Guest column: Cut prison costs the smart way

By Barbara R. Levine/Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

Legislators agree we should spend less on corrections, but are reluctant to make the fundamental choices -- like reinstating the sentencing commission, reforming parole practices and restoring sentencing credits -- that could safely reduce the prisoner population by thousands and reduce spending by the hundreds of millions. So, to contain its $2 billion budget, the Michigan Department of Corrections has taken steps that are not only hard on prisoners and their families, but are ultimately counterproductive.

Research shows that family contact reduces recidivism, yet family ties have a low priority when cost-cutting decisions are made. Visiting hours statewide have been reduced by more than 20 percent to lessen the need for visiting room staff. The Mound facility in Detroit was chosen for closing, although it meant more than 1,000 prisoners, the majority of them from the greater Detroit area, were dispersed to facilities all over the state, making it far more difficult for their families to see them.

In a similar vein, the rates for prisoner telephone calls were increased by roughly 80 percent to create a “special equipment fund.” For FY 2013, the MDOC plans to spend $19.7 million from phone surcharges on security equipment. For some unexplained reason, another $8.4 million from the surcharge will go to the vendor. When rates go up, the number of calls that prisoner families can afford goes down.

Living conditions inside the prisons have deteriorated. Overcrowding is the norm, with eight people squeezed into space meant for four. Prisoners must buy their own hygiene supplies and over the counter medications. Toilet paper is strictly rationed. In the name of “operating efficiencies," the quantity and quality of food have been cut substantially. This leaves people hungry or drives them to buy chips and candy at the prison store – hardly desirable in a system trying to save money on health care. Recent notices advise that salt and pepper will no longer be served in the chow halls.

Institutional programming has also declined. Despite the proven connection between increased education and reduced recidivism, the state funds no post-secondary education and relatively little vocational training. The proportion of prisoners taking vocational programs has dropped from 10 percent in 1985 to 4 percent in 2011. Prisoners have few opportunities to demonstrate responsibility, learn skills or develop confidence in their ability to achieve something positive. While some have jobs or prepare for GED exams, idleness is rampant.

The issue of clothing epitomizes why purported efficiencies should be closely examined.

Until 1998, prisoners could wear their personal clothing. It allowed them to retain some measure of individuality and was safer for staff. If there’s a fight, it’s easier to identify the guy in the red shirt than the guy in the blue uniform.

Allowing lower security prisoners to again wear personal clothes could save nearly $4 million.

Eliminating the $575 annual dry cleaning allowance for roughly 7,000 custody personnel would save another $4 million a year. This allowance is essentially a bonus since officers’ uniforms are machine-washable.

So, instead of this potential total savings of $8 million, the MDOC has cut each prisoner’s uniforms from three to two. The department estimates this will save about $1.1 million.

The constant squeezing of prisoners and their families causes resentment and cynicism. We talk about preparing people to re-enter the wider community, but we don’t encourage them to be productive members of the prison community or to maintain connections with the free world. We are moving toward the human equivalent of factory farming, where the only concern is how to contain the maximum number of people as cheaply as possible while meeting the minimum legal requirements for food, space and health care.

