The High Cost of Making the Bad Guy Pay
By Tom Gomez
Until 2004, Colorado State prisoners were paid $2 a day for our labor, roughly $40 a month. Since that time the Colorado State Legislature, in an attempt to reduce the cost of incarceration while it enacted more laws to lock up more people, for more time, reduced the amount paid to prisoners to $0.62 a day, roughly $13 a month. While the change has made prison conditions harsher, it has done nothing to reduce the spiraling cost of incarceration in Colorado. Despite the change the Department of Corrections budget has grown every year since. Colorado now spends more on prisons than it does on higher education, and there is no end in sight. Last year the DOC population grew by another 2% despite a falling crime rate. At a cost of $30,000 a year for each prisoner it houses DOC is not likely to be able to significantly reduce, or even offset, the high cost of incarceration by such methods as raising the cost of phone time or cutting back on food. Instead state university students and their parents will pay the bill, by absorbing another 9% increase in tuition next year. It will be paid by cuts in services to seniors, by public education, and by the improvised children of the men and women doing time here.
State legislatures across the country have built prisons while cutting funding for education and public health for 30 years now. In the name of cutting the cost of ‘big government’ and getting ‘tough on crime’ they have made prisons harsher, more crowded and dangerous, but not cheaper. Led by ‘tough prosecutors’ who view not only crime, but poverty itself as a moral failing they have given us a nation of tent cities that stretch from sea to shining sea bursting with the nation’s three-million homeless people, and interstates from coast to coast dotted with razor ribbon and guard towers. In many American cities more than half of all public school students will not graduate high school.
Nations like Finland have provided their citizens with living wage jobs, universal healthcare, free college tuition, guaranteed housing for their people, provided unemployment benefits for up to two-years at 80% of the persons last wage, and have enjoyed decades of peace since WWII. By contrast the US is less than 5% of the world population, yet accounts for 25% of the world’s prisoners. Our national government has been at war somewhere every year since WWII, in what Gore Vidal eloquently described as “an endless war for lasting peace.” The same legislators that cut education funds, oppose single payer healthcare and subsidized housing have no problems finding tens of billions of dollars for corporate bonuses at failed banks and insurance companies. They have had no difficulties finding $130 billion for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have no money to fight poverty, but they have $60 billion to imprison the nations poor.
Two dollars a day wasn’t much to pay a person for a full days labor. Prisoners of course staff the prison laundry, kitchen, farm, as well as perform maintenance on the buildings and grounds. Prisoners here in Colorado also perform a lot of jobs in the surrounding communities for local governments that are hard, dirty, and would otherwise be subject to bids by local contractors. By getting rid of the two-dollar-a-day it once paid to prisoners, DOC has in effect shifted the burden of the prisoners’ upkeep to their families. At the same time law makers talked about ‘the breakdown of the family.’ The added burden of providing for an imprisoned family member was imposed upon families who were often as desperately poor as the offenders themselves. The change did nothing to check the growth of DOC’s budget. What it did do was to shift the cost calling young children, or ageing parents, onto people often themselves living in poverty on fixed incomes (a 20 minute phone call from a state prison can cost up to $30). Added to that the legislature deducts 20% from all money families send for the upkeep of their loved ones for such things as restitution, an additional 20% deduction for child support, and another 20% for catastrophic medical expenses that require hospitalization (like getting stabbed). All of these fees are also deducted from the $13 a month prisoners are ostensibly allocated for their labor.
The impact of all these changes has been to weaken prisoners’ ties to the community. By burdening families struggling to survive themselves with artificially high phone charges, as well as the cost of an offenders restitution, medical care, and child support the legislature forces families to chose between an imprisoned relative’s needs and meeting their own basic needs.
It has been equally hard on those of us who have no families. Before a prisoner could earn enough money to come out of prison with a few hundred dollars to rent a room, in some cases even enough money for a vehicle. Now working or not, a prisoner receives only $100 when paroled, and nothing at all if released on a parole violation. As a result, according to the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition’s report “Homelessness and Parole,” 25% of the 10,000 people released from DOC each year will leave prison homeless. While it was notable to establish if such prisoners face a higher rate of parole revocations than the 70% revocation rate for prisoners as a whole, the CCJRC report did note that prisoners paroled homeless face “enormous challenges upon release,” and concluded that paroling homeless “is a barrier to successful re-entry and should be avoided.” The report further noted that 73% of parole revocations, 3353 people, were returned to prison on technical violations of their conditions of release, such as failure to maintain stable housing. While the CCJRC report notes that changes in policies and practices that would reduce recidivism can provide the state with significant cost savings “it [the state] fails to address what polices and practices have led to the rise in the number of homeless ex-convicts to begin with.”
The fact is that everyone in Colorado has paid the price of the legislatures attempts to make the bad guy pay by trying to balance the budget on the backs of the state’s poorest people.
Convict writer Tom Gomez is serving 4 years in prison for the commercial burglary of a pharmacy in Telluride, CO. Tom needs your help to keep publishing on Indymedia. If you can help by typing up and posting some of his articles, or if you would like to correspond with him, he can be reached at:
Unit CH 1/Tier B/Cell 16
Sterling, CO 80751
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