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Ordinary citizens can actively oppose prison construction or prison expansion where they live.

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Other Groups Opposing Prison Expansion:

Justice Works!

Californians United For A Responsible Budget

Massachusetts Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition

Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR)

The Ella Baker Center

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World's Leading Jailer The Drug War Fiscal Accountability Public Safety
Environment & Economy Public Health Prisons & Human Rights Race & Class
Imbalance of Power Political Power Prisons for Profit Militarism & Punitive Law

Alternatives to Prisons

How did the United States become the world's leading jailer?

In the midst of the prosperous 1980's the federal government enticed state and local governments to adopt 'tough on crime' policies. New policing tactics and sentencing schemes led to an increase of a million prisoners in less than a decade. Today there are over 7 million people in prison or some form of law enforcement control.

People living in areas of persistent, historical urban poverty were imprisoned at rates that rival no other era or country. The expansion of prisons was far-reaching, involving every state and the federal government. With almost no public scrutiny, millions of people were arrested and imprisoned.

Debt to Society, from Mother Jones Magazine

Prison Policy Initiative

The Sentencing Project

United States Sentencing Guidelines, An Experiment That Has Failed, from The American College of Trial Lawyers

Drug Offenders in Prison; from Drug War Facts

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Has the war on drugs caused the prison construction boom?

Get 'tough on drugs' slogans led to laws that weren't smart. These 20-plus-year-old laws are unconstitutional, and were largely written with little thought to future oversight and accountability. Fiscally, drug laws have drained resources away from social programs that were more effective than prisons.

The drug war intensified under The Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) of 1984 that gave law enforcement officials virtually unchecked power to enforce federal drug sentencing laws. New laws handed this power to the police and prosecutors, but Congress failed to formalize effective legal procedures for monitoring the new sentencing system. States adopted the same or portions of the federal experiment called 'sentencing reform.'

The November Coalition; Working to end drug war injustice

Drug War Facts, from Common Sense for Drug Policy (CSDP)

StopTheDrugWar:org; featuring The Drug War Chronicle, the "world's leading drug policy newsletter".

The Can-Do Foundation, advocates Clemency for All Non-violent Drug Offenders. Founded by former prisoner Amy Ralston.

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Long prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders are the single greatest multiplying factor behind the monumental increase of US prison populations in the last 20 years. The book Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics, the only scientific analysis of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) budget, proves a 30-year, steady increase in incarceration and its spiraling costs due to thoughtless and punitive drug war laws.

The US Sentencing Commission can't monitor and review over 90% of the hidden policing-process anchored in drug-targeted communities by snitching and informant systems. Police and prosecutors, who have traditionally worked hand in hand, nowadays have the power to charge and power to sentence, defying 'checks and balances' principles honored from our nation's foundation.

The power to punish -- power that can't be scrutinized -- leads defense attorneys to counsel defendants to plead guilty; the government wins about 97% of drug cases brought to trial. The role judges play at sentencing has been limited by legislators responding to a 'moral panic' driven by fear-mongering media and politicians, fueled by wealthy conservatives intent on more policing and imprisonment of lower class people.

These methods of sentencing are under new scrutiny in higher courts, but the prison industrial complexes continue growing because the drug war rages on.

Doesn't the 'tough on crime' approach save the tax payer money?

No. According to the Washington State Institute of Public Policy, in 1975 it cost an individual taxpayer $200 to cover his/her part of the criminal justice budget.

By year 2000, the annual cost had risen to $1,200, a six-fold increase, yet crime rates have remained about the same.

Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship: from The Sentencing Project

The Comparative Costs and Benefits of Programs to Reduce Crime; from The Washington State Institute for Public Policy (.pdf)

Tipping Point: Maryland's Overuse of Incarceration, and the Impact on Public Safety; from Justice Policy Institute (.pdf)

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More prisons should mean more peace of mind, right?

Crime rates are stable and similar to the rates of the 'get tough era,' so for all the increase in enforcement costs, most people are unaffected by reduced exposure to crime. Simply put, people have about the same chance of being victimized by crime that they did before there was a prison industrial complex that rivals no other in the world.

People are affected in other ways. Social services for elderly and families with children are cut when state and federal budgets bloat from failed criminal justice policies. Such waste can shorten your public library hours, or access to education and medical care.

The Comparative Costs and Benefits of Programs to Reduce Crime; from The Washington State Institute for Public Policy (.pdf)

New York State of Mind? Higher Education vs. Prison Funding 
in the Empire State
; from Justice Policy Institute (.pdf)

Borrowing Against the Future: The Impact of Prison Expansion on Arizona's Families, Schools and Communities; from AZ Advocacy Network (.pdf)

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Are prisons the clean, prosperous industries that prison proponents promise?

