There is a pretty broad consensus that the U.S. prison system is seriously flawed on many levels. The “prison-industrial complex” has incredible influence through its lobbying and political clout and former felons are often not given the right to vote so they can’t get their voices heard as loudly as other groups.
But today I want to make the case that there is a strong economic benefit of some very specific and focused changes we could make. This is not a bleeding heart call for mercy and it is not an ethical call for fairness. This post is pure pocketbook.
There are currently about 2.2 million people in the U.S. prison system. Many of these are non-violent drug offenders who are POWs from the war on drugs. The economic cost of this prison population goes way beyond the tens of thousands of dollars per year that we spend on the room, board, medical care, and security for each and every one. What I want to highlight today is the continuing cost of these prisoners once they get out of prison, in large part due to the poor way we manage them during their sentences.
After even just a few years in prison, inmates lose a large part of their human capital, social capital, technological literacy, cultural literacy, and prospects for a future in a legitimate and valuable occupation. Let’s start with social capital. The prison system encourages them to develop strong social ties to the other inmates, even if only to protect their personal safety. There is a visceral incentive to make friends with the most violent inmates and prison gangs. This is not a great source of social capital when they get out, at least not if they want to pursue a noncriminal livelihood. The prison system also makes it hard to maintain their social capital with the outside. This Big Think article reports that it is incredibly challenging for friends and family to find inmates let alone keep in touch with them. It is equally hard for the inmates to contact and maintain social connections with their networks on the outside. Who can they turn to for support when they get out? No one. They are on their own. Few of us could handle that kind of isolation while looking for housing, a job, and a new start.
Second, let’s look at human capital. There is lip service paid to job training while in prison, but it is really quite pathetic. The best thing to do, not just for the inmate but for the pocketbooks of you, me, and all of society, is to ensure that when they get out they are qualified for a halfway decent job. That means developing some kind of job skills, advancing their education, and making sure they don’t fall too far behind understanding technological advances. After 20 years in prison, can you imagine looking at a smartphone for the first time? Trying to understand how to use Linked In to find a job? The difference between a resume and a career portfolio?
Finally, let’s turn to cultural literacy. When an inmate gets out, they are not going to be familiar with basic etiquette because these things change faster than we realize. They not going to know what the hell a hashtag means or be able to talk about how the Red Sox did last season. They haven’t seen the latest season of House of Cards either. How can you make small talk when your personal experience is limited to conversation in the prison yard?
And finally, there is the discrimination they face when it comes to applying for jobs, even those for which they are qualified. I can fully understand a company being fearful of employing a former felon to handle important documents, customer service, cash registers, etc. But from the inmates point of view, this makes life impossible. We are literally forcing them into recidivism.
Of course there are exceptions. Frederick Hutson on Pigeon.ly and Shaka Senghor who are mentioned in the two articles I linked to are great role models. But they are definitely the exceptions. We need a better plan to transition inmates from prison to a successful life on the outside. And this needs to start from their first day in prison, not the day before they are released.