Thursday, November 15, 2007

Should We Spend $240 Million for Prison Upgrades?

From the Des Moines Register...

A committee of the Iowa Legislature has proposed nearly $240 million in prison construction, including a new maximum-security facility at Fort Madison and expansions of the Mitchellville and Newton prisons.

The State Prison System Study Committee voted 7-2 Wednesday to send the recommendations to the full Iowa Legislature, which convenes in January. Lawmakers said they would finance the projects by issuing bonds that would be repaid over a period of years.
I understand that the prison in Ft. Madison is ancient and facilities need to be upgraded. However, that is not the main reason that is being given.
Sen. Eugene Fraise, a Fort Madison Democrat who is co-chairman of the panel, said lawmakers have no choice but to approve the construction because of prison overcrowding and projections for future growth of Iowa's inmate population.
Instead of building more prisons to house more inmates, I wonder how the $240 million could be used on programs that help prevent people from becoming inmates in the first place. As a teacher, I see children everyday who have the deck stacked against them. They face so many hurdles in life at such a young age that it will be difficult for them to become successful adults. What can we do help these children overcome some of these hurdles?

In the last legislative session preschool was expanded to all 4 year olds in Iowa for a mere $15 million for 3 years and teacher's salaries were raised by $70 million. That is $85 million on improving education and would leave $155 million of the $240 million left. We could take half of that and put it towards improving the facilities at our prisons because there are some criminals that definitely need to be locked up. That would leave over $75 million that could spent on helping people get out of poverty, for substance abuse counseling, and for improving education.

A few years ago, there was a little girl in my class. She was intelligent and everyone's friend. That year her mother stole a car and went to jail on theft and drug charges. I talked to a veteran teacher about this situation and it happened that this teacher had the mother in class back when the mother was in third grade. The teacher said that she could have guessed the mother would be in jail way back when the mother was 8 years old. What can we do help the little girl that was in my class reach her potential?

It sounds pretty certain the $240 million will be spent. Should we spend it all on a new prison or should we spend it on a combination of programs and upgrades to facilities?

We must think about what our priorities are. Do we believe more people should be locked up or do we believe that we should do everything we can to make sure people have a chance to succeed in life and try to prevent people from becoming criminals in the first place?


Chris said...

Tough questions. No easy answers. I'd prefer the money to be spent in prevention, but that's said with no research done on my part to back up my opinion.

KL Snow said...

I think it's really intriguing that the one voice for change in that committee was a Republican.

I think it's really interesting that 9 lawmakers will sit in a room and vote to spend $240 million to house our prison population but can't be troubled to spend $10 on a study to figure out why it's expanding so fast or see what can be done to stop it.

"Soft on crime" is a tough label to shed, but at some point we're going to need to find politicians who aren't afraid of it so we can do some real, needed reforms of the criminal justice system.

Ben said...

I agree that steps need to be taken to decrease the rising numbers of incarcerated individuals across the country. Unfortunantly, often the best place to do that is within prison. Inadequate and underfunded prisons serve no one's interest, and instead become nothing more than a rest stop for criminals to compare notes before being released back into society.

Treatment -within- prisons offers the best chance to truly effecting real change on a person. Inmates are, literally, a captive audience who who have been to a large extent removed from the environment that enabled their criminla lifestyle in the first place. We need to ensure that the facilities we have can offer the kinds of services needed to truly rehabilitate prisoners so that they won't reoffend as soon as they are released back into the waiting arms of their former criminal associates.