Prisons use a lot of water, often drawn from dwindling or endangered sources. There's waste water, too and a public authority must regulate the disposal or recycling of any toxic wastewater. The community pays for these environmental burdens caused by the unsustainable density of prisons.

Prisons employ a lot of people (at tremendous cost to taxpayers) and prison staff don't usually live or spend much money in the 'prison town.'

Researchers Find Prisons Offer Few Economic Benefits to Small Towns; from WA State University

Big Prisons, Small Towns: Prison Economics in Rural America; from The Open Society Institute (.pdf)

The Economic Impacts of Prison Boom on Rural Places; from Poverty in America (.pdf)

Overfilled Prisons Taint Rivers; from Real Cost of Prisons

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They commute by automobile from suburban sprawls where they live, shop and socialize. Increased road construction, traffic congestion and air pollution may become a new problem, or worsen existing air quality issues.

A new prison in your region also changes the way that people think about your town. Tourists aren't generally attracted to a correctional complex.

Prisons are closed, guarded, sad places. People who co-mingle and endure this controlled, depressing social environment are made physically, emotionally, and mentally worse by the experience.

Do prisons have an effect on public health?

Mental health issues aside, a new or expanding prison in your area will put extra burdens on local emergency and hospital services. Insurance-company restrictions on reimbursement inhibit local regions' ability to expand or improve local medical services, while sub-standard care can lead to costly litigation. Personal abuse and medical neglect flourish in prisons.

Communicable diseases can flourish in prisons, too. There are documented, high rates of preventable tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis infections discovered in many prison populations.

The Hidden Costs of a Cruel and Unusual Prison Health Care System; from BioEthics Forum

Arizona's Prisons Facing Public Health Crisis; from American Friends Service Committee

Hep B Rate High In Rhode Island Prisons, Study Shows; from Science Daily

World Health Organization in Prisons Project

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Local authorities should know and monitor the health of released prisoners, but it's a seldom-practiced, though routine, procedure. Adding to wider contagion possibilities, guards return home after their eight-hour shift inside prison.

If you are a person who agrees it's impossible to separate environmental sustainability from public health, we think you will oppose prison expansion.

How do prisons intersect with torture, abuse and global human rights?

Torture in Americas Brutal Prisons (4-Part TV Series); from UK Channel 4 (UK)

Not Part of My Sentence: Violations of the Human Rights of Women in Custody; from Amnesty International

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What relationship do prisons have with race and class distinctions?

Affluent communities don't build prisons in their back yards. Prisons, public and private are started and expanded into mostly impoverished rural areas.

Affluent people are more likely to avoid arrest, trial and imprisonment.

Race and Prison; from Drug War Facts

Thirty Years of Sentencing Reform: The Quest for a Racially Neutral Sentencing Process; from National Criminal Justice Reference Service

Fifteen Years of Guidelines Sentencing; from US Sentencing Commission

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Although only 8% of Washington State's population are African Americans, nearly 20% of our prison population is black. Nationwide, racial disparities are even more shameful. Federal prisons are 70% African American, but only represent 13% of the population.

As prisons expand in impoverished rural areas, they fill with the poor from urban cities -- historical and new regions of persistent poverty are further diminished.

How does prison expansion change community, state and federal policing?

Individuals and groups that make a lot of money on prison expansion are visible in the paper trail that leads to prison procurement. Along that way, harsh laws are created and enforced to fill them.

Like Prisons? You'll love Globalization; from Share the World's Resources

Prison Construction Boom Reaches 3 in 10 Counties; from The Urban Institute

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Changes in criminal laws almost always have an advocacy group pushing for them -- harsh laws and prison expansion being no different. Businesses, unions and professional associations that benefit financially from correction's industries also must keep lobbying to enact new, tough laws that will generate more public money for new or expanding prisons.

Public defenders have few advocates for the demanding task of defending people against abuses of law. Overall, public defense languishes for lack of funding because -- while there is money to be made in building, maintaining and servicing prisons -- there's not much profit to be made by paying someone to defend someone who can't defend him/herself.

The average criminal case receives about four hours of attention by a public defense professional. Our culture places little honor and value on defending lower class white and people of color and more reward to those who support the proliferation of bad law and prisons.

