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Our prisons don't do us justice

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Lock the prisons,

Toss the key;

Just don't send

The bill to me.

Prison numbers are tough to pin down. There is the federal system, there are 50 state systems, and no one is just sure how many local jails or military brigs. All told, professionals estimate that one in every 100 Americans resides in one of them.

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To observe that this figure sounds surprisingly high badly understates the point. It's totally obscene. We have replaced Russia and China as the world's incarceration powerhouse. And whatever else you may think of some of our allies, our incarceration rate is six times that of Canada and eight times that of France.

No, nothing special has happened to our actual crime rate to cause this jump. The difference is politics. President Ronald Reagan decided that wars on drugs and crime would be good vote-getters and his idea stuck. Then, to consolidate the change, along with all the new prisons came a slew of new guards. To protect their jobs they have quickly become a potent lobby against any sort of criminal justice reform. What a mess!

Reform would naturally come quicker if the public could easily see how absurd internal conditions often are, but prison isn't an institution given to transparency. And of course, those conditions vary not only from state to state but from jail to jail. Overcrowding is the norm and medical care is frequently of the sort that can lead to early anonymous demise.

So is all this punishment, intended and unintended, worth it? Not a chance, unless you consider the election of certain hard-line candidates to be worth any price. The national use of illegal drugs hasn't declined, nor have their prices increased. Drug violence has ballooned and our jails have filled up. It's the same story with our War on Crime. "Three strikes and you're out" policies have created nightmares for many states. Prisoners who should have been released long ago are still moldering, clogging up the system, destroying family lives, and costing taxpayers an arm and a leg.

Many critics, this one included, have found hope in the budget crisis. Expensive prisons are like flashing signals to "Cut Here." Experts say, "Let's set long-term minor offenders free." But "Not so fast," say the prison guards, for obvious reasons. "Not so fast" also comes from parole boards and halfway houses, which have insufficient staff and facilities to handle a new flood of releases. And so reform progresses at a snail's pace, though at least momentarily in the right direction.

Real reform, however, needs to blossom at the other end of the prison pipeline. Our fundamental problem lies in the laws that detail what constitutes a crime and, if you commit one, how long you should be sent away. Law enforcement "drug warriors" and "crime warriors" may not object much to early release from jail during a budget crunch, but reforming harsh drug laws and excessive sentences at the front end of the system threatens their jobs. They get paid for convictions. Let the guards worry about releasing people at the back end.

There are other financially interested players too. Plenty of inmates have quietly been fobbed off to profit-making prisons. Those companies, not surprisingly, contribute to political campaigns and hire lobbyists. So do producers of prison supplies, equipment and services. This is the dreaded Prison-Industrial Complex, mightily feared by policymakers nationwide.

And while we're at it, a budget crunch may be a good time to tackle recidivism as well, inasmuch as nearly two-thirds of former prisoners come back. Overall they are treated very poorly while on the outside. Many can never again vote or collect food-stamps or welfare or, in all likelihood, get a job. What a surprise when they return to stealing.

Thus the most needed reforms to fix our prison system are actually not hard to figure out, but the will to undertake them is weak.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Conn. He wrote this column during a visit to Devil's Island Prison, French Guiana.

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