Thursday, January 8, 2015


©Wendell Griffen, 2015

Arkansas political leaders, led by recently elected Governor Asa Hutchinson, have begun openly talking about shipping prison inmates to privately owned prisons in other states.  They say doing this is better than building a new 1,000 bed prison at a construction cost of $100 million, and then operating that facility in future years.  Before people compliment Governor-elect Hutchinson and other politicians for what they may claim is an effort to save tax dollars we should consider some uncomfortable truth.

In 1972 there were fewer than 350,000 people in local, state, and federal prisons and jails.  In 1974, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommended that no new lockup facilities be built for adults and that the then existing institutions for juveniles be closed.  There are now over 2.3 million people locked away in prisons and jails across the United States. 

The United States leads the world in producing prisoners and Arkansas faces a prison and jail overcrowding crisis because voters unwisely embraced arguments by politicians that demonized people suffering from drug dependency, mental illness, poverty, and homelessness for the past forty years.  If prison rates in the U.S. dropped to early 1970s levels it is estimated that four out of five people currently behind bars would need to be released.  More than a million people would lose their jobs, including more than 700,000 prison and jail guards, prison administrators, service workers, and other personnel.  Prisons would have to be closed!

Prisons are intended to remove people that society considers dangerous from those who are peaceful.  However, non-violent offenders make up the overwhelming majority of people in Arkansas prisons and jails.  Arkansas prisons and jails are overcrowded, by and large, because politicians decided over the years to treat people suffering from drug dependency, mental illness, unemployment, and homelessness as criminals. 

Building new prisons won’t solve the problems of drug addiction, mental illness, unemployment, and homelessness.  Solving those problems will require investing in community based health and wellness clinics, building and staffing more public schools that educate people of all ages so they can be better educated, encouraging employers to pay decent wages and salaries to workers, and making affordable housing available to workers and their families.  But as my father would often say, “doing that would be too much like right.”

There would not be a prison overcrowding problem if the people we have criminalized because of drug dependency, mental illness, poverty, and homelessness had been treated as disabled rather than dangerous.  These people would not have been stripped of their civil rights, including the right to vote.  Their families would have been supported, not marginalized.  We would be a healthier, productive, and compassionate society. 

However, mass incarceration is essential to what I call the “prison-industrial complex.”  A prison is a place of custody or confinement.  There is money to be made in building, maintaining, and operating prisons. Land must be purchased and developed.  That produces money for real estate developers, bankers, attorneys, surveyors, and construction companies. 

Prisons must be staffed.  Guards must be hired, trained, outfitted with uniforms and equipment including weapons (firearms, Tasers, and restraint devices).  Health care services must be provided for prisoners and prison staff.  That produces money for manufacturers of firearms, uniforms, prison furnishings (beds, mattresses, laundry, etc.), and for the companies that provide medical, dental, and other healthcare services. 

Governor-Elect Hutchinson and the politicians talking about sending Arkansas prison and jail inmates to lockup facilities in Louisiana surely realize that sending Arkansas inmates to Louisiana means paying someone to hold and care for those inmates.  Who will be paid?  How much will Arkansas pay? 

This issue, like anything else involving justice, is fundamentally a moral concern.  Why should we out-source caring for Arkansans who are not dangerous, but who suffer from drug dependency, mental illness, poverty, and homelessness? 

Why shouldn’t we love our neighbors enough to care for them in Arkansas rather than treat them as disposable waste to be deposited elsewhere? 

What is just about a process where our disabled, mentally ill, impoverished, and homeless neighbors are systematically stopped, arrested, charged, convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated as part of complex series of business ventures ultimately intended to create profits for investors? 

I have long called for a moratorium on building and expanding prisons and jails in Arkansas.  I also oppose the idea of sending Arkansas inmates out of state.  We won’t solve the injustice of mass incarceration by shipping the victims of that injustice elsewhere. 

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