with the U.S. rates allegedly even higher than his administration’s peak… or at least this is a supposed fact you’ll see thrown about all over the place when people are mocking the U.S. system. But, briefly on this widely quoted soundbyte, as ever, nuance in everything. Stalin wasn’t just locking up people at incredible rates, similar to the United States, but also had an awful lot of people executed, with estimates ranging from at least 1 million definitively, to even as high as 20 million, depending on who all you want to count in the figure. But the point being, if you include those people executed by the state instead of held in prison in the incarceration numbers, well, maybe Stalin wouldn’t so much blush, but just wonder why the U.S. didn’t reduce its prison population the sensible and taxpayer saving way via mass executions…
But we digress.
Let’s start with the most obvious way the tough on crime thing has resulted in ballooning prison populations in the U.S., then we’ll dive into the more interesting ways shortly that aren’t so obvious, but have had just as big of an effect in fascinating ways.
So, to start- we have the extreme ramping up of length of punishment for a given crime vs. what would have been normal before in the U.S. and what is typical in many other nations.
You see, around the time the spike started happening, and something that has endured to this day, prosecutors’ started to not just push for longer sentences, but also to push for felony charges for criminal activities which previously would have likely not seen such charges leveled against the person. For example, in 1994, the likelihood of a prosecutor pressing felony charges for a violent, property, or drug arrest was 35%. In contrast, in 2007, just before the peak incarceration rates, this figure had risen to 57%.
Another factor in all this was the massive ramping up of strict mandatory minimum punishments for given crimes, in many cases taking a lot of discretionary judgment for a specific case away from the judges’ side. For example, in 1986 alone, 29 new mandatory minimums were added to the books by Reagan and Congress in just one Act. To put this in perspective, at this point in the entire history of the United States, there were previously only 55 mandatory minimums in place. Thus, in the old days, specific circumstances may have swayed the judge to go lighter on some individuals, or utilize alternative punishments, but now their hands were tied on these crimes, and for more and more crimes as the decades since have passed.
Partially well intentioned, this switch with regards to mandatory minimums wasn’t just to be tougher on crime, but also pushed because of the very obvious and extreme racial biases that existed, and still exist, albeit to a slightly lesser extent, in the court system. Thus, at least part of the point was to try to mandate that any person committing a given crime, regardless of race, would receive in the ballpark of the same punishment regardless of any biases anyone involved has… Or, at least, this was one of the political justifications. In reality, mostly what this accomplished was a lot more people spending a lot more time in jail than they would have before, while those of certain genetic heritages continued to, on the whole, now see even longer sentences than before beyond the minimums.
Going back to the issues on the prosecutor’s side, the aforementioned law professor John Pfaff notes, unlike most of the other issues with the U.S. system, there is no easy fix on this one. Stating, “What makes it very hard is that the person we really need to target now—whose behavior we need to regulate—is the district attorney, and the district attorney is a very politically independent figure. He’s directly elected, and he’s directly elected at the county level. So there’s no big centralized fix. You can’t necessarily go to Washington and say, ‘Here’s the law that’s going to control what the DAs do,’ because they don’t have to listen to the federal government at all. So you have to figure out how to go county by county and either elect DAs who have less punitive attitudes, or you can try to sort of change the incentives DAs face at the state level. But it’s very tricky.”
It simply helps them get elected the next time to appear “tough on crime” and lord help them if they get labeled as soft on it. And, indeed, in an election year, district attorneys are about 10% more likely to take a case to trial and seek harsher penalties than offer a plea bargain. That number rises to about 15% more likely if they are part of a contested election.
Not just prosecutors, but judges see similar skewing, with an average of about 12-16 months longer sentences when the judge is in an election year vs. not according to research done by law professor Dr. Marc Howard of Georgetown University.
Further illustrating the overall issue, it’s noted by the National Research Council that in recent decades, the massive spike in likelihood of a person going to prison for being convicted of any crime accounts for almost half of the entire increase in current incarceration rates. On top of this, they note the average time served for a given crime has risen over 30%, and the number of life sentences dolled out has also hit historic levels, with about 1 in 7 people in prison in the U.S. serving such, though for many with the expectation of parole, with the life sentence issued more to encourage good behavior while in prison, rather than any expectation that the person will spend the rest of their life in prison.
