Public policies made in Albany and Washington can easily take on a life of their own. Once prison operators, prison employee unions and community tax collectors learned they could profit from harsh, lock-'em-up drug control laws, a powerful political force was born to keep prisons full and fuel America's ongoing war on drugs.
During the 1980s and 1990s, tough-on-crime policies, especially drug control laws, over-filled Americas prisons. State and federal prisons held 315,974 inmates in 1980. By 2000 that number had skyrocketed to 1,321,137. When inmates in city and county jails are added, America's total prison population topped 2 million in 2002.
Prisons, however, are not reserved for violent offenders. In 2002, for example, 1,235,700 simple drug possession arrests were made in the United States, about half of them for possession of marijuana. While not all of those arrested end up behind bars, the rush to lock up non-violent offenders was, in large part, responsible for setting off America's prison building boom.
By tracing the 1980-2000 prison expansion, a new study by Sarah Lawrence and Jeremy Travis at the Urban Institutes Justice Policy Center in Washington tracks how prisons became a growth industry in New York. In "The New Landscape of Imprisonment: Mapping America's Prison Expansion," they conclude that new prisons are concentrated in the northern counties of: Franklin, 4; St. Lawrence, 3; Oneida, 3; Essex, 2, and Jefferson, 2. One new prison is a converted 1980 Olympics dorm near Lake Placid.
In 1979, only 30 state and federal prisons operated in New York. Between 1979 and 2000, nearly two new prisons were added every year. By 2000, New York had 65 state and federal prisons operating in 52 percent of the state's counties, including at least one new prison in Erie, Orleans, Wyoming, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Wayne, Cayuga and Chemung counties.
The U.S. Census counts prisoners where they are incarcerated, and both federal and state agencies distribute funds based on this census data. The more prisoners counted in a town or county, the bigger will be its share of tax-funded goodies from Washington and Albany.
This gravy train includes a slice of $200 billion a year in formula grants from Washington to all state and local governments for Medicaid, foster care, adoption assistance and 169 other programs. In addition, the same data is used to allocate state funds for community health services, road construction, law enforcement and public libraries.
Regular paychecks roll in for 32,712 prison employees in New York. And don't forget the incomes of employees of private firms that sell food, fuel, clothing and furniture to prisons. No wonder New York towns have become addicted to this prison economy.
Spreading prisons across New York can actually perpetuate a large prison population. As more towns become economically dependent on state prisons holding more than 67,394 inmates in 2002, the greater is the likelihood grass-roots support will grow for politicians who favor putting non-violent people behind bars. After all, it's in the self interest of these towns to keep their prisons full and their local economies booming.
As the number of inmates goes up, so does the number, and political power, of prison guards. In 2000, for example, the 31,000 member California Correctional Peace Officers Association used its $7 million a year political action fund to run TV ads against Proposition 36. Why? Prop. 36 called for sending non-violent drug users to treatment facilities, not to jail, and promised to reduce both the state's prison population and the number of prison guard jobs. Despite the unions ads, Prop. 36 became law with a 61 percent favorable vote.
When prisons boom, everyone wins except the non-violent inmates and the taxpayers. Politicians in Albany and Washington can show how tough they are on crime. Private prison operators and their investors make money. Prison guards pay off their mortgages and support local businesses. Even the local tax collector gets his cut.
Think about it. The self-perpetuating prison economy was launched due to an exaggerated fear of non-violent drug users and a failure to treat people rather than lock them up. But now that the jailhouse economy is going strong, the political reforms needed to abandon this old drug war mentality will be much harder, if not impossible, to get through the legislatures in Albany and Washington.
Chances are taxpayers are stuck with the cost of keeping 2 million men and women behind bars well into the future -- not because justice demands it, but because the economic benefits of the prison business work to keep it that way.
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. Write him at email@example.com.