In an effort to shave approximately $3 million annually from their $27.4 billion budget (State of Massachusetts), GOP lawmakers in Massachusetts have announced a bill to cut the payment of prisoners for performing routine maintenance duties within the state’s penitentiaries. This bill, while having the potential of realizing a marginal savings to taxpayers, is flawed. If enacted, this law would take away the only way some prisoners have of paying for vital personal care items such as toothpaste and razors while the cost of relegating these tasks to unionized labor, the norm in Massachusetts, has not even been determined. This nation, can not allow its prisons to become an even greater breeding ground for increased crime, debt, and demoralization than they already are. Certainly not while attempting to paint a picture of fiscal responsibility by lawmakers for the taxpayers they serve.
Prisons are built to house people who, for whatever reason, have broken a law held in regard by the state. These laws are made to promote public safety and to ensure a peaceful and livable society for all to enjoy. These laws and their enforcement are good and necessary. The task of dealing with citizens who have been convicted of breaking one of these laws rests with the department of corrections in most states. Just like many governmental departments, these are not immune from budget cuts and other financial issues. These cuts should not be made at the expense of efficacy and the fulfillment of their primary mission.
In reading the mission statements for most state’s Departments of Corrections, several common themes will be found. Some of these themes include, “reducing the risk of future criminal behavior” (Oregon Department of Corrections), “enhancing the success of offenders’ reentry into society” (Illinois Department of Corrections), and “to provide effective opportunities for offenders to achieve positive change” (Georgia Department of Corrections). With themes like these running through the mission statements of these governmental organizations, it’s surprising that state and federal prisons still have more than two thirds of their released prisoners returning to incarceration within three years of their release. (U.S. Bureau of Justice) Reducing the opportunities for inmates to provide for themselves does not help to achieve these missions. These missions would be better served by creating more programming to increase the level of responsibility prisoners must take for their own daily upkeep.
In other legislation recently introduced by Massachusetts lawmakers, a fee of $5 per day would be imposed upon prisoners for every day that they are locked up. Essentially, the state has determined that what it wants for the incarcerated population is a fee for services rendered with no provision for personal responsibility in the payment of those fees as they are incurred. Without a method for these people to earn an income while they are incarcerated, these fees would become either, debt the prisoner must pay upon release from the facility, or a debt settled by the inmate’s family while they are incarcerated. The final blow in this draconian farce is that no money provided by the offender’s family from outside the institution can go to provide for daily personal care essentials until the debt of the daily fee is settled. Essentially, this is a backdoor tax placed upon families of incarcerated individuals — until a family pays $150 monthly, the prisoner can have no money on their commissary account to purchase the items they need to live on a daily basis. The law would also make the non-payment of the fees a crime. This further perpetuates the cycle of recidivism the state and the Department of Corrections so fervently wishes to curb.
Unfortunately, prisons have become a place of retribution in the eyes of everyday citizens. This punitive attitude only appeals to the lowest of human instinct and does nothing to bring people found guilty of committing a crime closer to the ideals we have set for our society, specifically those set forth in the Constitution. Reducing recidivism and increasing public safety is not achieved by reducing the methods by which people convicted of a crime can take personal responsibility. These seeming insurmountable tasks will only be achieved when a space is created where leaders in our community can engage and harness the creative potential behind the walls of our penal institutions and empower the people housed there to realize their full potential.
State of Georgia. Georgia Department of Corrections. Our mission. GDOC, 1 Dec. 2004. Web. 17 July 2010
State of Illinois. Illinois Department of Corrections. Mission Statement. IDOC, 1 Jan. 2002. Web. 17 July 2010
State of Massachusetts. State of Massachusetts. Statewide Budget Summary. State of Massachusetts, 26 Jan. 2010. Web. 17 July 2010
State of Oregon. Oregon Department of Corrections. About Us. ODOC, 21 Aug. 2010. Web. 17 July 2010
United States of America. United States Bureau of Justice. Reentry Trends in the U.S. Web. 17 July 2010