A Criminal Enterprise

Life Means Life: But should we be paying for it?

Posted in News by Sophie Cull on September 30, 2009

The Sentencing Project (a District of Columbia non-profit) has recently reported that Louisiana has the highest percentage of life-without-parole (LWOP)  prisoners in the nation[1]. Almost 11% of the Louisiana prison population are incarcerated for the term of their natural life.

The United States leads the world in the percentage of people it incarcerates each year, with more than one in one hundred Americans spending time behind bars. Even in aggregate terms, China is running a distant 2nd and Russia a very distant 3rd behind.   Increases in length of sentences, “three strike rules” and the widespread use of life-without-parole means that, like the rest of the population, US prisoners are ageing at levels that threaten to overwhelm the prison system. Elderly inmates represent the fastest growing segment of federal and state prisons.

In 2005, the State of Louisiana spent $13 000 a year to keep a single prisoner incarcerated. Multiply that number by a lifetime, and combine it with the fact that elderly prisoners cost around 3 times as much as young prisoners to look after, and taxpayers find they are spending well over a million dollars keeping one person in prison for life.

Of the 5000 inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, 85% will die there. In a period of serious financial difficulty, the question must be asked: does it make sense to keep elderly and dying prisoners locked up to the end of their life?

California prison activist Cassandra Shaylor explains that the rhetoric around public safety is so entrenched in the US that states can claim a person is a threat to society “merely by virtue of their status as a prisoner, regardless of their physical or mental capacity”. She points to a move by Govenor Arnold Schwartznegger in 2004 to veto a bill that would have saved CA millions of dollars through the early release of 13 people who were unable to tend to their daily needs or were in a vegetative state. Schwartznegger cited ‘security concerns’ as his reason for vetoing the bill.

Back in Louisiana, a commitment to tough law and order policies (and associated rhetoric) attempts to rationalize the financial costs of having hundreds of elderly and disabled people die in prison. But in a state ranked 3rd for poorest students in the United States  and which has received a D ranking for the last two years for children’s health it might be worth considering whether the cost of upholding the toughest sentencing policies in the country is justifiable from an economic or political standpoint.

While some officials argue that the savings that come from early release programs in prisons must be measured against security concerns and the movement of costs to other state programs such as unemployment benefits, these arguments have limited weight. Federal studies show that the recidivism rate for prisoners over 55 is between 2 and 4 percent. Furthermore, even if this class of prisoner were released under continued supervision (such as through electronic bracelet systems, intensive parole supervision or home detention) the cost of looking after them is reduced from $70 a day to $8 per person.

Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance Project and the author of a 2008 study on incarceration rates, suggests

“there are large numbers of people behind bars who could be supervised in the community safely and effectively at a much lower cost — while also paying taxes, paying restitution to their victims and paying child support.”

While criminal justice is not an area of policy that politicians or citizens like to see determined by economic outcomes, the current financial situation necessitates a revision of natural life sentences. After all, the cost of these sentences to the taxpayer is not all that is at stake – there are generations of young Louisiana children going without in health, education and housing because punishment is our priority.


[1] “More La. Prisoners in for life”, The Advocate, 7.24.09.

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5 Responses

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  1. Robert Smith said, on September 30, 2009 at 2:50 am

    Love the post Sophie, and am so glad you are on board.

  2. Bec Crosweller said, on September 30, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    What are the consequences for an elderly or disabled prisoner being released into a community with no networks, no social support, no ability to earn income, no health care? It seems that there is a more fundamental problem which your blog does address which is the overwhelmingly punitive, fear driven use of the prison system. It is incredibly short sighted to ignore the rehabilitative and educational possibilities that incarceration could provide for the disadvantaged who are overwhelmingly represented in prison

    • Sophie Cull said, on October 1, 2009 at 4:39 pm

      That’s the interesting (and very depressing) thing about Angola specifically. It is choc-a-bloc full of educational and rehabilitative programs – many prisoners earn vocational awards and graduate from theological schools and distance education programs. But it’s almost a mockery that they ‘progress’ in these ways – while it may help some (a very small number) come the time when they are eligible for parole, the majority of inmates have no prospect of using the skills they acquire in society. For most, these programs simply offer a distraction to help pass the time.

  3. Bidish J. Sarma said, on October 2, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Welcome to the blog, Sophie.

    I do think that this issue is complicated by considerations of what it takes to help compassionately released prisoners integrate when they are released late in their lives. Do you have ideas of what prisons can do to reduce the debilitating effects of institutionalization? Are there transition programs?

    When I was up at death row this Wednesday, I couldn’t help but think about the amazing skills that a few of my clients possessed before incarceration and the skills they have developed since they have been incarcerated. Though the majority of my clients possess major cognitive or adaptive deficits, some have proven to be resourceful, creative, and industrious in an environment of deprivation.

  4. Gabriel said, on October 2, 2011 at 2:37 am

    This is a really interesting blog, which I came across after further research having just read the article ‘Truth & Justice’ in the Good Weekend, Oct 1 2011 edition. I am myself a graduate law student in my final semester and I think the work you and the team you work with in Louisiana are doing is inspirational; especially given the ‘justice’ system with which we must work with, and the institutional restrictions that necessarily exist. Keep up the good work!


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