No Frills Prisons
Low Cost Prison Solution
By Daniel Muniz
For most of the country, prisons and jails are woefully inadequate. An overcrowded correctional institution is a dangerous environment that often ends up transforming inmates into more violent repeat offenders. Unfortunately, society is typically faced with only two solutions. One option is to build more prisons and the second option is to allow convicted criminals to only spend a fraction of their sentence behind bars or in some cases, no time at all.
Also, many states have rigged their early release policies so that it is ridiculously easy to earn points for good behavior (reading a book qualifies as such).
Sadly, a lot of states swing on a pendulum in which the public refuses to pay the money to build or expand these facilities. As a result, hoodlums serve very little time and then they are back on the streets to commit more serious offenses. And after a rash of highly publicized violent crimes, the pendulum of public opinion swings back with a demand to build more prisons. However, once the facilities are filled to capacity, the pendulum swings back because the public refuses to build additional prison space. Then the process repeats itself after another rash of violent crimes.
In all truthfulness, building more jails is not an easy answer because they are outrageously expensive to construct and maintain. But not building them creates more societal problems. For instance, there are plenty of small time hoods who are emboldened to climb the criminal ladder because they face virtually no consequences for bad behavior. And with hardly any punishment meted out, they feel that they can get away with anything, including very serious offenses.
In addition, there are also plenty of non-violent criminals who make easy targets for early release. Prison officials have to make tough choices because there are people who need to get punished like a repeat drunk driver but it doesn’t make any sense to lock up him up when there are violent thugs that need to be put away.
But there is an alternative.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a legend amongst people who want to win the war on crime. His harsh tactics bring a smile to his admirers while bringing nothing but consternation to his critics. Arpaio runs the fourth largest sheriff’s office in the country, Maricopa County which covers Phoenix Arizona. And his policies are indeed harsh. He bans everything from coffee and smoking to adult magazines and weightlifting equipment. And the only movies that inmates can watch are G-rated.
He also makes the inmates wear pink underwear and instead of wearing the jumpsuit uniform of a professional, he requires them to wear the old-fashioned black and white striped prison garb.
But his most innovative achievement is that his cost to maintain a prisoner is incredibly cheap.
Instead of constructing expensive facilities of reinforced concrete that can only hold a small number of prisoners, he erected a tent city. In fact, his jail has a neon motel sign that says VACANCY. Because of the tent city arrangement, prisoners can never really be turned away because there is always room and when too many inmates do arrive, more tents go up.
Incarcerated inside a tent with no air conditioning in the middle of a desert certainly gives new meaning to punishment. However, Sheriff Arpaio’s assertion is that if our troops in Iraq can do it, then so can his prisoners.
And if there is a way to cut costs, then Arpaio has found it like using surplus food.
But the point is that a “no frills” correctional institution is what can solve the overcrowded prison crisis. And the real kicker is when it is used in conjunction with a free market plan. There are already private prisons but almost none of them use the “no frills” approach that Sheriff’ Joe Arpaio has successfully run in Maricopa County.
Of course “no frills” facilities can only house low risk inmates and that is fine. Overcrowded prisons already have too many non-violent offenders incarcerated which forces prison officials and states to make tough choices on who should be locked up and who should go free. Now states can simply ship those non-violent offenders to these low cost jails for the duration of their sentences. The savings would enormous.
However, the problem is that the unions and hug-a-thug politicians have rigged their state legislatures to prevent free market practices. These states have enacted laws that prohibit public services from being outsourced to somewhere else even if it is cheaper and more efficient. And the special interest groups don’t care about the common good because they want to preserve their power. It is happening in California where it is outrageously expensive to build anything and expensive to use unionized prison guards.
Even so, once free market “no frills” prisons take root and begin saving state governments hundreds of millions of dollars, then there will be tremendous public pressure for even the most bureaucratic states like California to trim their budgets with these kinds of alternatives.
Sheriff’ Joe Arpaio has shown that tent cities can work and that they can save a lot of money.
The biggest obstacle to this approach will be the hug-a-thug politicians and their constituents who are horrified that inmates cannot enjoy girly magazines, lifting weights, smoking, and drinking coffee. And they are simply beside themselves that prisoners must sweat out long summer days in the heat. And because of how they have coddled criminals for so many decades, they have influenced public policy so much that it is extremely expensive to run a prison.
It is time for politicians, especially in Sunbelt states, to rise up and embrace the idea of free market prisons. There are plenty of independent minded people from both political parties who don’t want to pay a fortune to house inmates and they definitely don’t want criminals to go unpunished either. Sheriff’ Joe Arpaio tapped into that nerve in Phoenix Arizona and perhaps someday there will be others who will do the same.