From Rick Halperin
The economic gravy train of the prison system
Public policies made in Austin 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.
Here is how this blueprint fuels America's ongoing war on drugs.
During the 1980s and 1990s, tough-on-crime policies, especially drug control laws, overfilled America's prisons.
State and federal prisons held only 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 U.S.-about one-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 Institute's Justice Policy Center in
Washington tracks how prisons became a growth industry in Texas.
In "The New Landscape of Imprisonment: Mapping America's Prison Expansion," they conclude that when it comes to building prisons,
"Texas is in a league of its own."In 1979, only 17 state and federal prisons operated in Texas.
Between 1979 and 2000, nearly 6 new prisons were added every year. By 2000, Texas had 137 state and federal prisons operating in 31 % of the
counties throughout the state, including at least 1 new prison in Potter, Dallam, Gray and Swisher counties.
Aboard the gravy trains
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 Austin. 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 39,000 prison employees in
Texas. And don't forget the incomes of employees of private firms that directly sell food, fuel, clothing and furniture to prisons.
No wonder Texas towns become addicted to this prison economy.
Spreading prisons across Texas can actually perpetuate a large prison population. As more towns become economically dependent on state
prisons holding more than 143,000 inmates in 2002, the greater is the likelihood
grassroots 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 union's ads, Prop. 36 became law with a 61-percent favorable vote. When prisons boom, everyone wins, except the non-violent inmates
and taxpayers. Politicians in Austin and Washington show how tough they are on crime. Private prison operators and their investors make money. Prison
guards pay off their mortgage and support local businesses.
Even the 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 Austin and Washington.
Chances are taxpayers are stuck with the cost of keeping two million men and women behind bars well into the future - not because justice
demands it, but because the economic benefits of the prison business are working
to keep it that way.
(source: The Amarillo Globe-News; Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil
What is the value of the years spent unjustly in prison?----As DNA frees innocents, figuring compensation proves hard to do
COMPENSATION IN 3 STATES -- Compensation varies among different states.
- Virginia: Passed a law this year that compensates wrongfully
convicted people 90 % of the state's annual per capita income - or about $30,000
- for up to 20 years.
- Alabama: Pays a minimum $50,000 for every year of incarceration.
- New Jersey: Provides up to $20,000 per year, or twice the person's pre-prison salary, whichever is greater.
WASHINGTON - The scar across Michael Austin's right cheek, from an inmate's makeshift knife, is the most visible reminder of his 27 years
in a Maryland maximum-security prison for a murder that DNA evidence now says he didn't commit.
The other scars are the memories. How inmates preyed on new arrivals, a practice he once likened to "watching lions chasing one of those
gazelles." How he was unable to attend his mother's funeral after her death from cancer. How his freedom so overwhelmed him at first that a
routine errand - going to buy a tube of toothpaste - caused him to weep.
When Austin asks himself what it would take to make him whole, he has no answer.
"If they gave me a billion dollars, a trillion, none of that would buy back one minute - one second - of the life I lost," he said.
A complex issue
As DNA testing frees increasing numbers of innocents from prison, states across the country are facing a politically sensitive and morally
complex calculus: What is the value of a life unjustly spent behind bars?
Although Austin, freed in 2001, says no amount of money can restore his 27 years, he plans to ask the state for compensation nonetheless. Maryland
has a law allowing for compensation of the exonerated - it has awarded a total of nearly $1.5 million to four wrongfully convicted people - but
no specific guidelines for what constitutes a fair settlement. Elsewhere, jurisdictions that have compensation laws, including 15 states and the
federal government, vary widely in their definitions of an appropriate payout.
The wrongfully convicted can sue states without compensation laws, but such cases are usually time-consuming and difficult to win, legal
experts said. As for suing judges, juries, prosecutors and police who were involved in a wrongful conviction, a plaintiff would have to prove
malicious misconduct, such as destroying or planting evidence or taking a
bribe in return for a guilty verdict, said Michael Milleman, a law
professor at the University of Maryland.
