A Philosopher's Blog

Untied Prisons of America

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 16, 2012
Federal Bureau of Prisons (seal)

Federal Bureau of Prisons (seal) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the United States has been passed by other countries in some areas (such as education), we are the world leader in imprisoning our citizens.  For every 100,000 Americans, there are 760 in prison. By way of comparison, Germany has 90, Britain 153, and Brazil 242.  Interestingly, in the 1980s the United States was at 150 imprisoned for every 100,000 people and this raises the obvious concern about the increase.

Of course, the cause of the increase is obvious: the war on drugs. The majority of federal prisoners are imprisoned on drug charges and in 2009 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges (80% of these being arrested for possession). Despite the vast expenditure in the seemingly endless war on drugs, there has been no significant reduction in drug consumption-merely an increase in prison populations. Because of these facts, even Pat Robertson has come out in favor of legalizing marijuana.

While some of the motivations for this war on drugs were laudable (namely getting rid of drugs and drug crimes), the main driving force in keeping the harsh anti-drug laws in place is money. Many prisons have been privatized and have become significant centers of profit and job creation. Of course, these prisons need to be populated and this provides an incentive to keep the laws in place and to imprison people for what would seem to be rather minor offenses, such as drug possession for personal use.

It might be countered that it seems absurd and unthinkable that people would engage in the vile practice of imprisoning people just to make money (and create jobs). However, even a cursory look at history will show that such a thing is far from absurd and is quite thinkable. After all, the United States had a slave based economy for decades. As such, the idea that people would imprison other people to make a profit is hardly a surprising idea. Morally offensive, yes. Surprising, no.

It could also be countered that the privatized for-profit prisons are good because they can save the state money. However, it is unclear how allowing private companies to make profits saves the state money. After all, there is no metaphysical essence that enables a private company to work with magical efficiency that is denied to the public sector. There is also the more important matter that even if the private companies saved the state money, there is the question of whether or not we should be imprisoning such a large number of people for drug crimes.

It might be argued that such people must be imprisoned in order to protect society. After all, drug criminals can be rather dangerous. However, it seems rather odd that the United States would have such a significantly higher percentage of dangerous drug criminals than all other countries (even drug drenched Mexico imprisons about 200 people per 100,000) and there is the obvious fact that 80% of the arrests for drug charges involve simple possession. As such, it seems likely that people are being imprisoned that do not actually need to be in prison (that is, they are not actually a threat to society).

It could be countered that drug users are a threat. After all, they sustain the drug dealers who engage in violence and other crimes.  Of course, they only sustain these dangerous drug criminals because these drugs are illegal. Obviously, making them legal and turning production and distribution over to companies would solve most of these problems. As such, the irony is that it is the illegality of drugs that actually creates the real drug criminals (the killers, thieves, money launderers and such). Thus, the solution to these crimes is not prison, but legalization.

It might be added that drugs are also harmful to health and they impair people in ways that can lead to accidents. Of course, the medical and safety issues regarding illegal drugs also apply to legal drugs. Alcohol and tobacco are major killers, yet are not illegal. It would thus make sense to treat the illegal drugs like alcohol-it is legal to possess them, but being impaired in public, behind the wheel and so on would be crimes.

Changing the drug laws would, obviously enough, lower the prison populations and have some immediate positive effects. One is that it would help reduce the expenditures of the states. While this would help with the budget woes, it could also allow states to spend money on more positive things such as education. After all, over the past twenty years state spending for prisons has increased at six times that of spending for higher education. California provides an excellent example of this. That state spent $9.6 billion for prisons and $5.7 billion for state universities and colleges in 2011. Since 1980, the state has added one college and twenty one prisons. Spending per student is $8,667 a year, while a prisoner costs $45,006. While this spending has helped create jobs and profits for private companies, it does seem rather wasteful and it seems more sensible to use the resources on education. After all, by changing the drug laws and reducing the number of people needlessly and senselessly locked up, five students can go to school for every person who would otherwise have been locked up. It seems obvious that five college students will do more good than locking up a person for having marijuana in their possession. It is, of course, true that there would be less profits for the private companies who run the prisons and less jobs for those involved with prisons. Perhaps these companies can start private colleges in place of prisons and the former guards and such could take classes there. They could then get jobs with the companies producing legal marijuana products.

In addition to the money matter, there is also the concern that the war on drugs and the obsession with prisons has created and continues to create an underclass. People who are arrested for drug offenses and imprisoned are taken from society and thus do not contribute (and actually cost society a great deal). Also, these people become marked with the stigma of being criminals, which will be a considerable obstacle the rest of their lives. Getting a job or going to college will be much harder and this will, ironically, serve to increase the odds that they will turn to other crimes as their only option. As such, one irony is that those waging the war on drugs have created a mechanism for  perpetual defeat and a prison state.

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