Governor to Jettison Jails?
The New York Times reported yesterday that Governor Spitzer is recommending the establishment of a commission to study closing some of New York's 69 prisons that cost $2.7 billion a year. The sooner the commission is created, the sooner New York can lock some of its prison doors (with no one inside), and the better off our society will be.
For many years, prisons sprouted up in northern and western New York like fungi in the forest. As they grew, more and more men and women from downstate were arrested and sent to fill these upstate behemoths. Prisons (and the prisoners who filled them) became a lucrative business, profitable for those who built them, managed them, worked inside them, conducted business with them, and catered to them. In turn, the shameful drug war guaranteed jobs for countless police officers, detectives, assistant district attorneys, public defenders, and judges. Prisons also become a means of enabling the seats of certain senators whose districts would fall below the population requirements were it not for the Census Bureau tabulating inmates as residents of the counties in which they are incarcerated.
Spitzer's eye to curbing the prison-building boon may be in response, in part, to a general decline in the state's prison population since 1999 (although it rose last year). Hopefully, however, it is also a forward-looking plan that imagines a healthier, saner, more progressive criminal justice system, one that moves away from the present-day mass incarceration of drug offenders, away from a system where the incarceration of poor, mostly people of color is tied to maintaining high employment rates and the economic prosperity of the communities in which the prisons exist. With fewer prisons, and less draconian laws, we can begin to interrupt the forced cycle (and recycle) of mostly minority people from downstate communities to upstate communities and then back down again, burdened with criminal records, tracked by probation and parole, disqualified from numerous jobs, licenses, and educational aid. If certain prisons' main purpose (though never annunciated) is not to protect society, but to ensure, for instance, the political viability of state senators in otherwise under-populated jurisdictions, it is time to raze them.
These pretexts for propping up prisons are not always kept private. For instance, the economic importance of prisons was explained by Republican Senator Elizabeth O'C. Little, whose Adirondacks district includes 12 prisons and prison camps, including five in Franklin County (where there is one inmate for every 10 residents, the highest concentration in the state). She said she was "very concerned about the commission. ... [Prisons] have a tremendous economic impact ... There are over 5,000 corrections officers living in my district. In most of these communities, the prisons are the biggest employer. It's not just corrections officers, but secretaries and other staff, too."
Lest anyone think that the prisons would close overnight, as the Times notes, under current law a state must give a year's notice to employees before closing a prison, and officials are required to explore options for converting prisons to other uses.
Senator Michael Nozzolio, chairman of the Senate committee that has jurisdiction over prisons, expressed apprehension over Spitzer's plan, stating that "we see that there is a growing need for more maximum-security cell space." How ironic that Senator Nozzolio himself has depended on inmates being counted as residents in his district in order to bring its population within Census requirements (and thus keep his job in existence).
To be sure, job security is important to everyone, and prison employees and state senators are no exception; but it is unconscionable when a community's economic and political health depends on the incarceration of its fellow citizens (even if most of them come from hundreds of miles away). Inevitably, criminal justice policies become intertwined with, if not driven by, factors unrelated to crime, safety, rehabilitation, deterrence, and punishment, which explains why the prison lobby continues putting its own interests over that of our greater society by advocating to keep prisons open, or build more of them, regardless of their necessity, and notwithstanding the fact that 70% of New York's inmates were convicted of a nonviolent offense, or without regard for the disproportionate devastation that incarceration policies have had on the downstate communities.
Now, after a failed drug war, a criminal justice system reeking of racism and classism, and an entire generation of young men and women directly and indirectly affected by our prison industrial complex, we need a new direction, and perhaps Governor Spitzer recognizes it.
In theory, prison-building would only be in response to an increased need to house violent offenders; it would never be to stimulate the economic growth of a community or to legitimize a voting district by increasing its population numbers; likewise, in theory, incarceration rates would simply depend on the number of dangerous law-breakers, but never be artificially inflated merely to fill empty cells with nonviolent citizens. Alas, theory and practice do not always go hand in hand.
Governor Spitzer's call for the downsizing of prisons is a small step towards bringing more intelligent criminal justice ideas into greater harmony with actual criminal justice policies.