And on that note or parole, other laws that came on the books during this period,included things like Washington’s 1984 “truth in sentencing” law that required that people serve at least 85% of their sentence. The 1994 federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, aka the Clinton Crime Bill, further incentivized other states to do something similar, most of which subsequently did. This Act was the largest crime bill ever passed in the history of the U.S. and was principally a political move by the Clinton administration to try to change the perception of the Democratic party as being “soft on crime” and, instead, being tough on it. As Clinton would state, “We cannot take our country back until we take our neighborhoods back. Four years ago this crime issue was used to divide America. I want to use it to unite America. I want to be tough on crime…”
But in all of this, in essence, there weren’t, and indeed aren’t, more crimes happening, just the system is throwing the book at the ones that are occuring compared to before in the United States, and compared to most other nations of the world. And that’s not to mention also seemingly doing, with eyes wide open about it, everything in its power to ensure people become repeat offenders, as we’ll get into in a bit.
But, first, let’s now talk about the approximately 400,000 people stuck in jail in the United States, about 2/3 of the entire jail population on any given day, who have been convicted of no crime, and the majority of which aren’t considered a flight risk nor danger to anyone. In fact, about 100,000 of them are only even accused of a misdemeanor. Yet they can’t get out.
So what’s going on here?
If you had “tough on crime” on your Prison Bingo card, shocker, but you’re correct! But that’s not very interesting. So HOW has the “tough on crime” thing resulted in historic jail incarceration numbers?
Well, a fascinating thing to note on this one is that, unlike prison populations, the actual number of convicted people in jail in the United States hasn’t really risen much since 1983, almost perfectly rising in lockstep with the rise in population, an increase of about 40% on both counts. What has seen an almost 400% increase in the jail populace, however, is this number of people held in jail convicted of no crime whatsoever.
Up until a few decades ago when such defendants who weren’t considered a danger or a flight risk were arrested, they’d quickly find themselves released on their own recognizance. At a rate of about 40% of people released in this way in 1990, for example. By 2004, however, this had dropped to just 23% of people released in this way. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find studies beyond 2004 that give hard data on the nation as a whole. But based on the continued increase in people held without being convicted of anything, which peaked in 2008, we’re just going to guess the rates bottomed out in 2008, and have only marginally improved since, other than a brief massive improvement during the COVID pandemic.
Now, there is obviously another way to get out of jail before your court date in the form of bail, which the courts have shifted to utilizing more and more instead of letting certain individuals just give their word on things as before. But the problem with bail is cost, and the rising levels of this on top of it.
If you’re now wondering about typical amounts for bail, well, this varies considerably based on alleged crime, flight risk, whether first or multiple offenses and numerous factors like this. So it’s impossible to give an accurate ballpark here, because it can range from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands or more, but the cost of in the thousands of dollars, even for many misdemeanors, is quite normal and in general, it’s not uncommon for it to be several times the monthly, and sometimes even annual, salary of those charged with some crime.
Yes, the individuals do in theory get their money back at some point if they show up to their court date and don’t commit any crimes in the interim, but many cannot afford the sticker price in the first place. Bail bond services and loans do help here for some, but many can’t get the loans and as for bail bonds services, the person then has to pay a percentage (usually about 10%) which they don’t get back. On top of this, there are also potential loopholes that see the state keeping some or all of the money even if you do show up or don’t commit any other crimes in the interim, so you cannot bank on getting your money back and using it to pay off a loan or a friend who posted your bail or the like, even if you do follow through on everything.
Thus, as you might be expecting given the number of people sitting in jail instead of paying bail, for a huge percentage of people, they simply can’t afford it either way. So they stay in jail.
Combined with the generally extremely backed up court system, these individuals sometimes sit in jail for lengthy periods, even months or in rare cases years, awaiting their court date to determine whether they actually committed some crime and what their punishment should be if found guilty. Further, prosecutors sometimes utilize this fact to continually try for delays for certain individuals to try to pressure them to admit guilt and take a plea deal. In essence, take a plea deal now, or spend, again, potentially months or even years awaiting your court date while you sit in jail. A good attorney can help considerably in all this, but let’s just say the people who can’t afford the bail aren’t usually getting such an attorney, and the likely state provided defender probably has such an extreme backlog that they, also, even if they think you’re innocent, may well be pushing you to just take the plea deal and be done with it for practical reasons both for yourself and them, and for a more certain outcome in at all.
That said, the courts do in general try to prioritize hearing the cases where the individual can’t afford to post bail, and especially if children are estranged from their parent during the process, but the reality for many is that during this time, loss of employment is common, even just when held for a week, let alone months, as well as a number of sometimes extreme hardships on families who committed no crime themselves, including very commonly children having to be taken into state care in the interim, which has its own massive slew of issues. And, once again, these are people who have not been convicted of any crime, but simply aren’t being let out without having to pay while they await their court date at rates which used to be more normal.
