America's state prisons are good at storing bad guys. But with recidivism rates soaring and prisons operating well over capacity, the business of punishment has become a quick —and expensive—fix to a more complex issue. What is our criminal justice system trying to accomplish by locking all these people up?

If your familiarity with prisons extends no further than The Shawshank Redemption or references in your favorite Ice Cube tracks, you may think of them as merely holding pens for the violent or socially malevolent. Indeed, the cultural discussion surrounding prisons is more often about gangs, rape, and violence than it is about policy and management. The problem, however, is that all of this cultural noise obscures one simple fact: if you live in a large, well-populated state, prison policy is big business—and it's only going to get bigger.

According to the Bureau for Justice Statistics, prison growth has been about 3% over the last 10 years. Not surprising, the four most populous states—California, Texas, New York, and Florida—are the states with the most prisoners. As is often the case, California's plight reflects the problems faced by prison systems nationwide.

Why are there so many prisoners?

In "Understanding Corrections," a comprehensive new report released at the end of May, Joan Petersilia, Professor of Criminology, Law & Society at UC Irvine, argues that California, which has a lower crime rate than the national average, has a prison population that exceeds the national average for one simple reason: California has a large population. As Petersilia puts it, "California produces extraordinarily high numbers of prisoners simply by enforcing the law and locking up residents at a rate that is, by American standards, rather ordinary."

Consider the following: California, with a population of 35.9 million, currently has more than 168,000 people behind bars. While that may sound like a lot, Texas, which has a population of about 22.9 million, has roughly the same number of prisoners, 171,000. Thus, the rate of incarceration per 100,000 residents in each state, a figure widely used by criminologists to compare prison populations, is starkly different. Texas's rate is 694, California's is 456, and the national average is 432.

A time for reform?

Roderick Hickman, the former Secretary of Corrections for California, believes that sentencing rates are partly to blame for the growing numbers of prisoners, however. "Part of it is our penalties for incarceration of substance abusers," he argues. "The other part is that we don't have adequate community support programs for mental illness. Our prison system is the alternative to not having a robust mental illness program in the country."

The exploding cost of incarceration

Mental illness programs are often cut due to cost, but the prison system continues to draw dollars from the public coffers, especially in California. Although Texas and California have roughly the same number of prisoners, California spent $8 billion on corrections this year, more than three times the amount of Texas's expenditure. "The issue is one of sustainability," says Hickman. Until his resignation in February, Hickman was the official appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger to manage that $8 billion. "At its current capacity," Hickman says, "the system will cost $8.4 billion, $8.6 billion, $9 billion, and eventually $10 billion, and our kids are going to be paying for our incarceration policies."

At an average cost of $30,929 per inmate per year, California does not spend the most money per inmate (a distinction held by Massachusetts), but it does spend well above the national average of $23,397. Why does it cost so much to run California's Department of Corrections? "The majority of the costs are staffing costs," Hickman argues. Indeed, California employs the highest paid prison guards in the country. Petersilia confirms that staff salaries and benefits account for 70% of California's corrections budget. These salaries and benefits are part of the overall success of the prison guards' union, the CCPOA, one of the most controversial public entities in the state. But this doesn't tell the whole story. Granted, the prison guards are the highest paid, but California's guard-to-inmate ratio is one of the lowest, and with California prisons currently operating at 195% capacity, many of our prisons are woefully understaffed.

Analysts who blame the CCPOA for the high cost of running the correctional system often neglect the understaffing issue, which leads to another cost in itself: overtime pay. Since our over-capacity prisons never close, they require many hours of employee overtime, and that bill gets expensive.

Problems beyond expense

Focusing on staffing costs doesn't tell the whole story, however. As California Senate majority leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) points out, "There are a number of reasons for the cost. One of them is that California has been sued over and over and over." One such lawsuit targeted the health care system in California prisons. "Health care costs $1 billion in the adult correctional system, and yet some months ago it was taken over in a federal receivership because it was a failure and the number of preventable deaths in the inmates was too high," Romero states.

Costly programs that many consider failures abound. "Parole is a $1 billion cost," argues Romero. California's current system of parole has been described as a "catch-and-release" system, sending inmates into the streets and then back to prison, a system blamed for contributing to the recidivism rate, which is especially high.

Are we accomplishing our goals?

With costs rocketing skyward, many wish to reassess exactly what we're trying to accomplish with our prisons. Most people agree that ideally, incarceration should serve to remove offenders from the streets, punish them for their transgressions and rehabilitate them for eventual reentry into the community. Unfortunately, the system's efficacy in these areas is highly debatable.

In a typical study conducted by the CDCR, for the 52,185 felons first paroled in 2002, 21,072 would return within a year. That's a full 40%. Two years later, the total returned rises to 27,569, and three years later, 29,872. Thus, out of the 52,185 felons first paroled in 2002, 57% would return to prison within only three years, and this, by all accounts, is a conservative estimate; some figures put the number much higher. "Only 21% of California parolees successfully complete parole—half the national average—and two out of three inmates returning to prison are parolees," Petersilia states her report."

Certainly a contributing factor to the recidivism rate is the lack of opportunities offered to inmates and former inmates. "The men and women who move through the state's jails, prisons, parole, and probation systems have, on average, a seventh-grade reading level, and only about half has been employed before entering the correctional system. Among prisoners, 80% have substance abuse problems," Petersilia argues. Thus, if prison is not going to offer skills to inmates, those inmates "are certain to have fewer options for eventually returning to non-criminal lifestyles."

Most would agree that reform is necessary, but what form would it take? After Schwarzenegger installed him as head of the Department of Corrections, Hickman added "Rehabilitation" to the Department's name. But even with the name change, the CDCR appears to be doing little more than temporarily removing criminals from society. Romero agrees. "I think part of the problem with Secretary Hickman is that we didn't see a lot of rehabilitation," she says. "We saw a lot of ideas and a lot of reports, but nothing that was a real plan. It's clear that simply locking people up and warehousing individuals is not really promoting a great deal of public or fiscal safety. The vast majority of inmates will parole out. The question is in what condition do you want a parolee to come into your neighborhood?"

The road ahead

Hickman's office studied other states' correctional systems, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York in its search for effective rehab programs. The Ohio program is particularly notable for the attention it gives to "criminogenic behavior" as well as to employment re-entry programs. Ohio prisons have programs where inmates raise and train dogs for the visually or hearing impaired or the disabled, as well as programs where inmates train abused or abandoned dogs for the humane societies.

Will these programs reduce criminogenic behavior and decrease recidivism? The Ohio Department of Corrections certainly seems to think so, touting their progress in a yearly report titled "The Ohio Plan for Productive Offender Reentry and Recidivism Reduction."

Still, the environment for prison reform in California appears politically crippled. In a publicly criticized move, Schwarzenegger recently proposed building two new prisons. "We're not going to build our way out of this population crisis," Romero argues. "It's not rocket science; we know what works, so let's not talk about it anymore."

But as long as the U.S. prison population continues to expand and criminals keep passing through the revolving door, policymakers will continue to talk about it. If the tenor of the current debate is any indication, the problem would be best served by asking what most of these inmates are doing here in the first place. The obvious answer, "hey man, they committed a crime," begs the question rather than answering it.


About Erik Aker

Erik Aker is a professor of humanities and freelance writer from San Diego, California.