A brief look at prison and inmate issues cannot produce many answers, but it will highlight disturbing issues about prisons; inmate labor,  inmates serving time for drug offenses, the disproportionate headcount of black inmates, and the proportion of mentally ill inmates.

The keystone issue is to decide on the purpose of prisons and determine how much of society’s resources must be devoted to serve that purpose. These resources therefore will be unavailable for other purposes (such as defense, public health or education).  Government cannot afford to do everything — that is just reality.

Three purposes for prisons are acknowledged: punishment through deprivation of freedom, public safety through corralling criminals to thwart their harming the public, and the rehabilitation of criminals into law abiding citizens through education and counselling.

The annual cost of incarcerating one inmate varies from $23,000 to $60,000.  However, the annual cost to society of the entire prison system (local jails, state prisons and federal prisons, parolees and probationers) is estimated at $1 trillion.  That includes the direct costs of building and operating prisons, cost borne by the inmates’ family and community, cost to inmates through their reduced earning power, and the cost of extra social services the inmate and family will need over a lifetime.  Even if the $1 trillion is an overestimate, it seems to be in the ballpark.

The public may think punishment has value, but few will ascribe value at anywhere near the $1 trillion level.

Public safety may be increased by incarcerating felons, but the Defense Department delivers more safety, and its budget is dwarfed by the $1 trillion cost for the prison system.

The public can benefit from some strategies that trim the cost of operating prisons. Rehabilitation is a candidate for reducing the annual cost of prisons, yet some disbelieve in the efficacy of rehabilitation.

“Prison rehabilitation programs initially cost prisons money to implement, [but] these programs decrease the recidivism rate, decreasing the prison population.” The question is what level of recidivism does rehab produce?  In Ohio, “inmates who enroll in college classes have a re-offending rate of 18%, while prisoners who do not take college courses have a re-incarceration rate of 40%.”  Each inmate rehabilitated saves the state about $20,000 per year.  With a national prison inmate count of 2.3 million, the savings can become enormous.

“For each inmate who participates in a work-release program, Minnesota saves $700 on average.” Done right, with substance abuse prevention programs and meaningful training in a trade or in a college degree program, rehabilitation can save prison costs by reducing the headcount of prisoners.  The savings may be significant, but some of rehabilitation’s appeal comes from its humanitarian core.

Perhaps a more dramatic reduction in costs can be had by being more selective in who is incarcerated.  Of the top four offense type among inmates, drug crimes account for 46.1%.  Next is weapons violations at 17.9%, then sex offenses at 9.7%, and immigration crimes at 6.5%.

Reductions in drug incarcerations could make the biggest difference in prison headcounts.  We do not propose releasing drug manufacturers or distributors, or those who sell to children, or even those who sell more than a half-ounce of marijuana.  If all states were to set the “possession” bar at a few ounces of marijuana for personal use, we could drain massive costs from prisons by diverting perhaps a million drug offense inmates through a quick rehab and then back into productive society (saving $22 billion per year).

We do not advocate for legalization of drugs, but the cost savings are compelling and as some states have already done, elected officials should consider the economic costs to the state that result from their choice of overly stern drug laws.

The racial composition of prisons is 38% black and 58% white, with others races splitting the other 4%. The proportion of black inmates is severely out of balance at three times the percentage they represent in the US population.  This deserves attention, although it is unclear which remedies are needed.  Reducing black inmate proportions to the same level as in the population could cut the prison population by one quarter.

Some advocate for more aggressive mental health treatment in prisons.  However, the proportion of inmates (20% of inmates in jails and 15% of inmates in state prisons) who exhibit mental illness is the same as the portion (18.5%) of the population suffering mental illness outside the prisons. Professional treatment might be useful to many people, but prison inmates do not represent a unique need.

Others are distressed by the use of inmate labor – either because it is similar to slavery and pays poorly or because some private industries take advantage of the low wages they can pay inmates.  Prison labor seems to be allowed by the Constitution.  The range of inmate wages runs from $0.0 to $0.60 average per hour. One of the wardens who regards inmate labor as appropriate claims “prison labor provides a way to pay society back for the costs of incarceration, as well as a pathway to correct deviant behavior and possibly find personal redemption.”

There are many other issues and resentments that people have, but we will make little progress toward agreement is we do not first agree on the core purpose of prisons.  Perhaps the most useful step would be to acquaint voters with the statistics on types of crimes committed by inmates, recidivism rates with or without rehabilitation, and the estimated costs that the prison system imposes on prisoners, their families, their neighborhoods, and society at large.  Any who advocate for spending more on the prison system should document which aspects of other government programs must be defunded to yield the new funds.