An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse
An Essay on Prison Reform from an Insider’s Perspective
The United States has more people locked away in prison per capita than any other country. Prison building is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and in some states more money is spent on prisons and prisoners than on education. Nearly one quarter of all prison inmates worldwide are housed in U.S. jails or penitentiaries, even though the United States has only five percent of the world’s population. Yet, in spite of the vast amount of resources spent on locking people up and the number of people in prison, the United States leads the developed world in the number of homicides and violent assaults.
For the last eighteen years, Jens Soering has experienced the inside of many different prison environments, from a youth remand center in London to America’s notorious Supermax prisons, to medium-security institutions. What he has seen and experienced has convinced him that not only do prisons not rehabilitate prisoners who may be useful for society once their sentence has ended, but prisons turn petty criminals into hardened convicts—all at enormous expense to society. Meanwhile, other nations control their crime rates at a fraction of the cost of the United States correctional system.
Soering does not argue that prisons should not exist or dispute that there are people who need to be locked away. His book is not an indictment of the legal system that lands many people in prison. Instead, An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse
offers a mainly monetary analysis of why it is absurd fiscal policy to lock people up so often and for so long.
Reviewed by Jean Franklin
Criminal justice, too easily ignored in our society, is addressed in this book by one who has spent the last 18 years behind bars. He demonstrates, poignantly, that the majority of prisoners are either racial minorities, of limited mental ability, or mentally ill. Many would not be dangerous to others if released. Soering also points out just how much money is spent on incarceration, with little positive result.
Reviewed by Stephen Healy and Peter Wagner, October 2005
When Virginia lifer Jens Soering released his second book, An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse: An Essay on Prison Reform from an Insider's Perspective he fired warning shots across the bow of the prison industrial complex. An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse is the best short, readable, fact-driven summation of why prisons don't work, but what makes the book so powerful is that it is written by a conservative Christian addressed to other fiscal conservatives.
Fiscal conservatives define "good government" as "small government", so by using a simple cost-benefit analysis, Soering shows that locking up 2 million people fails to justify the $57 billion cost. While progressives may oppose the current criminal and penal systems for social and ethical reasons, Soering's arguements have the potential to split the Republican party's fiscally conservative base from its "get tough on crime" leadership.
Using fresh analysis and ground breaking arguments to bring sometimes dry statistics to life, Soering's book is organized around six myth-busting chapters:
Soering, a German citizen serving two life terms, brings a unique perspective that allows him to challenge common ideologically derived assumptions from both the right and the left. Soering places the US prison in an international context to show precisely how US prison policy fails us. While all modern societies have a "crime" problem, the United States stands virtually alone in relying solely on expanding its punitive incarceration system to address the problem. Soering explains that the prison population has grown not because of a growth in crime, but because of a complete systemic failure to prevent people already in the system from re-offending. The majority of prisoners who are released either fail to successfully complete parole or are shortly returned to prison after committing a new crime. Judged by any standard used in the marketplace, "corrections" is an abysmal failure.
- There is no problem
- They may be expensive, but at least prisons prevent crime
- Crime prevention does not work
- Rehabilitation behind bars does not work
- There are no alternatives to prison, and
- Criminal justice issues are so important that no one would dare mislead the public about them
One good conservative solution? Fiscal incentives.
Reducing poverty has proven results in reducing crime, becuase people with something to lose are less likely to commit a crime. But reducing poverty has been anathema to neo-conservatives like Bush. "The poor do not deserve it, and we cannot afford it anyway," they say. But from a fiscal conservative perspective, it makes good economic sense to end poverty. After all, the poverty line in the U.S. for a family of three is $13.22 a day per person. That's supposed to pay for everything. By contrast, incarceration costs on average, $55.18 a day. Soering asks whether reducing poverty would be cheaper and more effective at reducing crime. And of course, in some places the incarceration costs far more than the average. In the Fairfax County Virgina, jail, incarceration costs $130.00 a day. That's quite a decadent expenditure by soicety, particularly considering that a night's stay in a Walt Disney World no-frills resort can be had for only $119.33.
In an age where conventional "liberals" have adopted the neo-liberal "welfare reform" program, it is ironic that one of the clearest defenders of the social safety net is a writer with an ideological tie to the people who opposed Johnson's War on Poverty. But as Soering points out, spending on education and other social services for the poor—not masss incarceration—is more in line with fiscally conservative social principles because social services do lower criminality and its associated costs. This is simply that the stitch in time saves nine.
Beyond the title, drawn from that of a white paper issued in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher's conservative English government, the book contains very little moralizing about "bad" people. That title will no doubt make some progressives wince, but it's also a reflection of the genius of the book. It's a fact of reality that coservatives believe some people are "good" and some are "bad." While progressives might not agree with the fiscally conservatives about why crime exists, we can certainly agree that the $57 billion a year spent on corrections isn't improving public safety.
This isn't a radical book that questions how we define crime or one that imagines a new world were prisons don't exist. Instead, the book uses a highly effective indictment of the prison industrial complex as a massive failed experiment whose time has come and gone.
Smart capitalists everywhere should read this book and cut their losses.