Why we cannot afford to build any more prisons

By Fred (SCI Graterford) 

Building new prisons is just an external symptom of the cancer that is eating away at our society’s core. At the root of the issue is the ever-expanding gap between the rich and the poor which has created a ‘class’ system even as politicians preach equality. The ‘haves’ (rich) are willing to go to great lengths to protect their wealth and maintain the status quo. In this kind of system, the poor (‘have nots’) are seen as a source of danger that must be policed. The solution to the problem, in this view, is to remove and banish it far away so that it does not have to be dealt with. Thus results what Michel Foucault called “le grand renfermement,” the great lock up. More and more behavior is considered ‘criminal’ and therefore legislation grows endlessly, usually under a thick veneer of ‘security’.

In Pennsylvania, more than half of all prisoners in state prisons are non-violent offenders. The present epidemic of incarceration creates an unsustainable financial cost on the taxpayer. It gets even more worrisome when prison growth is accompanied by failed school systems. A prisoner’s biggest nightmare is to see their child join them in prison. This ‘lock ‘em up’ mentality has gone to the schools themselves where children are treated as criminal for minor infractions. I was horrified a while back, to see police escort a six year old girl in handcuffs! This country’s propensity to lock people up is borne out by the fact that we have 25% of the world’s prisoners but only 5% of the world’s population. These poor, marginalized, mentally ill and mostly minority populations fare no better once they get out of prison. They are ‘marked’ people. Nobody wants to hire them or live near them. Prisoners are the new lepers. No one wants anything to do with them. America throws its marginalized people away and Pennsylvania is at the very top of that trend.

In the first half of the twentieth century, America isolated tuberculosis patients and left them to die. Today there is the same mentality towards prisons. This prison-building frenzy is profit based and needs to be exposed. The truth of the matter is crime has gone down nationwide while Pennsylvania continues to lock more people up. There is no need to build more prisons. Genuine prison reform can reduce the PA’s prison population drastically resulting in the closure of some prisons. But as long as prisons remain moneymakers for a privileged few, politicians will continue to lie to the public and use fear to maintain these society-destroying institutions. The public needs to know the truth; and that is, the majority of us are willing, even determined, to learn from our mistakes and make a difference in the young generation but the system makes it almost impossible. The image of changed prisoners does not augur well for their lock ‘em up worldview, and it definitely does not line their pockets.