The plunder of the American prison system

This is how mass incarceration became a profit vehicle

The numbers are in.
(Image credit: AP Photo/David Goldman)

Mass incarceration is expensive in America — as might be expected from a system that oversees a similar fraction of the population as the Soviet gulags. But how much does it cost? Until today, nobody had attempted to estimate the cost of every part of this system.

Enter the Prison Policy Initiative. A new paper by Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy makes the first systematic attempt to add up every part of the cost of mass incarceration. The total is eye-popping: $182 billion, every year.

As is well-understood at this point, mass incarceration was partly caused by racialized panic over the great crime wave during the second half of the 20th century. But this report details another cause — the political economy of incarceration. One major reason so many people are in prison is that the constitutional basis of the criminal justice system has been mostly abandoned in favor of self-interest.

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The Prison Policy Initiative's estimate is, of course, rather rough, as Wagner and Rabuy admit upfront. The reason is poor data. Sources on some factors are sketchy or out of date, as with food and utilities. Others, like the cost of the court system, do not break down the total into civil and criminal fractions, and so the authors were forced to guess based on other work. However, on the whole, the estimate is as good as can be done at this stage — and Wagner and Rabuy are careful to hedge on the side of caution, so it's almost certainly an underestimate if anything.

(As an aside, I should note that it is a moral atrocity that we don't have up-to-date data on these questions. The government ought to be maintaining and releasing such data on an annual basis.)

So how do the costs stack up?

The three largest categories are public corrections agencies ($80.7 billion), policing ($63.2 billion) and judicial and legal expenses ($29 billion). Within these categories we can identify sub-categories that serve private interests. There is the private prison industry (costs of $3.9 billion and profits of $374 million); and the cost of utilities ($1.7 billion), food ($2.1 billion), construction ($3.3 billion) and health care ($12.3 billion), which are typically contracted out these days.

Then outside these categories there is civil asset forfeiture ($4.5 billion) — in which police seize the property of those they arrest — and costs to families for commissary and phone calls ($2.9 billion). Finally, much of the money spent on police and corrections means public sector jobs and yet more business for private contractors, who operate much of the bail and probation services. This huge complex of institutions comprises a system dedicated mostly to its own self-preservation and profit.

On the other side of the ledger, there is only one sub-category of spending which is unequivocally dedicated towards due process for the accused: indigent defense — i.e. providing public defenders for the poor — which costs $4.5 billion.

Now, defense attorneys would no doubt also like to keep their jobs, and it's impossible to disentangle exactly how much of the first bundle of stuff is dedicated to constitutional due process and how much is purely private self-seeking. But the number of different mercenary outsourcing operations within the incarceration system, and the yawning abyss between defense and imprisonment, makes it clear where the bulk of it lies.

The on-the-ground reality of the situation also speaks for itself. Well over 90 percent of all criminal cases are settled by plea bargaining. Many if not most jurisdictions use the hell of pre-trial detention and the threat of gigantic sentences to coerce guilty pleas from most of the accused, because it is literally impossible for the system to provide meaningful due process in anything like an adequate volume.

Constitutional due process is a difficult thing to maintain, particularly when it comes to accused criminals. Racism and Americans' hysterical fear of crime undermine the empathy that a moral criminal justice system requires. But the profit motive also tends to dissolve moral considerations. Our system of mass incarceration needs a steady flow of prisoners to maintain itself, it doesn't particularly care how it gets them, and so they are obtained.

Abuse is as predictable as the sunrise.

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