U. S. Prison Costs After reading the essay, “A Homemade Education,” an autobiography of Malcolm X, I became quite curious about how many dollars America spends toward the prison system and how it affects our society. The autobiography itself covers how Malcolm X gained a homemade education simply by reading books while serving time in prison. He claimed, “I don’t think anybody ever got more out of going to prison than I did…prison enabled me to study far more intensively…sometimes as much as fifteen hours a day” (35).

There may be privileges of being sent to prison as one can sit and read books, but the cost of keeping prisons running outweighs the benefits. According to the article Pew Center, the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and 23. 6 percent of the world’s prison population. It has the highest documented incarceration rate and the largest prison population. Today, the annual cost to feed and house prisoners is now over $65 billion this year. Prison costs are now playing a major negative role in our nation.

Prisons are plagued by fiscal problems as well as graying population; however, our educational system could be used as a preventive, and shortened terms could be offered as an incentive to motivated inmates. One of the major costs that make the prison system too expensive is the cost of health care within the prison. All states are forced to provide the same level of medical care that generally meets a community standard. Many of our prisons hold more inmates than they were designed to hold. For example, California’s 33 prisons have a total of 100,000, but they hold 170,000 inmates (Pew Center).

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Therefore in a crowded prison environment, diseases are a particular concern. One of the life-threatening diseases which is the biggest worry is Hepatitis C. Acording to the Pew Center, which was launched in 2006 to help solve today’s most challenging problems, Hepatitis C costs $30,000 per inmate annually for treatment. Other particular concerns are the communicable diseases that spread quickly in a crowded prison environment. These diseases are result of the risky behaviors such as tattooing and piercing, unprotected sex, fighting and intravenous drug use.

The second major key cost driver is payment for the officers who patrol cellblocks; especially to those who work overtime. Overtime costs in California “topped half a billion dollars in 2006, with 15 percent of the corrections workforce earning at least $25,000 in overtime that year” (Pew Center). Based on the same article there were six employees who earned more than the $212,179 annual salary set aside for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. To help the state from struggling to keep its 33 prisons staffed, Gov. Arnold proposed releasing more than 22,100 inmates before their terms are up.

His proposal would save the state $1. 1 billion. The graying of the nation’s inmates is also an issue which continues to swell the cost of health care within the prison. According to the Pew Center, “…between 1992 and 2001, the number of state and federal inmates aged 50 or older rose from 41,586 to 113,358. ” Older inmates are gradually making up a larger proportion of the overall count. While one may say that aging decreases criminal activity, such as those that result from communicable diseases mentioned from the previous paragraph, there are many more factors that should be considered.

One problem is that older inmates are often preyed upon by younger, stronger inmates; therefore, older inmates may require special housing. Hearing and visual impairments, incontinence, dietary intolerance, depression, and the early onset of chronic diseases are other complicating management factors. The average cost for maintaining an older inmate is “$70,000- 2 to 3 times that of a younger inmate” (Pew Center). Because of the rising inmate health care costs, cost for prison staffing, and as well as the graying of the nation’s inmates, America is now spending more and more funds on the prison system than ever before.

Budget cuts are happening because of the rising prison population. According to the article “Coalition files suit to curb prison spending,” in 2007, there was a 1. 6 percent rate of growth that brought the prison population to 1,596,127. In 2006, America saw its biggest increase in the number of people in prison, with California responsible for 20 percent of those inmates. The state has built 23 new prisons for the upcoming 23 years. All prisons and jails are “24-7” operations that require large and highly trained staffs.

Every year the cost of keeping the nation’s lock-ups running safely is continuing to overwhelm. The tangible feel of a jail or prison, has been the unquestioned weapon of choice in our battle against crime. I believed that a continual increase in our reliance on incarceration will pay declining dividends in crime prevention. Meaning that expanding prisons will accomplish less and cost more than it has in the past. This growing correction budgets consumption are leaving each state less and less in the pot for other needs. A 2007 data shows that prison costs consume 6. percent of state general funds on the national average. That means one in every 15 dollars in the state’s budget goes to the prison system (Pew Center). However, states like California spend an even larger proportion on prison system. California is a window into what many US states are facing with overcrowded prisons. We ought to come up with decisions where to spend our nation’s budget where crimes will decline while at the same time our economy can prosper. If nothing is done, California and the rest of the states will find themselves swamped by prisons costs and unable to afford just about anything else.

But is there really something that can be done? According to the article Pew Center, prison costs is the fifth-largest state budget category, behind health, elementary and secondary education, higher education and transportation. One way that the article suggests confronting the issue with this never-ending continual rising prison costs, is to begin paying taxes to our government that will be invested for education, instead of for the prison system. Research shows that attending school influences our children’s success both in school and in life.

This means that participation in school dramatically reduced participation in juvenile and adult crime. To top it all, attending a school will results in an increased of graduating students (both from high school or higher education), employment and earning. This will definitely boost up our economy; opening more jobs. Our educational system across the nation is affected by the high cost of incarcerating inmates in our prison system. Many of our schools were forced to either close down or cut back spending because of all the budget cuts America faced and is still continuing to face.

According to the “National Association of State Budget Officers,” in California, in the past 20 years, prison costs have increased tremendously; for example, in 1987, for every dollar spent on higher education, 32 cents was spent on prisons while in 2007, 60 cents was spent for every dollar. According to the article, “Coalition files suit to curb prison spending,” by Heather Mark, in 2007 California “laid off 15,000 to 20,000 teachers. We can’t afford to educate our state, but we can find a way to build more prisons” (1).

The state itself laid off thousands of teachers to put forth $3. 7 billion toward prison health care in order to provide medical attention to inmates who are in danger of losing life. Another way to confront the prison issue is what Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said: a proposal to release inmates before their terms are up. With this however, public safety while slowing the growth of prison population must be considered. Therefore each state set up strong community corrections programs to ensure that offenders in the community remain crime and drug-free.

California for example has came up with an idea to offer such credits as completing rehabilitation or education programs, demonstrating good behavior or meeting some other standard. These earned time or credits can be used to shorten an inmate’s term. There are many more ways of slowing down the prison population, but these are the most common ones. Incarceration has always been one of the main forms of punishment for felony offenses in our nation. Prison growth means more bodies to feed, clothe, house and supervise.

America has some of the world’s most severe punishment for crime, including for juveniles. Because of this, more than half of the released offenders are back in prison within three years, either for a new crime or for violating the terms of release. Furthermore, America is the world’s leading incarcerator with a rate of 700 prisoners per 100,000 residents. We need to make some major changes concerning our prison system. If we don’t change the course now, as the prison population continues to grow, we will be building prisons forever and ever.

Since 2007, the amount spent on prisons more than doubled, while spending on education has been moderate (Pew Center). Paying taxes to our government that will be invested for education, instead of for the prison system, will transform the economy. America is able to find a way to build more prisons; however, it can’t afford to educate the nation. We didn’t get to this position overnight, but if this were to continue to occur, the United States of America will soon be renaming itself the United States of Prison.


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