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Closing prisons is no easy fix for budget woes

March 3rd, 2011 Comments off

Closing prisons is no easy fix for budget woes

Press & Sun-Bulletin – Binghamton, N.Y.
Viewpoints
February 7, 2011, A10

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to close adult prisons and youth facilities has
generated a lot of heat. Prison reformers have celebrated the prospect,
while politicians and correction officers’ unions have protested loudly.

As college professors who have taught in prisons, worked in small prison
towns, mentored youth and studied the sociology of this issue, we think the
current debates seem to ignore the essential fact that prisons have very
little to do with public safety and very much to do with powerful political
and economic interests that have pitted disadvantaged communities against
each other.
And therein lies the tragedy of today’s discussions, as those who vastly
expanded the criminal justice system now propose to reduce its financial
burden by abandoning those they have drawn into it: urban black and Latino
communities, primarily downstate, and predominantly white prison towns
upstate.

Numerous studies and mountains of data demonstrate that it is
counterproductive to send more kids to distant detention centers and to
create new laws that criminalize and then sentence non- violent adult
offenders, especially drug users, to mandatory and extraordinarily expensive
long-term prison sentences.

Most prisons in New York are located in upstate towns far from the cities
from which the majority of prisoners and detained youth come. This is a
legacy of Andrew Cuomo’s father, who built more prisons than any other
governor during the history of the state even as crime rates were low and
already decreasing.

The result was that in the 1990s, New York came to spend more on prisons
than higher education, and imprisoned more young black and Latino men every
year for drug offenses than received undergraduate, masters and doctoral
degrees from all SUNY campuses combined.

What this system created wasn’t just a financial disaster but a social and
political one. Behind the growth in prison beds was a vast new criminal
justice complex that reached from police and metal detectors in schools to a
new set of courts, judges, prosecutors and police on the streets of our
cities. While urban centers and schools were stripped of young black and
Latino men, upstate communities being abandoned by industrial firms were
promised jobs.

Our data here tell the story. In analyzing all rural prison building
nationwide, we find that the average prison town over that last 40 years has
actually experienced an increase in unemployment. However, the average town
that built a prison in New York between 1989-98 gained a 3 percent bump in
employment.

What Gov. Mario Cuomo delivered, his son now proposes to take away. We may
celebrate this; closing unneeded prisons and youth facilities is good public
policy. But what are small towns to do as scarce jobs disappear? And what
will urban communities do as troubled youth and uneducated men return?

Simply closing prisons is no solution to a much bigger crisis of the
criminal justice complex and the poor economic development prospects of
urban and rural communities. Like the closing of parts of the
military-industrial complex in the past, a large transition and job-creation
program is needed to address the closure of the prison-industrial complex.
Savings from decreased funding on prisons need to be spent on education,
treatment programs and support for new industries. To do less is to court
disaster.

Martin and Eason are professors at Binghamton University and Arizona State
University, respectively.

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