In response to this, a few states have begun to enact bail reform, and have seen extremely positive results. For example, in New Jersey, thanks to some tweaks in their bail system, they saw an almost immediate 40% reduction in people being held awaiting trial, no subsequent increase in crime, and no real change in rates of re-arrest pre-trial, with it going up and down by a percent or two since over previous levels. The net result of it all was that the state saved $68 million in the first year alone, let alone the huge social benefits of more people keeping their jobs, less kids being put into the state system, and families in general remaining more stable.
And on this family stability, another important thing to understand is that many such jails do not offer in person visitation, even with one’s children. And things like phone calls or video chat visitations are insanely expensive, with these costs and restrictions partially also the result of the whole “tough on crime” push, in conjunction with a significant amount of lobbying by the telecommunications companies that handle such communications for prisons and jails.
Jail and prison phone service providers fees got so ridiculous that the FCC relatively recently stepped in. Before this, when making calls the cost could be as high as about $1 per minute. Thanks to those recent changes, however, while it does vary a bit, the average is just over $3 for a 15 minute conversation now. Still not ideal, but markedly better. We’ll get into why this whole phone conversation thing likewise is a major compounding issue shortly.
But moving swiftly on, we have not, as yet, really touched on private prisons and their role other than briefly stating, much like the war on drugs, they are not the cause, so much as a symptom. But as these are commonly cited as the primary cause of the spike in incarceration rates, along with the war on drugs, we’ll just briefly now cover the issue, before jumping into the other quite massive, and probably going to be the most controversial, issue with regards to why the land of the free has the most incarcerated populace per capita.
Versions of private prison systems in some form had previously been a thing in the United States at various points, mostly in the form of the practice of convict leasing to private companies. In this, the name of the game, for example in the late 19th century, was using convicts for hard labor, with some brutal death rates throughout the South in particular, ranging from about 16-25% of such convicts dying in this region and era at the time. In these cases, it was mostly black individuals working pretty much sunup to sundown for no pay, but making the plantation owners oodles of money. In fact, the state itself also actually profited on these convicts in this way. As to the extreme death rates, which eclipsed that of the slaves in the south a few decades before working those same plantations, one contemporary noted of the situation to the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in 1883, “Before the war, we owned the negroes. If a man had a good negro, he could afford to take care of him: if he was sick get a doctor…But these convicts: we don’t own ‘em. One dies, get another.”
As ever, the past was just the worst.
The more modern incarnation of private prison systems, however, were not motivated so much by making money off convicts, but rather both to try to save money on inmate costs, and in response to the rising need for beds to house all the criminals. Thankfully, the present institutions are not nearly as bad as the systems of yore, although are still… well, let’s just say controversial to say the least. To briefly illustrate yet another facet of this rather complex topic we are now regretting having picked for today’s video, that could, in turn, be its own dedicated video, enter journalist Shane Bauer, who notes of CoreCivic, the second largest private corrections company in the U.S.,
“CoreCivic prisons aren’t nearly as brutal labor camps…, but they still go to grotesque lengths to make a dollar. I saw this first hand when, in 2014, I went undercover as a prison guard in a CoreCivic prison in Louisiana. There, I met a man who lost his legs to gangrene after begging for months for medical care. CoreCivic was often resistant to sending prisoners to the hospital: their contract required that outside medical visits be funded by the company. Educational programs were axed to save money. To keep costs low, guards were paid $9 an hour and oftentimes there were no more than 24 on duty, armed with nothing but radios, to run a prison of more than 1,500 inmates…. Yet while we went through training to become guards, we were taught that, if we saw inmates stab each other, we were not to intervene. “We are not going to pay you that much,” our instructor told us. Our job was simply to shout the words “stop fighting,” thus protecting the company’s liability and avoiding any potentially costly harm to ourselves. Our job, after all, was to “deliver value to our shareholders.” “If them fools want to cut each other,” the instructor said, “well, happy cutting.””
Unsurprisingly, there has in recent years been a push to abolish private prisons, or at the least, regulate them more heavily. Even with this, however, there still have been issues, such as in 2016 when CoreCivic, who had previously been court ordered to make certain changes to their Idaho State Correctional Institution with regards to severe understaffing, instead just began submitting falsified staffing reports to make it appear they were in compliance, rather than actually doing it…
But going back to why the U.S. has such a large prison population, while private prisons do have a bit of a conflict of interest in terms of being incentivized for people to end up in prison and stay there, they only account for about 8% of the current state and federal prison populations. Thus, they are not really the issue in and of themselves, contrary to popular belief. Their contributing factor to all this is more just inline with the countless companies who offer food, communication, and entertainment services and beyond to jails and prisons, benefiting billions annually from the current system, and in many cases doing their best to keep it this way- namely in the form of political campaign donations, including that of judges and prosecutors, as well as just general lobbying for all the things most elected officials like to push anyway with regards to being tough on crime: making the criminals pay for what they did and otherwise make conditions as harsh as legally possible inside, as well, as to cut recidivism programs wherever possible. Afterall, recidivism programs cost taxpayer money and even sometimes offer things for free to inmates non-criminals have to pay for…
All things that are true… Technically. But, as is a theme we hope you’re picking up on at this point, the devil is in the details. So let’s dive into those, shall we? Because this is arguably the most controversial of all ways in which the prison and jail populations have skyrocketed, with the political promise being saving taxpayer money, but the reality very definitively being doing this costs massively more taxpayer money, while ensuring more crimes will be committed as well.