The other option is to get the state's legislature to pass an individual compensation bill, a political process subject to having the right
Exonerated of rape
When Virginia lawmakers took up the case of Marvin Lamont Anderson last year, they weren't sure what the state should pay.
He spent 15 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him of rape and sodomy charges in 2001. At the time of his arrest, he was 18, with
dreams of becoming a firefighter. He was sentenced to 210 years.
Other inmates "wanted to mess me up real bad," he said. "They'd threaten me, try to get me to initiate a fight, to start something to keep me
from getting out ... You're always looking over your shoulder."
After hearing his story, legislators arrived at a lump sum of $200,000 and about $2,000 a month for the rest of his life.
After Anderson's case, the Virginia Legislature was accused of playing racial politics with the payouts. Anderson, who is black, and his
family said that while the Legislature dragged its feet on his case, it approved
with little discussion $750,000 for a white man who had spent 11 years in prison - 4 years less than Anderson.
This year, the state passed a law designed to bring uniformity to the payouts, basing them on the state's annual per capita income.
Delegate Robert Tata, R-Virginia Beach, said the legislature wanted to remove politics and emotion from the process. "Everybody will be
treated the same," he said. "We don't want to be making this up as we go along."
But Adele Bernhard, a law professor at Pace University, said states that use median income as a standard are not only "chintzy" but insulting.
"Essentially, they're saying, 'We don't think you would have made more than the median income,'" she said.
So what is fair compensation?
"What's a prison rape worth?" asked Ronald Kuby, a New York lawyer who has worked on compensation cases. "What's missing your child's first day of
school worth? Not being with your parents as they lay dying? Having your parents go to their graves with you branded a convict?"
Effort not unusual
As complicated and imperfect as it is, deciding what a person's life is worth is done repeatedly. Juries routinely award damages in
wrongful-death cases. They even calculate the value of limbs lost in accidents.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the federal government set up a fund to pay the victims' families. Using a formula that accounted for
a person's age and earning potential, it paid a median amount of almost $1.7 million to nearly 3,000 families.
Mindful of how arbitrary payouts can be in New York, where judges oversee the cases, lawyer Ronald Kuby ordered a detailed economic analysis of
the earning potential of two clients, Charles Shepard and Anthony Faison, who had spent 14 years in prison for a murder they did not commit.
The analysis included their employment history and skills. For Shepard, a construction worker, it noted that he was adept at "sawing lumber,
mounting pipe hangers and cutting and insulating material." It even included his high school grades. The report concluded that had he not
been convicted, he would have been able to earn an annual salary of $49,170.
It's calculating the intangibles - the pain and suffering, the lost time - that can be much more difficult to put a dollar figure on, Kuby said.
His clients had "serious problems and serious trauma that grew out of their incarceration," according to psychiatric evaluations Kuby
commissioned. Shepard's report noted that he was arrested just before his daughter was born. After he was freed, "she doesn't really think of him
as her father, and she only calls him when she needs something," it said.
Living with nightmares
Shepard was also attacked by 3 prisoners, who stabbed him with ice picks, the report said. A psychiatric evaluation commissioned by Kuby noted
that he wakes up in the middle of the night "all sweaty" from nightmares about prison, including one about the time he saw an inmate get stabbed in
In 2002, Shepard and Faison won a $3.3 million settlement, the largest under the state's wrongful-conviction statute.
It's not clear how much Austin will get. His attorney, Larry Nathans, would not discuss what his client would seek. In Maryland, compensation
requests go to the Board of Public Works, which is made up of the governor, the comptroller and the treasurer. In the past, it has
awarded the wrongfully convicted about $90 for every day spent in prison. If it uses that formula when considering Austin, he could get close to $1
Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. pardoned Austin last year and said then that the board would look into compensating him.
(source: The Washington Post)
"It does not require many words to speak the truth."
........ Chief Joseph