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High Cost of Prisons Not Paying Off, Report Finds

The U.S. spends more than any other nation -- $60 billion a year -- to house inmates, but sees little good as a result, a bipartisan panel says.

June 08, 2006|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Americans spend $60 billion a year to imprison 2.2 million people -- exceeding any other nation -- but receive a dismal return on the investment, according to a report to be released today by a commission urging greater public scrutiny of what goes on behind bars.

The report, "Confronting Confinement," says legislators have passed get-tough laws that have packed the nation's jails and prisons to overflowing with convicts, most of them poor and uneducated. However, politicians have done little to help inmates emerge as better citizens upon release.

The consequences of that failure include financial strain on states, public health threats from parolees with communicable diseases, and a cycle of crime and victimization driven by a recidivism rate of more than 60%, the report says.

"If these were public schools or publicly traded corporations, we'd shut them down," said Alexander Busansky, executive director of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, established by a private think tank in New York. Rather, the commission said, Americans view prisons with detachment or futility, growing interested when a riot makes the news and then looking away, "hoping the troubles inside the walls will not affect us."

With 20 members representing diverse perspectives, the bipartisan panel urges Americans to ignore the costs of incarceration no longer. Launched in early 2005 amid what panelists called "accumulating doubts about the effectiveness and morality of our country's approach to confinement," the commission will deliver its findings to a Senate subcommittee in Washington today.

Among the highlights in the 126-page report:

* Violence remains a serious problem in prisons and jails, with gang assaults, rapes, riots and, in Florida, beatings by "goon squads" of officers.

Crowding is one cause, with most lockups so packed that they feature a "degree of disorder and tension almost certain to erupt in violence."

Idleness also compromises safety. "But because lawmakers have reduced funding for programming, prisoners today are largely inactive and unproductive."

Family ties -- another proven factor in promoting safety and successful paroles -- are strained by prisons' location in remote areas and by a culture that does not welcome visitors. There are even barriers to receiving phone calls, with the cost of a collect call from prison far higher than what is charged in the free world, amounting to "a tax on poor families."

* High rates of disease in prison, coupled with inadequate funding for healthcare, endanger inmates, staff and the public, with staph infections, tuberculosis, hepatitis C and AIDS among the biggest threats.

In California, healthcare has been deemed so bad -- claiming one inmate life in an average week through incompetence or neglect -- that a federal judge seized control of prison medical care from the state and recently handed it to a receiver.

* The rising use of high-security segregation units is counterproductive, often causing violence inside prisons and contributing to recidivism.

Although designed to isolate the most dangerous inmates, segregation units increasingly house those who may appear unmanageable but who pose no danger to others or are mentally ill. Prisoners are often released from solitary confinement -- where they experience extreme isolation from human contact for long periods -- directly to the streets, despite the proven risk of doing so.

The commission recommends more rigorous screening, an end to conditions of severe isolation and proper treatment for the mentally ill.

* Prison culture -- the "us-versus-them" mentality -- endangers inmates and staff and harms the families and communities to which convicts return. Many states are pursuing a new approach, which the commission called more than a "feel-good idea."

"Security and control -- necessities in the prison environment -- only become a reality when dignity and respect are inherent in the process," said former Minnesota Warden James H. Bruton, one of scores who provided testimony. Change will require recruitment and retention of high-quality officers and leaders, so the field -- which employs 750,000 people -- is not viewed as one of "knuckle-draggers in dungeons."

* Despite increased professionalism in corrections, resistance to outside scrutiny and oversight remains.

In California, the Office of the Inspector General acts as a watchdog, investigating reports of abuse, assaults and fatalities. But the media are limited in their access to the state's 33 prisons, and legislative efforts to overturn such restrictions have been vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his predecessor, Gray Davis.

The commission includes members who run correctional systems and attorneys for inmates, as well as lawmakers and others from the criminal justice field. The panel spent a year exploring problems -- the first comprehensive, national effort of its kind in three decades.

Its co-chairmen are former U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge John J. Gibbons and former U.S. Atty. Gen. Nicholas deB. Katzenbach.

State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) also served on the panel, which was staffed and funded through the Vera Institute of Justice.

All 20 members supported the report's findings, concluding that "we should be astonished by the size of the prisoner population, troubled by the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and Latinos, and saddened by the waste of human potential."

The report can be found at

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