So let’s first talk a little about education. Once upon a time a high school education could commonly get you far in life… That’s not so common anymore, and a lack of one seeing worse outcomes than decades before for a variety of reasons. Regardless of all the factors that go into it, education level is hugely reflected in incarceration numbers. Case in point, in 1980, about 1 in 10 black American adult males who didn’t finish high school were behind bars at any given time. Today, that number is closer to 1 in 3, and about 2 in 3 of these individuals will be behind bars at some point in their life at least once. As for white American males who don’t finish high school, the number is about 1 in 8 at any given moment and about 1 in 4 in their lifetime.
That racial divide there and causes of it are, again, a theme in all this and deserving of its own video to cover properly, but, in the end, for now, averaging it all out, people who don’t finish high school are 3 times more likely to go to jail or prison today in the United States than their contemporaries who didn’t finish high school a half century ago. And what they find then when locked up is also much harsher sentencing than their contemporaries a half century ago and even more difficulty re-establishing themselves after. And the cycle repeats.
So with that groundwork laid about the importance of education, let’s now talk about recidivism, which, as noted, is the oft forgotten massive factor in present incarceration rates.
For starters, as alluded to, another facet of the idea of being “tough on crime” was the cutting of many recidivism reduction programs like, for example, educational programs. With the rising costs of incarcerating so many people, this was an easy political push. Afterall, some of these educational programs were not just for things like high school level education, but even entrepreneurial, trade, and college courses for inmates. Further, before the Clinton Crime Act, some of these inmates could even get federal college grants to pay for remote classes. In all, potentially getting their education and other such things non-criminals were having to pay for, for free. Regardless of your political ideology, most would agree that doesn’t exactly seem fair.
It’s certainly a dill of a pickle…
Or, at least on the surface. Putting the matter of fairness aside, these programs not only save astronomical sums of money for taxpayers, but also definitively reduce crime considerably, and in all a huge boon to society as a whole.
As for savings and reduction in crime, countless studies illustrate this, with not a single one we could find going the other way. For example, a study done by the United States Department of Justice noted that prisoners given access to educational programs were, for vocational certificates, 14.6% less likely to find their way back in prison within 3 years vs. the general prison populace. For those who spent part of their time incarcerated achieving a GED, they were 25% less likely to end up back in the slammer. And those who put in the work to attain an Associates degree while in prison, they were about 70% less likely to wind up back behind bars. A meta-analysis by the RAND Corporation of over 57 such studies showed more or less similar results elsewhere.
Averaging it all out, the net effect of the educational programs as a whole was about a whopping 43% reduction in rate of returning to prison within 3 years. From this, crunching the numbers, the New York study showed that for every $1 spent by the state towards educating prisoners, it saved $5 annually overall thanks to the reduction of prison population. One study in Washington state further found that for every $1 of taxpayer money spent on helping inmates achieve their associates degree, $21 of taxpayer money was saved thanks to the extreme reduction in recidivism. This is not even counting other cost savings in court and police expenditures thanks to less crime, less crime being committed which is just good for everybody, fewer children and families having to endure everything that comes with having one or more parent behind bars, and all the other benefits. Again, in all of this, the ancillary social and other judicial costs eclipse that of the prisoner housing costs.
As a quick example, “Operation Pipe Dreams” was a 2003 nationwide United States investigation which targeted businesses selling drug paraphernalia (mostly things meant for marijuana use). In the end, hundreds of businesses and homes were raided nationwide. Fifty-five people were charged with trafficking of illegal drug paraphernalia and eventually fined and generally given home detentions. The estimated cost of the operation was around twelve million dollars or about $220,000 per person charged and about 2,000 officers involved or about 36 officers per charge… Fun fact, Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong and That 70’s Show fame was one of those arrested in this one owing to his family’s company Chong Glass Works/Nice Dreams, selling bongs and other such glass pieces allegedly as art pieces. In the end, beyond fines and other such punishments, Chong received a 9 month prison sentence.
