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One Way We Could Tackle Mass Incarceration Today

Last week, the country’s two largest private prison operators, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, released their annual financial reports. The numbers were what we’ve come to expect — staggering. Combined, the two publicly traded collected $361 million in profits last year. That’s profit — taxpayer money that could be going to fixing our criminal justice system, which is badly broken.

In the Public Interest ran the numbers and that means CCA made $3,356 in profit for every person they incarcerated, and GEO Group made $2,135. What if we spent that money on mental health care, drug treatment, education, or job training for those prisoners? What if, instead of lining the pockets of private prison corporate executives and shareholders, that money was invested in cultivating safer conditions in our jails and prisons?

Most agree that our criminal justice system is in crisis. Too often, we rely on incarceration as a one-size-fits-all answer to problems best addressed as issues of public health and inequality. The statistics are devastating. We lock up more people, per capita, than any other nation–2.3 million people at the end of 2015. African-Americans make up only 13% of the U.S. population yet 37% of U.S. prisoners are black.

But where our addiction to incarceration really stands out is the decades-long, nationwide trend of dwindling mental health treatment. Between 25 and 40 percent of all mentally ill Americans will be jailed or incarcerated at some point in their lives. At least 83 percent of prisoners with a mental illness in our jails do not have access to treatment. Someone with an untreated mental illness is 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement. Jails and prisons have become, de facto, our largest psychiatric hospitals. 

What if we spent those hundreds of millions in annual private prison profits on helping turn these trends around?

The solutions exist; communities just need the resources. For example, a reentry program providing, among other things, employment assistance and substance abuse therapy to released prisoners in California, has a track record of lowering the rate in which these prisoners return to prison. It’s annual cost? $1,200 per person. 

Another example: a proven reentry program for people suffering from mentally illness released from prisons in Washington State costs $10,000 per person. This money is actually an investment–it’s been estimated that for every $1 spent on the program, Washington taxpayers have saved $1.82 by lowering criminal justice costs.

Also in Washington State, an innovative program called Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching–“the TRAC program” for short–offers prisoners the opportunity, while incarcerated, to learn building and construction trade skills. The program is showing success at a women’s prison in the state, helping shift mass incarceration towards mass employment.


The solutions exist; communities just need the resources.


These are just a few solutions–there are many, and the right one depends on the community. But we know what doesn’t work: continuing to feed the growing private prison industry, which makes more money when more people are incarcerated. They’ve often cut corners to make that money, leaving a track record of deadly riots, prisoner deaths, lawsuits, accidental releases, and high correctional officer turnover.

If our criminal justice system stopped sending people to private jails and prisons, hundreds of millions in tax dollars a year could be spent on providing rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration. Instead of leaving the system, this money could be spent on fixing it.

 

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