Why prisons are criminogenic | Joseph Margulies | Verdict


In my experience, people understand that prisons are criminogenic, which means that they increase rather than decrease the likelihood that a person will end up in prison, either because of a new crime or a violation of the law. parole. But it seems people are less clear on Why prisons have that effect. The authors of a recent VERA Institute report, for example, hypothesized that prisons were criminogenic “because people learn criminal habits or develop criminal networks while in prison.” They seem to envision prison as a sort of masterclass on crime, with compulsory lectures on general chaos and seminars for seniors on drug distribution and assault.

Not hardly. Typically, the guys inside don’t walk around the yard announcing the crime that got them behind bars, and are even less likely to ask someone else. I know people inside who have gone decades without telling or asking another soul what put them in jail.

I suspect that the explanation for the criminogenic effect of incarceration is simpler. Prisons are criminogenic because scarcity demands illicit behavior and rewards violence. Allowing for inevitable variation among the thousands of prisons in the United States, a defining feature, otherwise the defining characteristic – of life in prison is the scarcity. Almost everything of value in a prison, from an adequate supply of nutritious food and access to quality medical care, to contact with family and loved ones, is excessively expensive and dangerously scarce. And wherever essentials are scarce and the law absent, people will scramble to make ends meet and fight to secure or defend their loot.

The scarcity is deliberate. Take food, for example. To say that prisons skimp on food would hardly do the case justice. According to a 2018 jail food study by Impact Justice, the average cost of food per prisoner per day in the United States is less than $ 4.00. Not per meal, per day. In some states, the number is significantly lower. Alabama, for example, pays less than $ 2 for food per inmate per day. But this is not just a problem for the southern states; Wisconsin pays $ 1.02 a day to feed each inmate. And things are getting worse. Across the country, the amount spent on feeding inmates has dropped dramatically over the past 25 years. In 1996, Pennsylvania spent almost $ 9 a day to feed a single prisoner. By 2018, the amount had fallen to $ 2.61.

This avarice forces inmates with money in their account to rely on the prison commissioner to supplement their food. But the cost of the commissary’s food is outrageous and most prisoners don’t have that kind of money, which means they’re hungry or finding illegal workarounds. The most common is to steal food from the kitchen and sell it on the prison black market. A woman who worked in the prison kitchen told investigators the going rate for a block of butter in her prison was $ 10. A man from another facility reported that kitchen staff stole meat intended for prisoners, hid it in their pants, and sold it to hungry inmates back on the bleachers. Inside and out, hunger encourages crime.

Those who don’t work in the kitchen are forced to devise more ingenious strategies to increase their diet. A friend who spent a lot of time in prison once described to me how he would heat water with a device that Rube Goldberg would be proud of. It consisted of two razor blades, a piece of wire cut from a radio, and an electrical outlet. Because getting caught with this device meant spending time in solitary confinement (“the box”), some inmates did not want to risk having one in their cell, which naturally increased the price for risk-taking inmates. can charge for soup. In prison, even hot water is hard to come by.

Medical care is another scarce commodity. Although the Constitution requires the government to provide competent care to detainees, most states charge detainees a co-payment for each medical visit. These fees typically range from $ 2 to $ 5 per visit, which may not seem like much to those accustomed to outside wages, but a 2017 study by the Prison Policy Initiative found that inmates in the most senior jobs. most common in prison, such as laundry, food service, maintenance and grounds maintenance earn on average between 14 and 63 cents an hour. And that’s before mandatory deductions for court-ordered costs, fines, or victim restitution, which can easily take half a prisoner’s salary.

This means that a single medical visit could cost a prisoner more than a week’s pay. How many people out there would skip medical care if each doctor’s visit cost a week’s pay, especially if it meant skipping another essential like food? The conditions are particularly glaring in some states. Texas, for example, has the distinction of charging the highest co-payment – $ 13.55 / visit – but it’s one of the six states that don’t pay inmates at all for the heaviest prison labor. currents (a disgrace he shares with Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina).

We know what happens when people cannot afford medical care. They heal themselves. Thus, the scarcity of care both inside and outside contributes to the drug market. Drugs are widely available in all of America’s prisons. In general, drugs like marijuana and opioids, which relieve pain by reducing the senses, are more popular than drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine, which heighten sensations and raise awareness. In prison, most people don’t want their senses to be awakened.

Some people think the drugs are brought in by family members, who slip them on to their loved ones on visits. It certainly does happen, but I have always suspected — and my friends and clients inside have always told me this — that most drugs are brought in by correctional officers and staff. A recent investigation in Texas confirmed my suspicions. At the height of the pandemic, the Texas Department of Corrections, like states across the country, suspended all family visits. However, the drugs continued to flow. A friend from Louisiana State Prison told me the same thing happened there.

In fact, Texas inmates reported that drugs were even more widely available when family visits were suspended than before, likely because concerns about COVID-19 made it less likely that guards would be searched closely for contraband. Either way, once the drugs are inside, they become just another form of currency that can be sold or exchanged to help inmates overcome the effects of chronic scarcity. The same investigation in Texas found that prisoners traded drugs, which were plentiful, for food, which were not. A peanut butter sandwich costs half a joint. Drug trafficking becomes another side activity that the people inside have to do to make ends meet.

For many people, inside and out, nothing is more precious than contact with loved ones. But as others have often observed, in some prisons (and many prisons) it costs a small fortune to make a 15-minute phone call, despite evidence that maintaining close contact with family helps reduce the recidivist. In fact, virtually any means by which an inmate can communicate with the outside world – from stamps, paper, pencils and envelopes to e-mail – are equally expensive. For many inmates, a connection to the world beyond the Walls is just another scarce commodity.

The list could go on – toiletries, tobacco, picture frames – but the point has been made: scarcity is everywhere and anything but requires participation in an illicit economy. But of course, many inmates just don’t have the resources to buy goods on the black market. After all, how many prisoners can afford $ 10 for a block of butter? Yet the shortage weighs as much, if not more, on poor prisoners than on the (relatively) rich. How do the poorest inmates, who do not have the financial support of their families or are linked to drug trafficking in prison, overcome the shortage?

The answer is simple: violence. On the outside, the solution to any shortage is wealth. But inside, the ultimate solution to the scarcity is the ability and willingness to meet your needs by inflicting violence on others – that is, by credibly using or threatening to use violence. strength. The capacity for violence, precisely what society values ​​the least, is the trait that enables the most vulnerable inmates to manage and mitigate the defining characteristic of their existence. Due to the scarcity created by the state, a prisoner’s best friend is what society values ​​the least.

Scarcity in prison is not a new phenomenon. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the 1971 Attica prison uprising, historian Heather Thompson noted that “everyone in Attica” needed to “make various tickets to supplement their basic supplies.” But people haven’t paid enough attention to what this scarcity produces. All of this requires active participation in ongoing crime and encourages inmates to develop and refine their capacity for violence.

And then we wonder why prisons are criminogenic.

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