Issue #17 Sept. 15th - Sept. 28th, 2006

Packed Prisons
By: Robert Cole

Currently Oklahoma is one of the leaders in the U.S. for incarceration rates. This makes our prisons some of the most overcrowded and under funded in the nation, confronting legislators with a major issue that cannot wait through the sessions for a solution.

According to the Department of Corrections 2004 fiscal year budget plan, 29% of receptions (or jail-bound criminals) went to drug and alcohol related convictions. That number rose to nearly half at 48% in 2002, before dropping slightly to 46% in 2006. In 2004 the average number of time served in prison by both nonviolent and violent offenders inched to an even keel at 40 and 46 percent, respectively. These criminals on opposite ends of the spectrum have been punished with similar sentences.

When it comes to the overcrowding problem we’ve been seeing, it’s important to take into account that in 2005 there were 8,751 new criminals put into Oklahoma prisons while only 8,157 were released. The prisons are cram packed and so are the case queues. More cases are pouring in than prosecutors can handle, and while the processing time takes longer, criminals are spending more time on the streets than necessary waiting for their court dates.

There is also the problem with staffing. There are now less guards for more inmates than ever before, and with the shortage of staff, correctional officers are having to work longer and harder hours than they have in the past.

In the mean time, prison overhead costs skyrocket, along with inmate medication prices, putting places like McAlester in a rough spot. Each American citizen has to pay an average of $104 to prison funding annually. This information was gathered from the Bureau of Justice in 2001, and since then prices have only increased. Funding inched above $10 billion dollars annually for the U.S. prison system in 1986. By 2001 that number had tripled. That’s not including the total correctional budget, which was set at about $15 billion in 1986, and climbed to over $40 billion by 2001.

It’s generally dictated that any society, in order to remain stable, must have either a stable incarceration rate, or a stable rate of crime. From the early part of America’s history up to the late 1970’s, the crime rate remained stable, but since the 1980’s the number began to climb dramatically. It would then be safe to say that in order to fix overcrowded prisons either the number of arrests done each year must fall, according to the severity of the crime, or equal education needs more attention to ensure each child maintains a kind of moral integrity to himself and society.

Recently, a new method has been implemented by municipalities that gives a criminal the opportunity to go through a program rooted in community service and counseling instead of incarceration. Over 71% of these community sentencing cases were attributed to drug or alcohol related problems.

This fresh approach holds promise in keeping beds open in Oklahoma prisons for repeat offenders and violent criminals, while giving lesser offenders the opportunity to change their habits and create a better life for themselves without jail time.

The acclaimed documentary Scared Straight worked on the educational end by using the fear and horror found in prisons to deter troubled young people from making the same mistakes. The original show premiered in 1978 and confronting delinquents with the consequences of crime. People argue how well these tactics work in the long run, but they at least help validate the assumption that prison is not a happy place.

There have also been many independent programs done across the nation with inmates visiting students one on one at public schools and colleges. This gives young adults the chance to ask questions about prison life and come to terms with a life without freedom. Programs like these can provide a recovering and repenting criminal with a community service to extend to the public. In turn the community can become more educated about crime and consequences, possibly lowering crime rates and the growing annual allowance for prison systems.

Reforming the prison system and crime education is not some far away dream like stopping poverty or bringing about world peace, it’s something sensible and tangible. America can save a hefty handful of money in the long run while educating future generations until their eyes turn blue about criminal consequences. It won’t take long for prisons to resolve funding conflicts, staffing problems and cramped space- all of which make prisoners and guards both more susceptible to violence while imprisoned. Prisons can be safer and so can our streets. With a little time- and a lot more effort from our legislators- the prison system can actually be changed for the better instead of just becoming another hot topic that simply gets debated over until the general interest falls. Let’s cross our fingers and hope for a miracle this November.

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