Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cost of Tuition/year < Cost of inmate/year

Professor Cornel West presented with an ink and pencil portrait drawn in only two days by an inmate.

Early Monday morning, I was in a cab with Professor Cornel West and Petey Greene student volunteers on our way to the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility in Bordentown, N.J. where he gave a speech to inmates in celebration of Black History month. While his message was positive and upbeat, the reality of the situation for the inmates, as we discussed on the ride over, is not.

Just browsing the NJ Department of Corrections (DOC) site, some stats:

Number of prisons in NJ operated by DOC: 14
Number of inmates in NJ prisons: ~23,000
Number expected to be committed per month: 1,200

African-American inmates: 61%
Caucasian inmates: 20%
Hispanic-Americans: 18%

Median number of years for length of prison term: 5
Inmates serving 1-5 year terms: 50%
Inmates serving the max sentence of 10 years or more: 34%
Lifers: 1,122

With a shortage of prison cells across the country the solution for the past few decades has been allocating more money towards building prisons. With crime expected to increase during an economic recession, perhaps it's time to rethink the criminal justice system?

Looking around at the very young faces of the inmates, nearly all of whom were under 21, I wondered what they were thinking. What is it like to sit in a cell and have to spend years locked up thinking about one or two major mistakes that you made? What if you really were innocent?

The very first thing that struck me as we were driving up to the prison was that a high school, Bordentown, was located right next to the prison facility.

Many of the inmates in the Garden State Correctional Facility were convicted of soft drug crimes and the former Educational Executive Director of NJDOC, Ike Ballard, said he believed politics was involved.

"A lot of drug charges are political charges because of the restrictive school zone," Ballard said.

He explained that being caught selling drugs in a drug-free school zone guaranteed an automatic three year sentence. A zone is often designated as 50 yards around the schools and in urban areas where schools are close together, nearly every area is a drug-free zone. Additionally, the demographics in urban areas in comparison to suburban areas show that those convicted are more often likely to be individuals from low-income, minority backgrounds. Ballard said he wished the emphasis were treatment and not punishment because of the 60% recidivism rate (inmates returning to prison) in N.J.

Charles Atkins, the Garden State chaplain said that growing up in Camden, N.J., "the poorest city in the richest state in the country", he quickly realized the impact of incarceration in his community.

"You would only see women and young children," Atkins said. "It was obvious to me where all the men were going."

Professor Cornel West, who spent seven years occassionally teaching at a prison in South Jersy, said that it was important to move away from the "punitive era of Reagan " and that the criminal justice system needed to be fairer with more of a focus on rehabilitation and education.

"[The prison was] like a college campus," West said. "The [inmates] were young, energetic, and searching."

--Tasnim Shamma '11


Reason said...

"demographics in urban areas in comparison to suburban areas show that those convicted are more often likely to be individuals from low-income, minority backgrounds."

Perhaps because low-income people, and minorities, are more likely to be criminals. No mystery here, unless you actually want to state and defend the argument that all groups of people are equal in criminality.

Tasnim Shamma '11 said...

Hope you're not ignoring the reasons for the correlation between poverty and crime?