September 6, 2009
Interesting review of closing penitentiaries due to the prison economy
This weekend's Wall Street Journal includes this effective piece headlined "Lights Out at the Penitentiary: Strapped States are Shutting Prisons, But Moving 1,100 Inmates -- Beds and All -- Is a Trial." Here is how it gets started:
Jeffrey Woods, warden of the Hiawatha Correctional Facility here at the eastern end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, was vacationing on Lake Huron when his cellphone rang on July 1. The message from his boss: Hiawatha, which had been slated to shut down in October as part of a sweeping downsizing of the state's prison system, would now have to close by Aug. 7. That meant he had just five weeks to ship out 1,100 inmates and 207 staff.
"I stopped sleeping" after that, says Mr. Woods, who kept a to-do list by his bed and wrote down new tasks when he was jolted awake in the middle of the night. The scramble to empty Hiawatha prison is part of a rapid shift in thinking about how many people should be locked up in the U.S., and for what crimes.
For three decades, state and local governments built and filled jails to make good on promises to get tough on crime. Now, the recession and collapsing budgets are forcing an about face.
Prisons are one of the biggest single line items in many state budgets, in part because nearly five times as many people are now behind bars as in the 1970s. From California to New York, officials are now closing penitentiaries and releasing inmates early. At least 26 states have cut corrections spending in fiscal year 2010, and at least 17 are closing prisons or reducing their inmate populations, according to the Vera Institute on Justice, a criminal-justice reform organization in New York.
The problem is especially acute in Michigan. Inmates here on average serve 127% of their court-ordered minimum sentences, well beyond the sentences of inmates in other states that offer parole, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center. The state last year spent $2 billion on prisons, and one third of all state employees work for the department of corrections, which is among the highest percentage in the nation. With the collapse of the auto industry, the pressure to pare these costs is high.
September 6, 2009 at 12:30 PM | Permalink
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