But in any event, given each year about 700,000 inmates are released in the United States, these rather large recidivism reductions from offering these education programs result in a massive reduction in crime, an increase in a better educated and more skilled populace to boot, and in all this, bringing up the floor in that it specifically targets what are generally the, previously, least educated group of society.
Some prison and jail officials also note another side benefit of such education programs is that it is something they can take away from an inmate for bad behavior, helping them to better control their charges, help them to spend their time more productively behind bars, and in all make the prison guards’ and other staff’s lives a little easier. Because a byproduct of the “tough on crime” thing, has been that in recent decades, those running the facilities have had a tougher and tougher time managing their charges for a variety of reasons, with things like PTSD symptoms and the like even becoming something of the norm for many prison guards at a rate of about 34%-53%, depending on what study you want to go with, of guards meeting the criteria for PTSD. This range is approximately double that of even people in the military who served in active combat.
Going back to the prisoner control aspect, as former warden of Great Meadow Correctional Facility in New York State, Arthur Leonardo, explains, “We don’t have much to give to people in prison. If you don’t have anything to take away from someone, you don’t have anything to take away to urge them to do the right thing.”
Beyond education, the other biggest factor in recidivism is, as Dominic Toretto so sagely pointed out, “family”. On this, it turns out, as alluded to in our mention of the obscene phone call costs the companies that manage prison communications systems charge, another thing that the “tough on crime” prison system seemingly does everything in its power to cut out is communication to friends and family. This is not just in the form of expensive phone calls, but many, particularly jail facilities, once again, don’t even allow in person visits at all, or, if they do, they are extremely restrictive and brief.
This brings us to yet another controversial recidivism program that also just so happens to be just as effective at reducing recidivism rates as someone achieving an associates degree in prison. And note, on this one, it’s not just controversial in the U.S., but many countries in the world, despite its proven extreme effectiveness.
What’s the program that most people of the world nope out on for their inmates?
Conjugal visits- the value of which, dollar for dollar, cannot be understated in terms of reducing crime and taxpayer money spent on prisoner population.
And before we go further, we should point out that while the general perception is that conjugal visits are one big spicy time session for inmates, the reality is that while of course partners do take the opportunity, as this is often the first time in months or sometimes even years they are able to even hug their partner, let alone… other things… It turns out that conjugal visits are vastly more family centric than Hollywood depicts. Depending on the exact rules for a given prison, it’s 6-72 hours where you can spend time with your partner, kids, and sometimes other family members or friends in a somewhat normal setting, doing normal things. In fact, in New York, it’s reported that almost half of all conjugal visits don’t include a spouse or partner, rather just time spent with one’s children and other loved ones. For this reason, these visits are usually officially called things like “Extended Family Visits” or, in New York, the “Family Reunion Program”.
One Myesha Paul, wife of one time California inmate Marcello Paul, in prison for robbery, helpfully describes what a real extended family visit is like, stating, “We sat outside and played dominoes on Saturday. After that we went in and watched TV, watched movies.” And while she states her and her husband do have sex during the visit, as is almost universally noted by every other inmate and their partner we looked it, it’s more about the closeness and little things like getting to hold your partner’s hand or just hold them in general, as well as waking up next to them. She states, “It feels good… because I don’t get that at home. Ya know. At home I’m sleeping by myself, unless my grandbaby or one of my kids wanna sleep with me. But they’re grown. But they still do sleep with me sometimes. But other than that, you know, I’m waking myself up in the morning, or the alarm clock is waking me up, or my grandson comes and wakes me up. It’s good to have my husband waking me up. It’s the nicest thing about being married. Isn’t it? Waking up?”
She also states of her husband, “He watches me through the night… I know he does ’cause sometimes I wake up and he’s looking at me. And I do the same to him. Sometimes he’s sleeping and he wakes up and I’m watching him.”
Similarly summed up by another inmate’s wife, Vanessa Coles, she states the value of extended family visits is- “It keeps our bond going, keeps our marriage strong and keeps him on track.” As for the couple’s young kids, “The little one needs it because that’s all he knows. The older one needs it to remember what he knows.” And as for those arguing against allowing such visits, she responds, “[The prisoners] are being punished. I get it. [But] destroying your marriage and family should not be a part of your sentence.”
For further context here, as previously alluded to, in the United States for most prisoners, at best during normal visitation they might be allowed a brief 2 second hug with their partner and a peck on the cheek, if the latter is allowed at all. On top of that, everything you say or do is being watched and listened to, and the time together is relatively brief. While extended family visits are highly screened and regulated, including regular interruptions for monitoring, it is, at least, a brief period for prisoners and their families to have somewhat normal interactions- the only time this is otherwise possible for their entire stay in prison or jail, and thus the biggest outlet to maintain those essential bonds.
