Imprisonment Binge Comes Home to Roost


The tremendous growth of imprisonment that began in the late 1970s has finally come back to haunt the people who were behind it.  After all the law and order get tough rhetoric claiming that the only way to make people safe and combat the “scourge” of drugs (using the words of George H. W. Bush in the 1980s) was to lock ‘em up, three things that most experts predicted would happen that were ignored have come back to haunt them.  First, it didn’t have much impact on the crime and the drug problem. Second, it was applied most often to African Americans and other minorities.  Third, the overall costs of building and operating so many prisons was staggering.

With virtually every state in the nation facing huge deficits, most have begun cutting prison budgets and closing entire institutions in order to help balance the budget.  This process is not confined to the United States alone, for it is being done in other countries, such as the UK, Canada and Australia.  The fact that such mass incarceration has little or no impact on crime or drug use and the fact that the incarceration rate for minorities exceeds whites by at least a five-to-one ratio is irrelevant.  What seems to matter most is the costs – in many cases well over a billion dollars in many states (with California leading the way at about $10 billion per year).

Here are some examples.

In North Carolina, with prisons spread out all over the state, The Raleigh reported in April, 2010 as follows: “Today’s closure of McCain Correctional Hospital in Hoke County marks the end of eight months of work to close seven prisons and convert several others as ordered by the legislature in the 2009-10 budget. The seven prison closings and changes at nine others eliminated 516 positions for a $22.3 million annual savings.”

Washington State: As of January 19, 2010, Washington State Department of Corrections had plans to close at least eight prisons, according to Washington Prison Watch. In October, 2010 it was announced that “Another Washington prison will have to close and 300 prison employees statewide stand to lose their jobs.  Larch Corrections Center, in Southwest Washington, is already running at half-capacity. Now it's slated for closure February 1st.”

In Texas it has been reported that “In public safety and corrections programs, the budget report recommends shutting down a unit in Sugar Land, three Texas Youth Commission lockups and 2,000 private prison beds, a move that could close at least two additional lockups. About 1,562 prison jobs were also chopped. Probation programs would see funding cut by 20 percent, parole supervision would be cut by almost 9 percent, and the agency's construction and maintenance funding could be cut by 83 percent, along with 90 jobs. The Victims Services Division would be eliminated.”

In my own state of Nevada discussion is under way to close the oldest prison in the state at Carson City, which would save $16.1 million in the next two fiscal years.


In Oregon, it has been reported that the state “has shut down a minimum-security prison in Salem as planned, marking what corrections officials said was the first prison closure in Oregon history.”   This is “part of a $2.5 million budget cut that includes laying off 63 prison system employees.”


Back in June, 2009 Michigan officials announced that the state was “closing three prisons and five prison camps in hopes of narrowing a $1.4 billion budget gap for fiscal 2010.”  The report in CNN Money also noted that “Michigan is not alone in turning to its prison system for savings. Some 25 states cut spending on corrections in fiscal 2009 and another 25 are proposing to do so in fiscal 2010, as they struggle to address massive budget shortfalls.”

In South Carolina, it was just announced that state officials are considering closing two minimum security prisons.

In the United Kingdom last year there was much discussion over proposed cuts to the budget of the prison system.  There was significant resistance from unions warned that this “could cost up to 15,000 jobs and lead to prison closures.”

Speaking of job losses, in the United States there is strong resistance from union groups and prison workers in general about proposed cuts and prison closures.  A recent report noted that in the rural areas of Colorado” working at a prison is often considered one of the most secure and best paying jobs. But two Colorado towns are seeing jobs evaporate as local private prisons close down.”

In Florida a report last year noted that the state’s budget chief “backed off from his proposal to close two state prisons and privatize a third in the face of mounting opposition from colleagues, the union representing prison guards and local officials.”

In New York State a story titled “Prison Towns Worry Closures Could Upend Communities” noted that “Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to shutter as many as 10 prisons statewide in order to cut costs, but officials in the primarily upstate New York communities that house correctional facilities are concerned about job loss.”  They are especially concerned about the loss of several prisons in what they call the “North County” area where there are more than a dozen prisons.  A map on the web site of the Department of Corrections shows where these prisons are located – in predominantly rural areas in update New York.

Finally, a proposal to close yet another youth correctional facility in California (about a half a dozen have already been closed in the past 5 years or so) is running into opposition.  The San Francisco Chronicle reports that “A plan to shut down one of the state's few remaining juvenile justice facilities to save tens of millions of dollars a year is running into opposition in Sacramento, where a state lawmaker is worried about the loss of jobs in her district.”  

These are just a few samples of what is going on all over the country and elsewhere in the world. Indeed, the imprisonment binge that began decades ago is finally coming home to roost – sometimes literally in the back yards of those who promoted this.  In most of the discussions over these budget cuts and closures little is said about the horrible collateral consequences of mass incarceration on communities hit hardest, which are always the poorest. 

© 2011, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.