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Tue, 03/20/2012 - 10:42am
Since we incarcerate people at least 7 times the rate of most western countries and Michigan has the highest rate among Great Lakes states, I don't think there's any doubt that we imprison too many criminals and sentences are too long for most of our criminals. We need a sentencing commission to establish data based sentencing rather than sentencing at the whim of legislators. We also need to allow prisons to re-institute good behavior time and shorten sentences for criminals who behave well in prison and take steps to succeed outside prison. "Truth in sentencing" would make sense if criminals actually knew what the sentence would be before doing the crime; they usually don't. "Truth in sentencing" might also make some sense if criminals made rational decisions; they often don't. The one big truth about our "truth in sentencing" policy is that taxpayers are sentenced to spending a lot more than we should be spending on prisons. There are at least a few criminals who would use their time in prison productively and they should be given the opportunity to take online classes, particularly if the criminal or their families have the means to pay for the classes. Putting criminals in front of computer screens rather than TV screens seems rational. Criminals should all be required to work while in prison, if nothing else, digging a hole a couple of hours a day and filling it up again, although I'm sure there are more productive work details that can be assigned. Good work should count toward 'good time.' Purchased snacks and drinks should be eliminated. Feed them enough healthy food and there will be no need for purchased junk food for sustenance, plus medical and dental bills will be lower. This is prison, not the country club. Our parole processes need reform. In terms of reducing recidivism, the cost of a good parole officer with a small enough caseload to do her job well is tax money well spent. There's an interesting book, "When Brute Force Fails -- How to have less crime and less punishment" by By Mark A.R. Kleiman that should be required reading for all parole and probation departments and read by every lawmaker. Although I think prison sentences for many criminals should be much shorter and alternatives to prison should be developed, I don't think we need to make prisons more pleasant. The last 30 days in prison should be the worst, maybe much of it spent in isolation with no TV, radio, telephone calls, exercise nor any other amenities beyond healthy food and water (sort of like most county jails). Criminals need to walk out the prison gate with a mind set of: 'this place is a hell hole and there's no way I'm ever going back' and I don't think that's accomplished when the last days in prison are their best days in prison. Our recidivism rate is way too high and our costs are way too high; our corrections system needs major reform and our lawmakers are rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 3:57pm
Well said!
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 10:50am
You have turned up the lights on a number of issues. Most of these "cost-shaving" methods have a certain attitude built in, that prisoners don't deserve respect. If recidivism is lower when families can visit prisoners regularly, it is counterproductive to move prisoners hundreds of miles away from their families and curtailing frequent visits. Eliminating salt and pepper to save cash? Jacking up phone rates to pay for security equipment and to pad the pockets of the phone providers. Each of these indignities break morale for the prisoners and breed inappropriate reaction. If these draconian measures are to lengthen sentences so more prisoners can work in these proposed contracted prison industries at less than minimun wages, we have truly turned back the clock on good prison practices in exchange for the almighty dollar.
Allan Blackburn
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 2:41pm
The Corrections Corporation of America offered to buy all of the prisons at a cost of over $200 million dollars if we commit to keeping them at 90% occupancy for 20 years. We could do that by coming up with draconian four-strikes and you're out laws, letting them incarcerate illegal aliens, etc. This way we could send some impoverished person to prison for life for stealing a loaf of bread. Shareholders could make money hand over fist by investing in housing the dregs of our society. We already allow prisons to have inmates call their homes collect at a cost of several dollars per minute. This way impoverished mom is getting charged $100.00 for a 10 minute call. Profit is king in this country and ALEC is insuring that companies like CCA are getting access to the cream of the crop in Lansing. The prisons could sell labor services like they did in Shawshank Redemption and the kickbacks could fly. American jobs could be brought back in to this country but, rather than having Chinese kids making $5.00 per day we could pay inmates .20 per hour. When you listen to most people they really have no compassion any more and want their pound of flesh out of each other. Companies could boost their bottom line by stealing American jobs. Start out slow and, within 10 years all of the prisons could be privately run in Michigan. These companies do not allow unions and they pay guards substandard wages so, safety and security are an issue but, what the heck; profit is king. Listening to reader one, they should be digging holes and filling them back in because, really; these people should have no rights at all. They are prisoners and have given up their rights. They should be treated horribly because by God, we are Christians and that is what Christians do to each other. Okay; now that I have pointed out the ridiculous and the extreme, maybe we should focus on true corrections reforms, focus on the underlying issues involved with crime; poverty, mental health, substance abuse issues, lack of jobs upon release, the vicious circle that the word; "Felon" produces in our society through lack of resources, jobs, housing, education, assistance, etc. We need to stop allowing corporations to run our country. Our problem with corrections is that we have locked people up with the idea that they are never going to be released. If we build the prisons, we will fill them. When we look towards restorative justice in our country we may get somewhere. The goal of restorative justice is where everyone is made whole in the process, from the criminal to the victim. Only then can we get away from our overly expensive, so-called system of justice that is really justice for no one. Society does not benefit by becoming the most incarcerated country in the world. When the State of Michigan alone is over $2 billion dollars a year for DOC, something is wildly wrong.