As for frequency, while in movies it’s a regular thing, and little lead up time, in reality in the United States, this may be granted at best once per month all the way up to once per year, or not at all.
And, speaking of programs that got the axe during the tough on crime push. Perhaps none was greater than this one. In the United States, at its peak in the late 20th century, extended family visits were allowed in about 1/3 of states, but began dropping precipitously starting around the 1980s and 1990s to just four states today- California, Washington, New York, and Connecticut. And, further, this is highly restricted even then, with no one in maximum security prisons allowed to have such a family visit, nor anyone who committed a violent crime, has a life sentence, is a sex offender, and other such serious crimes eligible. Further, in Connecticut, if an inmate is a member of a gang or even just suspected to be so, they are also banned from these family visits. On top of that, pretty much everywhere, any inmate who does anything wrong whatsoever while in prison also finds themselves either temporarily or permanently banned from such visits.
As you might imagine, having to tell your partner or your kids you screwed up and so the visit is canceled is a powerful motivator. As one Ray Coles, whose temper resulted in an assault that saw him given a nine year prison sentence, states of the incentive the conjugal visits give him to never step out of line, “Every action or choice I make is made with my wife in mind.”
As for the impetus for cutting the extended family visit programs, this is generally, once again, tied to increased public sentiment that prisoners are there to be punished, and that the program costs too much. For example, in New Mexico, who relatively recently killed the extended family visit program, it was costing taxpayers about a grand total of $120,000 per year…
Now, this might sound like a lot, and if you go read the news reports, this was certainly used as the driving political rhetoric to get the program nixed by the politicians involved. However, it’s noteworthy that New Mexico reports an average cost per inmate annually is a whopping $35,540, which is pretty close to the national average of about $31,000…. Meaning the entire extended family visit program for the entire state was costing about what it costs to house just over 3 of their approximately 16,000 inmates per year…
Further, we should also point out that in most programs, the family is required to pay for food, purchased from the prison facilities, and any such costs during the visit. For reference, the aforementioned Vanessa Coles states she had to pay about $100 per visit for such things, all then provided by the prison.
Of course this is still costing taxpayers something… except when you consider, for example, a 1982 study done on New York’s prison populace which found that prisoners who were allowed extended family visits were almost 70% less likely than other prisoners to end up back in prison within three years. This makes it potentially not only the cheapest, but the single most effective recidivism program known, even soundly stomping on the second king of recidivism programs- education, as mentioned before, only matched by, once again, those who managed to earn a college degree while in prison.
As to why family visits seem so effective at reducing recidivism, as the aforementioned warden Arthur Leonardo, notes, those who are able to maintain family bonds while in prison, when they get out, have “someone who loves you and will help you, and in the case of children, people who depend on you…”
Or as Dom so sagely stated in Fast X, “Without family, you’ve got nothing.”
But to sum up this section before we move on to a country that used to be like the U.S., but made a change and has seen rather insanely positive and rapid results in the process, the present state of things is that most states have cut back or gotten rid of these types of family visits. Many jails don’t offer any in person visitation at all, not even for one’s kids. The costs for phone calls, emails, texts, and video chats are prohibitive for many (note, for example, costs of a text using a jail or prison app is usually in the realm of 50 cents per text). Leaving the only relatively free method being letters, which are highly screened with many topics off limits, not just criminal matters, but even things like anything spicy said with your spouse or otherwise affectionate in that way often prohibited, something that can see a letter unceremoniously tossed in the trash. From all this, as alluded to, whatever prison sentence was doled out often comes with a generally unmentioned punishment of the finishing of a relationship with a partner, friends, and strained at best relationship with one’s children.
Thus, when they get out, not only is the individual now potentially a convicted criminal, unless one of those people found not guilty after their sometimes extended jail stay, but also they now have an astounding number of often untalked about restrictions that comes with that (over 40,000 possible in the U.S., some of which make sense, but others, like that some states do not allow you to become a barber if you’ve committed any felony, whether violent or not, perhaps need some tweaking.) But beyond such restrictions, it is now even more difficult to find employment, and even if you do, you’re statistically going to make much less than your contemporaries in the same job. On top of that, many landlords will not give you a lease or it will cost you a lot more, etc. etc. etc. And in all that, an almost inevitable loss of friends and family, which is an essential support system for anyone, let alone someone in these circumstances.
