Trendspotting: The Crisis in Corrections


Winston Churchill reputedly declared, “If you want to see the soul of a society, look into its prisons.”

In an era when folk were still incarcerated for stealing a neighbor’s pig, the purported comments of the cigar-chomping, V-sign touting wartime prime minister were, I assume, colored by the crowded Victorian-era prisons that defined the English penal system long after the Great War years.

Regardless, of why, when or even if Churchill uttered such a statement, the concept remains sobering. In this 21st century, how would our society and its correctional system measure up against our governing ideals, foundational aspirations and notions of American exceptionalism?

In October 1993, I found myself in Warsaw attending a weeklong conference on the future of corrections in Eastern Europe. A great deal of uncertainty prevailed following the demise of the once powerful Soviet Union, as the super power dissolved, Communism collapsed and the centralized apparatus of government retreated, devolved and disintegrated.

Amid CNN reports of armed conflict engulfing the Russian parliament building, we all gathered around the one television in the Polish Prison Service training center and watched as tank shells rained down on Moscow’s White House.

An ensuing conversation among the Russian delegates who were present focused on whether there would be enough potatoes in their prison larder to feed the inmates if the insurrection continued. The exchange and its frame of reference were jolting to this delegate from the industrialized West, where the concern of corrections officials is generally one of how best to control caloric intake rather than one’s very ability to provide food. 

Some 15 years later, in February 2009, Georgia Public Broadcasting aired a radio piece from my valued colleague, Mark Goldman, which addressed a Department of Correction cost-cutting plan to extend the existing two-meal per day program at state prisons to three days per week. 

To be fair, the DOC was not reducing the recommended daily calorie requirement, just dividing the total over two, rather than three, meals, which I suppose works if you aren’t diabetic and have enough to do all day that you really don’t get hungry very often.

My point is not whether caloric-loading of meals is an effective measure in reducing facility food costs, but whether the fiscal constraints and financial pressures placed on correctional managers by the executive and legislative branches of government have become so severe that food is viewed as an item of discretionary spending that can be cut to fit a belt-tightening bottom line?

Today, although the financial crisis threatening corrections is more akin to a rain-swollen river than the raging maelstrom of a waterfall, virtually every state has made news during these first months of 2009 by offering cost reduction solutions that range from dramatic to draconian:

• The Kansas Department of Corrections may be forced to shut down at least two prisons and eliminate all programs for parolees.

• California’s Governor has called for the termination of the court-appointed receiver for prison healthcare and the scrapping of the $8 billion construction plan to improve unconstitutional medical care in the state prison system. A three-judge federal panel issued a preliminary order that could release up to 58,000 of the 160,000 inmates housed in California’s state prisons, which are operating at 200 percent of capacity.

• Pending legislation in Kentucky would allow nonviolent, drug offenders (70 percent of the inmate population) to choose long-term substance abuse treatment instead of jail time.

• Releasing inmates who have served their minimum sentences, but have been denied parole by a 10-member Michigan Parole Board, could reduce Michigan’s $2 billion annual prison budget by $262 million through 2015.

• The Texas Legislature is considering broadening privatization because state law mandates existing contracts with private companies must provide the same services for at least 10 percent less than state costs.

• The governor of Idaho recommended $20.5 million in budget cuts and the Legislature proposes to deepen this 12 percent reduction by an additional $6 million.

The list could continue to include every state, and beyond that, virtually every county. These are times that try the soul of those assigned responsibility for fiscal solvency, and no elected official has escaped the stressful task of deciding whether crowded school classrooms or crowded prison dayrooms are more damaging to the future of their community. The latter, it seems, is more palatable as politicians routinely prefer to crowd prisons well beyond design capacity and hope for the best.

Talk radio shock jocks and fire-and-brimstone televangelists seem to have a pretty definitive assessment of the condition of our society and the virtue of its soul. For my part, I am not certain how one defines or gauges the soul of a society but would guess it has more to do with metaphysical than with physical matters.

While suspicious of limited definitions of either, I’ll leave you to grapple with the essence of our collective social soul and the condition of our society with parting, and perhaps instructive, thought from Emily Dickinson: “The soul selects her own society, then shuts the door.”

If our prisons truly are a microcosm of society and if we limit conceptions of public safety to crime and punishment, and benchmark effective outcomes and community protection exclusively in terms of fences and cells, how protected are communities in California (to choose one) when 140,000 inmates are released each year with little preparation for becoming law-abiding contributors to society?

Of the countless articles written about reductions in prison budgets, the most frightening are those that highlight the elimination of drug treatment, education and job-skills programming that can reduce an inmate’s tendency to re-offend.

Having visited over 1,000 prisons throughout the world, I will risk saying that most of the surrounding communities are safe when the gates are locked. However, they are most vulnerable when the released offender returns home to the community in no better condition than when they left.

The statements of Churchill and Dickinson should haunt us in good and bad economic times, even more so when we have to make hard choices about which prison services and programs to eliminate. Perhaps pausing to consider the health of our society and condition of its soul will encourage us to think harder and smarter about the long-term impact of eliminating programs, services or the odd meal or two.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C., and a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.