Prison overcrowding is one of the most serious problems we face here in Texas and is also causes problems in almost every other state. It is a drain on our resources and a threat to our safety. Overcrowding leads to greater violence, more escapes, more drug use, more disease and more expense. Practical solutions to the problem are right in front of us, but our legislators are too cowardly or too corrupt to take action.
As they are today our prisons just suck money away from the taxpayer, do little to rehabilitate, and often put that money into the pockets of corrupt politicians and their cronies. A few of years ago when I ran for State Representative I was up against one of the most corrupt figures in the outrageous prison situation here in Texas. This representative was directly involved in commercial prison management and lobbying for the prison industry at the same time she was serving in the legislature. Between legislative sessions she was employed by a company which was hired by the state to run prisons for profit, a situation where she benefited directly from making sure that more people were in prison and more tax dollars were being spent on them while nothing was being done to improve the situation at all.
The purpose of prisons is to protect the public from dangerous criminals and ideally to make some efforts to see that those criminals don’t commit further crimes in the future. Right now the system does a poor job with the first and makes no real effort to achieve the second objective. No one seems very interested in remedying this situation. It’s hard to believe so little has been done in recent years while the problems have become worse and worse. It ought to be pretty simple to make sure that violent criminals stay behind bars, reduce costs to the public for keeping them there, and to lower the overall prison population and eliminate overcrowding and the need to build more prisons.
The first step to cleaning up the prison problem is to stop imprisoning non-violent offenders. Even if we don’t have the legislative good sense to legalize relatively harmless drugs like Marijuana, there is no justification for jailing drug users or other non-violent lawbreakers. Rehabilitation, community service or simple fines for drug related crimes are a much simpler and less expensive solutions. The same applies to other non-violent crimes which can be dealt with through alternative sentencing without sending anyone to jail. Releasing rapists and armed robbers early to reduce overcrowding while people whose only crime is recreational drug use are being taken away from their jobs and families and thrown in prison is an outrage against logic and decency.
The next step is to make prisons pay for themselves. Inmates should be put to work, either in the prison, or under the right conditions, hired out to businesses which need manual labor. Yes, it’s the old idea of the chain-gang, but it was an idea which worked and should never have been abandoned. The money paid for prison labor should go to cover the cost of housing and feeding the prisoner and to victim compensation, either directly to the victims of that inmate, or to a general victims compensation fund. This has worked in other states and would work in Texas just as well. And before you complain about taking away peoples rights and liberty, check the 13th Amendment where it says “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” – work as part of punishment is not unconstitutional.
These two changes would reduce overcrowding while keeping violent criminals behind bars. They would make new prisons unnecessary, massively reduce the cost of the prison system, keep families together and workers in their jobs, and make Texas a better, safer place to live. It seems obvious, but there’s a lot of money in the prison industry and that gives influence and political power. When punishment produces profits then prisons become a growth industry, as legislators and law enforcement look for ways to put people in prison rather than realizing that society benefits more from keeping them out.