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From Alcatraz to SuperMax

Welcome to the first of many columns by Kathy Hare.Kathy has a vast array of experiences in community activism. As a member of the Falcon Property Owners, a citizen’s activist group, she held organizational meetings with Falcon homeowners and made presentations to the board of county commissioners on growth issues. Kathy also served on the committee that created the Falcon/Peyton Plan, and, as a member of the Falcon Auxiliary, she helped raise funds for the construction of the Falcon Fire Department Station 1. Kathy served as president of the PTO (PTA) and four years as a Girl Scout leader. She’s lived in Falcon since 1980. Kathy is a prolific and thought-provoking writer.Alcatraz Island was operated as a federal prison from 1934 until 1963. Now, over a million tourists a year are drawn to the island.In a dictatorship anyone can be incarcerated at the whim of the dictator. In a free society, where people have access to legal counsel and equal treatment under the law, incarceration rates are usually low, but that is not true in the United States.Today, our government incarcerates more people than any other nation. According to a June 1, 2003 article in the Baltimore Sun, “United States imprisonment rates surpassed even Russia with a ratio of 702 prisoners per 100,000 population.”U.S. Census Bureau statistics show the number of adults in the criminal justice system has grown steadily over the past decade, from 4.3 million in 1993 to 6.9 million in 2003. That number includes all those on probation or in local, state and federal correction facilities.El Paso County’s detention rates have also increased dramatically in the past 10 years, from 838 inmates in 1996 to 1439 in 2006. In 2005, a three-story tower was added to the county’s criminal justice center increasing inmate capacity to 1,599. Plans are on the drawing board for a 485-bed maximum security tower costing $35 million, but no funding is currently available for that facility.A closer look at the justice system, from Alcatraz to SuperMax, shows this country’s ever climbing incarceration rates may have less to do with justice and more to do with the “prison business” that has developed in our nation as a result of the war on drugs.Today, 20,000 federal prisoners are incarcerated at 57 SuperMax correctional facilities spread throughout the country. Inmates in these facilities are isolated in single cells for 23 hours a day, with little or no access to rehabilitation programs.In the June issue of “Justice Quarterly,” Daniel Mears and Jamie Watson said the SuperMax complexes are an integral part of the prison business, which has blossomed under a “get tough on crime” political climate, with little regard for constitutional rights or the need to rehabilitate inmates.The most famous SuperMax prison is located in Florence, Colo. There are nasty people living there: at least one mob boss, the Unabomber and the shoe bomber, for example.However, some say we need to scrutinize the criteria for placing prisoners in SuperMax facilities.The majority of inmates in those penitentiaries are neither terrorists nor prisoners facing life sentences. The prisons are easier to run, they said, because inmates have little contact with other prisoners. But releasing inmates into society after a number of years in isolation without any programs to address the mental or behavioral patterns that caused them to become incarcerated in the first place may be a waste of tax dollars.Take the war on drugs.The war on drugs began in 1969 during the Nixon administration when the president characterized the abuse of illicit substances as public enemy No. 1. The Controlled Substance Act passed in 1970 gave the Drug Enforcement Agency power to enforce laws against the import, sale and use of controlled substances. In 1980, over 40,000 Americans were locked up solely for drug offenses; by 2003 that number reached 450,000.Three-fourths of those incarcerated were black or Hispanic, even though whites use drugs as often as any other racial group.While 450,000 is low given the total prison population, when you factor in crimes committed to gain money for drugs, increasing incarceration rates are inevitable.Somewhere in the 90s, I believe, it became politically correct to impose mandatory sentences on offenders. Politicians gained a lot of ground with their constituents in 30-second sound bites touting “tough on crime” messages. Punishment became the major reason for imprisonment, with less emphasis on programs that might decrease repeat offenses.And the economy gained as well as more prison systems created more jobs. In a 2002 paper entitled “Profit and Stealth in the Prison-Industrial Complex,” Alexander Pitofsky said residents protested when state officials announced plans to build prisons in their communities. Now, the prisons are welcomed because of the jobs they create. “The incarceration of convicts once perceived as a grim governmental responsibility has become a thriving, recession-proof industry. Prison officials have shifted their priorities from inmate rehabilitation programs to budgetary concerns; instead of focusing on the prevention of recidivism, they focus on the reduction in average daily inmate costs,” Pitofsky writes.’In El Paso County alone, the criminal justice system employees over 350 people, according to the El Paso County Web site.But is that a good reason to support mandatory sentencing, especially as it relates to the war on drugs?Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie-Mellon University, testified before a U.S. Sentencing Commission in February 2002: “Mandatory sentences make no sense, especially when dealing with drug offenses, and only adds to the overcrowding in the prison system.” Unlike murderers or rapists, he said, when you take drug dealers off the street, they are replaced the next day by more dealers. The cycle will continue so long as selling drugs is economically profitable.Blumstein also pointed out that, although drug usage is prevalent throughout all races, blacks and Hispanics are incarcerated more often for drug use than whites. Census data backs up his statement. Blacks are imprisoned at a rate eight times higher than whites. In 2000, 3.5 percent of black men were in prison.That brings us to the “equality under the law” issue. No doubt, when Buffy at the University of Colorado is caught holding drugs, she has access to an attorney who will fight to keep her out of the system. A black male from Denver caught with the same type and amount of drugs may not be able to afford legal counsel, limiting his chances of avoiding imprisonment.If social injustice isn’t a major concern for some, the financial burden of our criminal justice system should be. Marc Mauer, author of “Race to Incarcerate” reports, “In fiscal 2003 Federal, State, and local governments spent over $185 billion for police protection, corrections and judicial and legal activities, a 10 percent increase over 2001. Per capita expenditure across the three government types and criminal justice functions was approximately $640.” That’s $2,560 a year for a family of four!The price of incarcerating people will continue to climb until this country seeks a better solution. The “war on drugs” has been as ineffective as the prohibition of alcohol in the 1930s. Mauer recommends alternative punishments that include “restitution to victims, community service and programs of drug treatment, employment training and education.”Those alternatives improve lives and may be a better solution to the billions of tax dollars now being used to jail our citizens. Socially, morally and financially our current justice system is not working.

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