Downsizing prisons

By Michelle Chen Jun 01, 2009

For poor and distressed neighborhoods, the recession is the latest in a cascade of troubles. Yet state budget woes are also eating away at an institution that has historically contributed to the problems endemic in many communities of color. Initiatives for less-costly alternatives to mass incarceration, including early release of inmates and criminal policy reforms, are gaining currency in states like Michigan and Vermont, where corrections spending has rivaled social services and education. New York, which has bucked trends by decreasing its incarcerated population in recent years, has been working incrementally to “rightsize” prisons by shuttering various facilities. But the move also threatens to dislodge the economic foundations of towns that depend on the prison economy. reports that correctional officer unions have argued that closing facilities would pose a safety threat. Local residents lament the loss of critical blue-collar jobs. And the towns may miss the prisoners themselves, as a source of readily available cheap labor:

Here in New York, work crews from the Sullivan Annex have stocked trout in local rivers, shoveled around fire hydrants after snowstorms, worked at a nearby food bank and cleaned up campgrounds, said Dahlman, the prison officer. Now that the state has announced it is closing the prison, he said, crews are accepting fewer requests from churches and other community groups in case they won’t be able to finish the jobs.

On the other hand, the state’s Department of Correctional Services argues that transferring resources from the prison system back into public coffers will yield estimated tax savings of tens of millions of dollars, and that the state has already been phasing out some facilities "without increasing risks to staff or inmates.” The challenge of shrinking the prison-industrial complex is to parallel prison cuts with an expansion of alternatives, while avoiding political suicide. The Pew Center on the States explains that while sentencing policies have helped drive the overuse of incarceration,

Another often overlooked driver of prison growth is that the alternatives can be unappealing to local courts making sentencing decisions. Judges and prosecutors in many jurisdictions realize that their existing probation and community corrections programs are woefully underfunded and, as a consequence, less effective in managing offenders in the community. They also are acutely aware of local jail overcrowding and the challenges of obtaining local funding for new jail construction. … Any state effort to realign fiscal arrangements in corrections is bound to confront some significant barriers, including the perception among many budget analysts that new programs—even programs designed to contain spending—will generate additional costs, especially in the short term.

Just as the building of prisons encourages the state to fill them, prison reform groups like the New York City-based Fortune Society say "rightsizing" requires redistributing resources to keep at-risk individuals in their communities. But if the prison system is taking a hit in the recession, efforts to rebalance public safety policies could also suffer. Ohio lawmakers mulling over a budget crisis, for example, seem to have trouble making the connection between the costs of prison overcrowding and the need for sentencing reform. The recession may or may not spur a reconfiguration of priorities in criminal justice. Jiggering a broken system will be painful for some, but no more so than the slow bleeding of social capital from communities that have long been targets of punishment instead of investment. Image: Luis Sinco (LA Times)