Packed Prisons a Result of Misdirected Focus

Each inmate costs the state of Oklahoma approximately $16,322 per year. Comparatively, the state spends about $8,531 per year per student. The more education someone has, the less likely they will end up in the criminal justice system.

By Christopher Zoukis

What is the main objective of prison? To protect the public. How does the system do this? Well, it purports to punish offenders with incarceration while rehabilitating them to function in society. Does this system work? No.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin recently appointed a 21-member task force to tackle the increasingly desperate need for crime reform in the state. The task force came up with 27 points of reform, and proved that prisons are not reforming criminals, however they are prime places to educate petty criminals into criminal masterminds.

Non-violent offenders and non-violent drug users are tossed into the clink alongside gang leaders and murderers in an environment where most people need some form of protection to survive. Rather than focusing on scholastic education while incarcerated, there is a tendency for inmates to focus on surviving the day, which often means aligning oneself with hardened criminals that are all too happy to pass along their tricks of the trade. Rather than being a place of rehabilitation focusing on reforming inmates to live stand-up lives, the current prison system is often releasing older, smarter, stronger criminals.

This does nothing to protect the public.

To understand what went wrong, let’s take a look at the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

BOP facilities house 81% of total federal inmates (188,797). The dominant age group of BOP inmates is between 31-45. The main citizenship of the inmates is American at 78.3%. The overwhelming majority of prisoners, at 93.3%, are male. White prisoners account for 58.6% of the BOP population, and blacks make up 37.8%. About 20-25% are serving 5-15 years. The majority of the offenses, at about 46%, are drug related. Homicide, violent assault and kidnapping offenses trail far behind at just over three percent.

In 2016, 43,864 BOP prisoners were released. The current recidivism rate — the rate at which released offenders re-offend — is 34%.

According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse conducted in 1999, the highest rate of illegal drug use was seen in young male teens, and this is consistent with the data of those we see incarcerated today in BOP facilities. Those men in their 30s didn’t wake up one day, decide to smoke a joint, and then got caught. The majority have led lifestyles that lead to progressive drug use, which leads to criminal behavior, which progresses to charges, and then leads to longer stays in prison for increasingly dangerous offenses.

The study makes a valid point that should be underscoring the change needed across the entire American prison system: “Drug use rates have historically been highly correlated with educational status, and remain so. College graduates have the lowest rates of current drug use (4.8%).”

In other words, if you reduce dependency on drugs through access to education, you will dramatically reduce the number of people in prison.

Let’s go back to Oklahoma. Each inmate costs the state approximately $16,322 per year. Comparatively, Oklahoma spends about $8,531 per year per student, according to the National Education Association. The 27 task force recommendations, if adopted, would reduce the state’s prison population by 9,267, and save $1.9 billion. Recommendations are intended to focus prison spaces on serious, violent offenders and improve and enhance rehabilitation and re-entry practices. Without adopting the recommendations, and continuing on its present path, a press release states, Oklahoma’s prison population will rise by 25%, and require three more prisons to be built.

The American prison system is spending more money perpetuating and creating criminals in prison than the education system is spending on vulnerable, at-risk populations. This is education that could keep reduce the number of young offenders from entering the criminal justice system.

America needs to reassess who gets locked up and the reasons for being incarcerated. Currently, the largest population in prisons in the country are non-violent drug offenders. That an enormous number of youth that go into prison for drugs come out transformed into hardened criminals. If the criminal justice system were truly sticking to the objectives of punishment, protection and rehabilitation, there would be a far greater emphasis on accessible education consistently across facilities, a system that only locks up those that truly need to be behind bars for protection and rehabilitation, and the country could shift the money it saves on mass incarceration toward education, effecting a reduction in criminal behavior and reducing the strain on the penal system.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.