America, Prison Capital of the World
How the Prisons Hold Us Captive
by Stephen Cox
After years of deficit financing, my state, California, is currently hurtling toward bankruptcy, the revenue from its savage personal income tax having been consumed, and over-consumed, by government employees’ salaries and benefits. Yet in the midst of the budget turmoil, Governor Jerry Brown has just negotiated yet another Rolls Royce contract with one of the biggest beneficiaries of state government, the prison guards’ union.
The deal was so friendly that even the state’s mainstream media began to criticize it. In response, Brown went into Scarlett O’Hara mode, swearing, “As God is my witness, I did the best I could.” Then he demanded of his critics, “Why don’t they go into prison and have people throw feces at them?” – an allusion to the plight of prison guards in institutions that are out of control.
I’ll return to the governor’s pungent comment. But first, I’d like to mention a few facts about American prisons. I’ll start with California. The California prison system, euphemistically known as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, employs more people than any other state agency. It has 69,000 authorized positions. Between 1998 and 2009, its budget almost tripled, reaching $10.3 billion dollars in the latter year – despite the fact that the number of people in prison had increased by only 9% during the period. (I’m using the Department’s own figures here.) As of 2009, the average cost of maintaining an inmate in this system was more than $49,000, of which about a third was spent on healthcare. That is more than twice what my own excellent healthcare insurance costs me and my employer, the University of California, despite the fact that I, unlike 85% of the inmates in California prisons, am over 50 years old and therefore have higher real healthcare costs than the average California inmate.