The UK once used New South Wales – now Australia – as its penal colony, shipping its convicts to the ends of the earth instead of making space for and warehousing them on its own precious soil. And it’s happening again. Only this time it’s the U.S. who is sending incarcerated men and women far from home.
The New York Times reported yesterday that in an attempt to deal with prison overcrowding (now rampant throughout the U.S.), states are sending some of their charges to private prisons (that is, prisons that are run for profit by private companies) that are far from home.
Hawaii seems to have it worst (which makes sense being that it is so far from mainland U.S. There’s nowhere close to send people):
About one-third of Hawaii’s 6,000 state inmates are held in private in Arizona, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Kentucky. Alabama has 1,300 prisoners in Louisiana. About 360 inmates from California, which has one of the nation’s most crowded prison systems, are in Arizona and Tennessee.
Which means, of course, that those 2,000 Hawaii residents who are incarcerated in other states must often go without seeing their families for years on end, sometimes for the entirety of their sentences.
Prison overcrowding is a real problem, and one that must be dealt with fast. As I – and others – have argued before, the issue is supply and not demand. The solution is not to continue to support the prison industrial complex by further privatizing prisons. Instead, it is to reevaluate the policies that have led to this overcrowding — most obviously, the war on (some people who use some classes of) drugs, which has led to the jailing of hundreds of thousands of addicts and low-level dealers. The country’s prison population is the highest it’s ever been. Part of the solution is getting rid of these drug war policies. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is addressing the economic inequalities that lead people to low-level dealing. That’s a longer term issue and one that this country (other than John Edwards) doesn’t seem willing to really address.
Shipping people off to far-away private prisons is not only a flawed and temporary solution. It’s also self-fulfilling. Shipping people far away from home for prison further detaches them from their communities and reduces the opportunity for actual rehabilitation and smooth reentry post release. The lack of community ties and support leads to increased rates of recidivism, which lands people right back in jail and puts even more money in the pockets of the private prison companies.
Prison crowding is a serious problem too. But these far-off latter day prison colonies are the wrong solution.