We could go on and on and on recidivism programs, including others that have proven extremely effective like access to therapists and substance abuse programs, etc., but the overall point is, once again, the mantra of “tough on crime” and everything that followed has seen such programs either cut back or gotten rid of altogether in some cases, with the predictable result of the United States having in recent decades climbed to among the top of the heap for nations with the highest recidivism rates.
On the complete other end of the spectrum, we have the nation of Norway, which used to have a system almost exactly like the United States’, but around the time the U.S. was making their changes which gave us what we have today, Norway decided to make their own changes, and the two diverged completely, today with, again, the U.S. having some of the highest recidivism and incarceration rates, while Norway now has some of the lowest in the world.
While there is no such thing as a perfect system, and Norway is no exception, there are ones that are clearly better than others. And it’s difficult to make an argument that Norway’s isn’t superior in most ways.
The numbers are staggering, a few decades after the two countries diverged on policy here, Norway has seen their recidivism rates plummet to 20% within 3 years of release vs. the United States’ approximately 45% in the same span. But it gets even more stark as you go out further, with Norway seeing a rise of just 5%, to 25% after five years, while the U.S. balloons from 45% to 78% in five years.
The result is that today just 1 in 1,852 people are incarcerated in Norway vs. the United State’s at almost exactly 10 times that rate. And, again, before the two nations went opposite directions on their prison management style and general policies towards criminals, they were roughly equivalent on many points. In lockstep to this change, Norway has since also begun to enjoy one of the lowest crime rates of any nation in the world as well, today approximately half what the crime rates were in 1990.
So how did they do it?
Well, in essence, just a general policy mindset change of viewing prison as a place to rehabilitate, rather than to punish people. As Tom Eberhardt, who worked for the Norwegian Correctional Service for almost three decades and saw the shift first hand noted, “If a horrible criminal act has been done, it’s only natural to say, ‘Lock them up! Throw away the key! Treat them really bad!’ That’s revenge – it feels good for a while, but eventually you start to hurt everybody in the prison and in the general society because you are just creating more violence and more revenge.”
On all this, while many make the argument that nicer conditions in jail or prison just encourages more crime and people even wanting to be behind bars, Norway has become the poster child for this idea not seeming to be based in reality overall. Again, seeing crime and recidivism markedly reduce when they made prisons not just a little nicer, but even better than what some who found themselves there were used to.
Or as the aforementioned Professor of law Dr. Marc Howard of Georgetown sums up of Norway’s system, “The idea is that it’s a process of growth and a transformation so that they don’t go back to a life of crime. And the results are really strong. They show that people, when they’re treated like human beings, will actually act in much more positive ways. Most people don’t want to be criminals. They don’t want to steal, they don’t want to have addictions.”
As for specifics, beyond things like access to various recidivism programs as previously discussed, one key tennant which couldn’t be more different than the U.S. system is the principle of normalicy. Essentially, while you will have your overall liberty taken from you while in prison, potentially for many years, otherwise the idea is to take as little of that as humanly possible for a given case. In all of it, trying to make sure life in prison is as close as possible to life outside of it, even wearing normal clothes, cooking your own normal foods (in stark contrast to the fare offered in U.S. prison and jails which is… not ideal to put it mildly, for anyone who’s experienced. When Top Ramen is your major rare treat and health food source that you have to pay extra for to boot, let’s just say, things could be better), etc. Norway’s cells also resemble more a college dorm than a prison or jail cell, even potentially having the key to your own cell, and without the absolutely massive overcrowding situation the United States has. Eberhardt explains why this is so effective, “What is done wrong in a lot of prison systems is that they keep people behind bars in high-security environments almost to the day they are released. Then those people, who are considered too dangerous even to leave a cell, become your neighbors or your friends’ neighbors.”
In contrast, in Norway’s system, it starts out closer to normal life, and for some criminals, even for the first time or the first time in a long time, gives them a taste of what normal life is like for most. And how much nicer it can be than what some of them are used to. Then, over time the prisoners can earn even more freedoms and amenities as they put in the work and show themselves responsible enough to earn them. To the point that they can even sometimes be allowed to leave and work in the community early when they show they are ready. In contrast, it can go the other way if they don’t in some cases. For example on this one, the maximum punishment for any crime in Norway has been set relatively low at 21 years. But, it is possible that on the other side of that, if the person isn’t considered rehabilitated and still a danger to society, that additional years are added in increments until they are deemed ready. This also ensures in the rare edge cases, of people who simply can’t be reformed, there is no extra risk to society.
Eberhardt goes on, “Everyone in Norway – your taxicab drivers, your waiters – will tell you: People go to court to be punished; they go to prison to become better neighbors. This is a deeply public-health vision. Every policy, every procedure, every interaction in a prison is scrutinized for its capacity to help people and the community heal.”
