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High-cost failure

Our nation's 'prison industrial complex' has unbiblical roots

High-cost failure

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

Driving up through the Adirondacks of North Country, New York, three years ago to the Clinton County Correctional Facility for a visit, I had no idea of the story that lay behind the town tucked in a scenic stretch between Lake George and the Canadian border.

I begin, arbitrarily, in 1973 with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's hopeful eye on the White House. How better to woo back Republican affections, after his liberal flirtations, than to propose the toughest drug laws and prison sentences in the country? He left his successor Mario Cuomo the fun of handling a burgeoning inmate population and riots at Sing Sing.

Cuomo, finding New Yorkers unwilling to pony up for more cell blocks, imaginatively exploited the Urban Development Corporation, a state agency created in the emotion of Martin Luther King's funeral, to build housing for the poor. By Cuomo's exit in 1995, the number of New Yorkers behind bars metastasized fivefold. It was embarrassing.

State Sen. Stafford, upstate, saw opportunity where Cuomo saw crisis. Soon towns in his district were competing for the privilege-and state dollars-of prison construction in their backyards. It was only the beginning. Eleven years ago Eric Schlosser noted, in an article in The Atlantic Monthly, "What was once a niche business for a handful of companies has become a multibillion-dollar industry with its own trade shows and conventions, its own Web sites, mail order catalogues, and direct marketing campaigns."

He continued: "The prison industrial complex now includes some of the nation's largest architecture and construction firms, Wall Street investment banks that handle prison bond issues and invest in private prisons, plumbing supply companies, food service companies, health care companies, companies that sell everything from bullet-resistant security cameras to padded cells available in a vast color selection. A directory called the Corrections Yellow Pages lists more than a thousand vendors."

Think of a brain cancer, in which the spontaneous growth of new blood vessels (angiogenesis) knits healthy tissue inextricably to malignant matter, rendering the situation inoperable.

Fast-forward to 2009, with a Lansing State Journal editorial stating, "Michigan is the Midwest's king of incarceration. The state has about 50,000 prisoners and another 70,000-plus on parole or probation. . . . [T]he state has opened 35 prisons since 1985 alone. . . . The Department of Corrections employs more than 17,000 people, or about one in every three on the state payroll. . . . DOC consumes between $1.9 billion and $2 billion a year from the state's general fund. This burden has long hampered the state's ability to ramp up key investments. . . . Michigan is imprisoning its future with the DOC."

Woody Allen tells a joke about two women in a restaurant. One complains, "This food is terrible!" The other chimes in, "Yeah, and such small portions!" It might be worth trying to fiddle with the more piddling problems of prison (onerous tax burden, sadistic abuses of inmates, counter-productiveness to rehabilitation, predatory phone company contracts) if the concept of prisons were basically biblical. But Westminster Seminary professor Vern Poythress says, "I do not believe that any reform could be adequate, because the system is wrongheaded from the beginning."

In The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, Poythress commends drawing wisdom from Old Testament models of handling crime. For example, the thief should work to restore what he unlawfully took from someone: "This process far exceeds in wisdom the present criminal system, which bottles thieves up in prison in a situation of frustration. . . . Generally speaking, the state should take a hand in actual punishment only when the offender and victim are unable to negotiate a suitable solution more privately."

Poythress doesn't buy the mantra that crime is an "offense against society." "Crime is an offense against the victim. It is a much more personal thing than this reasoning admits. . . . Moreover, the fact of crime within prisons suggests that the real desires of society may be less lofty than its altruistic rhetoric. . . . The outside society is not really concerned with true deterrence but with its own comfort."

Footnote from Schlosser's article: "A Prudential Securities report on private prisons described some of the potential risks for the industry: a falling crime rate, shorter prison sentences, a move toward alternative sentences, and changes in the nation's drug laws."

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