People whose jobs depend on punitive laws and prison expansion also become advocates for more policing, raising shrill voices against community oversight of prisons and policing, and work as endorsers of prison expansion on all levels of government. In modern history, only in recent years have reform trends been noted and monitored within the ranks of enforcement and lawmakers.

What other detrimental effects do prisons have on our democracy?

Census takers don't use an imprisoned person's home address; they use the prison address. Even though most prisoners can't vote, state and federal lawmakers count them as residents of their district when drawing legislative maps.

US prison expansion grows into mostly-white, rural regions, but these rural lockups soon fill with people of color from distant urban areas.

The New Landscape of Imprisonment: Mapping America's Prison Expansion; from The Urban Institute (.pdf)

Economic Impacts of Rural Prisons; from CO Criminal Justice Reform Coalition

Prisoners of the Census

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Political power shifts and democratic values are at risk when concentrations of people who cannot vote bring undeserved, extra power to political leaders who live in districts where prisons are sited.

Every dollar transferred to a 'prison town' is money that won't be spent in the incarcerated person's hometown.

When court dockets are consumed with punishing crime, civil cases go unheard. Our culture's progress has long been dependant on the courts. Historically we have used litigation to determine how civil our society should be. Opportunities for progressive change via the courts languish when justice and cherished legal principles are set aside.

Are private prisons a better value?

No, according to a General Accounting Office (GAO) review of studies comparing costs to build and operate public or private prisons. The GAO review found little evidence that significant savings have occurred; final costs to taxpayers are about the same. While it's true that private prisons may cost less to build, operational expenses may not be included in the final costs calculated by state or federal auditors.

Private And Public Prisons: Studies Comparing Operational Costs and/or Quality of Service; from US Gov't Accounting Office (.pdf)

Why Private Prisons Aren't a Good Buy; from The John Howard Society of Alberta

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High turnover rate, poorly trained guards, and medical emergencies drive up operational costs. Profit made by a private prison goes to a private corporation, not the state. Any push to increase profit means cutting corners, skimping on food, medicine and other basic needs.

Some states have reported that incidents of abuse in private prisons are about 28 percent higher than in state prisons. Prison riots, escapes, and assaults on staff are results of this grotesque addiction to profit making. Riot-suppression or manhunts are done by public law enforcement agencies, costing taxpayers even more, and causing some states to cancel private prison contracts and demand reimbursement for public funds used.

Are there connections to be made between the prison and military industrial complexes?

Yes, intricate and important connections abound. Many US state and federal prisons house factories that produce goods for government, particularly the armed forces.

Militarization of Drug Enforcement; from Drug War Facts

Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America; from The CATO Institute

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From desks and chairs, to aircraft parts, ammunition and helmets, a federal prison operating near you is likely involved with war production.

Whether state or federal, prison production plants do not compete for sales with private industry in the outside community. Exploitation of imprisoned labor may be legal under the 13th Amendment, but increasing use of US prisoner labor for war production, or private profit demands a closer review in light of historical policies of nations doing the same, notably Nazi Germany in the 1930s-40s.

Military veterans convert military experience to domestic policing and paramilitary policing tactics are common and growing throughout US enforcement agencies.

What are some alternatives to prison expansion?

Our country must address the root causes of poverty. Today we build prisons instead of schools. We pay guards more than we do our young children's teachers.

In Washington State, about half of the people imprisoned are mentally ill.

Alternatives to Incarceration in the State of Wisconsin; from University of Wisconsin at La Crosse (.pdf)

Drug Treatment; from Drug War Facts

Drug Courts; from Drug War Facts

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These imprisoned need compassionate mental health care in a hospital setting, or community outpatient support. We must stop criminalizing mental illness.

Another large category of imprisoned people is non-violent drug offenders. To get a given amount of illegal drug consumption reduction, treatment costs 25 cents to every dollar of law enforcement cost. We can afford to expand treatment, not prisons.

Many lawbreakers turn to crime because they're not educated, lack job skills, and have no employment experience. An alternative sentence could include meaningful community service that teaches marketable job skills. Education costs far less than paying for another stay in prison.

People returning home from prison need one: Access to citizenship, family, jobs, housing and food, not the present barriers that doom them to repeat their failures of the past should be restored to people after prison.

  • Instead Of Prisons: A Handbook For Abolitionists; from Prison Policy Initiative. Many prison reformists yearn for the end of imprisonment but find themselves confronted by questions which seem difficult to answer. This online Handbook (also avalable in hard copy) seeks to answer those questions. We perceive the abolition of prisons as a long range goal, which, like justice, is an ever continuing struggle.

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