Another key tennant is their “dynamic security” principle. This has not only become a massive boon to the prisoners’ rehabilitation, but also to the guards themselves who, where this system has been experimented with in the United States, has seen a 60% reduction in guards assaulted, marked reduction in guards suffering PTSD symptoms, developing alcohol and drug problems themselves, suicides, and a myriad of other such negative factors that are relatively normal for prison and jail guards in the United States. As Dr. Brie Williams, founder of Amend, an organization spearheading reforming the U.S. prison and jail system, notes, in places they’ve tried this Norwegian dynamic security system in, “We have officers who say they can look at themselves in the mirror for the first time in 10 years because they can finally feel good about what they do. They can sit down at the dinner table and proudly tell their kids about somebody’s life they helped change.”
So what’s the difference here in guard duty and methods? In a nutshell, the guards aren’t just guards, but are heavily trained in law, ethics, science of behavior change, social work, human rights, etc.- all to teach them to help the inmates turn their lives around. And in all, generally going with what we are going to call the “Mister Rogers” approach to prison guard duty, rather than the Shawshank Byron Hadley approach.
Towards this end, they also actively socialize with the inmates as a matter of course, everything from potentially playing sports to card games and eating meals with them, even in maximum security prisons. And in even those prisons, unlike with their U.S. counterparts, assault against officers is exceptionally rare.
In essence, they are mandated to cultivate positive relationships with inmates and function as role models, coaches, and mentors to the prisoners every bit as much as guards. And, for many criminals, having such a mentor who cares about them is sometimes the first, or a rare time, they’ve had that in their lives. And the numbers show pretty clearly the prisoners respond extremely positively to it on the whole, as do the guards themselves when talking job satisfaction and their daily life at work compared to guards in more punitive prison systems again, who 1/3 to 1/2 in the U.S. suffer from PTSD.
Eberhardt states of this, “A lot of my colleagues, they will say, ‘If you meet an ex-inmate in a pub, there’s a much bigger chance he will buy you a beer than knock you down. It’s true. Whenever I’ve met formerly incarcerated people on the outside, they are often thanking me. It’s always a very rewarding experience.”
So to sum up, there are a myriad of factors that have gone into the absolutely massive spike in prison and jail population in the U.S. in the last four decades or so. But if we had to point to one thing as the root cause, it would be the shift to strongly push for being “tough on crime” that became a political tagline in the late 1960s and 1970s, and hasn’t really stopped since. The general idea being both that if the punishments are harsh enough it will deter people from committing a crime in the first place, as well as once they experience the harsh conditions of some punishment, they’ll also be less likely to commit a crime again, and, in all, will have gotten what they deserved either way.
Unfortunately, decades of data on both sides of the argument since have shown this way hasn’t really delivered on the promises, and quite the opposite. Much like the war on drugs, the effect has been an absolutely massive spike in taxpayer money spent- when factoring in prison and jail costs plus extra police, judicial, and social costs, estimated to be over a trillion dollars per year- while not really seeing any tangible benefits like much reduction in drug use or of crime. With the net result seeing the U.S. approximately tied with China for the most citizens locked up, despite China having about four times the number of people in the country to draw from.
As the aforementioned Tom Eberhardt succinctly sums up of the effects of prison for punishment and revenge as the focus, “In Norway, we have a saying: If you pee your pants on a cold winter day, it will feel very warm at first, but then it will freeze like hell.”
Coming back to the idea of punishment, perhaps no area is more controversial here than when it comes to violent crime, which comprises 47% of the prison or jail populace. While it’s understandable why this group is most feared and hated, fascinatingly, while violent criminals are almost always seen as the most dangerous and most likely to reoffend by the general public, the data does not back that up at all- not even close. According to the United States Department of Justice, the highest rate of re-offenders within 3 years after being released were those stealing motor vehicles at 78.8%! Next up are those in prison for selling stolen property at 77.4%. The list goes on and on, but essentially, those who steal are generally about 70%+ likely to reoffend within 3 years and are the highest at-risk re-offenders. In stark contrast, violent crime convicts are massively less likely to reoffend. For example, those who sexually assault and murderers are only 2.5% and 1.2% likely to re-offend respectively. Of course, getting murdered or the other is definitely going to ruin your day more than getting your car stolen, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that these groups are focussed on more in terms of perceived risk of letting them out sooner vs. the ones who are just stealing cars. It’s not the volume, but the magnitude of the risk. It also goes a long way in explaining why family and education programs are the most effective recidivism programs. If people have family support and are better educated to get a good job, they have less, or no, need to steal, and thus the group most likely to wind up back behind bars, won’t.Expand for References
|Share the Knowledge!