'Pay to stay' prisons won't solve our incarceration dilemma

By Scott Alessi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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If you end up spending a night in the slammer in Riverside, California, be prepared to cough up some cash for your stay. All the lovely amenities of your cold cell in the county jail will get you a bill for $142.42, to be exact.

According to a story in the New York Times, Riverside County is implementing a new plan to offset the massive expense of housing more and more inmates in county jail, often prisoners who are being rerouted from the already overflowing state prisons. Riverside is not alone--prisons and jails around the country are filled to capacity and struggling to find ways to cover the cost.

The latest numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics report that more than 1.6 million people were in state or federal prisons at the end of 2009, with another 760,000-plus in local jails. Add to those the number of Americans on probation or parole and the number reaches an astonishing 7.2 million people.

There's no doubt that having so many people behind bars is going to be costly, but is charging the inmate themselves the way to cover the expense? Riverside officials seem to think so, even though they realize not everyone who goes to jail has the money. That's OK, though, because as the Times reports, the county can also garner your wages or place a lien on your house in exchange for your time in jail.

Perhaps they hope the added cost will act as a deterrent to crime, but it seems doubtful that an individual who might commit a crime would really do a cost-benefit analysis on the situation first. Instead, this is more likely to place a burden on released prisoners, which can only further fuel the high rates of recidivism that are causing the crowded prison problem in the first place.

It is clear that we need to start searching for alternative solutions, but I don't think shifting the cost of incarceration to the prisoners will do the trick. Instead, we should be looking toward programs like Wisconsin's "Treatment Instead of Prison" initiative, where non-violent, first-time offenders who are arrested on drug violations--a large percentage of the prison population--are placed in treatment programs rather than sending them to jail. Not only does this help prevent these individuals from becoming repeat offenders, but it is a significant cost-cutting measure; the treatment option runs $6,100 per person, compared to an average cost of $28,622 for a one-year stay in prison.

But beyond the cost question, we as Catholics should have another concern: Is our treatment of prisoners showing a concern for their inherent human dignity? The U.S. bishops wrote in their document "Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration," that "our society seems to prefer punishment to rehabilitation and retribution to restoration, thereby indicating a failure to recognize prisoners as human beings." Though the bishops note the importance of protecting the common good that is undoubtedly part of the prison system, they also stress that we can never give up on offenders or forget that they, too, are children of God.

California's new "solution" to the prison problem won't solve our Catholic concerns for prisoners, but we can hope that it sheds more light on the issue and brings us closer to a real resolution to America's incarceration overload.