Inside the prison’s waiting room, dozens of children waited with their caregivers to see their fathers, brothers, uncles. The room where we wait is cold in every sense of the word. Metal detectors frame the doorways. AIDS prevention posters hang on the wall.
People who are locked up there mop the floors and smile — some nod respectfully. The security staff grunt and bark orders. The little girl in purple knows the drill. She climbs into a chair and waits to see her father — smiling a sweet smile, wriggling in anticipation—without any idea how out of place she appeared.
Despite her beauty and her joy — she was heartbreaking because she didn’t belong in prison.
Yet, almost 2 million children in this country are growing up with a parent behind bars. And this scene plays out in visiting rooms in prisons and jails across the country on a daily basis. The children’s parents may have committed a crime. But the children are also doing time. Their childhoods are marked by the loss of their parents. And this is a loss that that has unimaginable costs to these children and their communities — one that can’t be calculated in dollars in cents.
But the money the United States spends on imprisonment certainly adds up. On average it costs taxpayers anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 to imprison one person for a year. Multiply those annual costs by the millions of people who are currently behind bars in this country and the cost of imprisonment easily exceeds $60 billion a year.
As some lawmakers throughout the country have come to the realization that the United States’ addiction to incarceration must be curbed, they focus on the staggering financial burdens imprisonment places on states and local budgets.
Lawmakers from Mississippi to New York are bemoaning the exorbitant cost of the “lock ‘em up” approach to crime and punishment — with good reason. Between 1977 and 2001 states increased their spending on corrections by 1,101 percent and between 1970 and 2005 the number of people behind bars increased by 700 percent.
Every penny our government spends on prisons and jails is a penny that does not fund schools, health care, economic development, and transportation infrastructure.
Clearly, in the past few years researchers have done extraordinary work calculating the dollar costs of imprisonment. States are recognizing that because 60 percent of the people who are locked up are there for non-violent offenses and that one quarter of all people behind bars are there for non-violent drug offenses, prisons can be safely downsized and the savings can be re-invested in programs proven to help create safe communities.
Some states have gone so far as to require judges to consider the cost of imprisonment prior to sentencing. In Missouri, a computer program provides judges with the price tags attached to various sentencing options. The Vermont legislature considered a similar proposal, but ultimately rejected it in favor of a work group to further study the idea.
In a concurring opinion, the preeminent legal scholar and Illinois Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner, urges judges to consider all factors—including the cost of imprisonment before imposing “de facto” life sentences. Judge Posner states “an impressive body of economic research … finds for example that forgoing imprisonment as punishment of criminals whose crimes inflict little harm may save more in costs of imprisonment than the cost in increased crime that it creates.”
More states should follow Missouri’s example and heed Posner’s sensible approach to sentencing. But the true costs of imprisonment cannot be measured solely by simply calculating the billions taxpayers spend on imprisonment each year.
That’s why state legislatures should ensure that at sentencing judges have before them both the cost to taxpayers and the cost of imprisonment to families and communities—including those costs that are not easily quantifiable. Before sending someone away, lawmakers, prosecutors and judges should be forced to document and confront the devastating, far-reaching human consequences of mass imprisonment.
There is no question that imprisonment imposes a significant financial burden on the families of those who are imprisoned. There is of course, the cost of staying connected to your loved one while they live behind bars.
For decades, private companies preyed on families who were desperate to communicate with their imprisoned family members behind bars—sometimes charging as much as $3.00 a minute for phone time and guaranteeing their lucrative contracts by providing a kick back to state governments.
There is also the cost of visitation. Prisons are generally located in rural areas far away from population centers — hundreds of miles from public transportation. Families and their advocates have cribbed together innovative solutions to this—ride sharing, bus rentals. But often families must save up for gas, hotel stays, take time off work and give up wages in order to maintain their connections with those behind bars.
Then there is the cost of commissary — this is what makes life in prison for most people bearable. The food in most prisons is unspeakably bad. Prisons spend as little as $2.32 per day per prisoner on food.
Much of the food is soy-based, cooked by people who live behind bars with, at best, questionable sanitation practices. So family members who can — put money in their loved ones accounts so they can buy food at incredibly inflated prices. A pack of ramen noodles that costs 10 cents at Walmart can cost over a dollar inside prisons and jails.
When people are released from prison, the costs continue. People returning home must pay for costs associated with parole conditions — drug tests, supervision fees, court fees leveled against the defendant at the time of sentencing. It is often families who front the money for these costs in order to protect their loved one from re-imprisonment.
These costs — phone calls, visitations, commissary costs, fees associated with convictions — can all be quantified and they constitute a significant tax on the families impacted by imprisonment. The very communities that are targeted by the criminal justice system are forced to support and strengthen the system by paying these fees.
Just like in the government, here too, there are opportunity costs. The money families spend supporting their imprisoned love one is money that doesn’t go towards health care, to a savings account or to a college fund.
There is no question that the high cost of supporting a loved one in prison helps perpetuate cycles of poverty. But families who keep these connections going help keep us all safer, because study after study has documented that the more affirming positive contact with the outside world people have when they are in prison, then the less chance there is that they will return.
The costs of imprisonment imposed on families are too often ignored in the conversations about the costs of imprisonment—but some of them are as easily calculated as the cost to taxpayers. The challenge in calculating costs is documenting those that are less tangible, but likely far more important.
Judges need to understand who will be locked up alongside the people they are sentencing to prison. Someone in prison will miss the bedtime stories, the parent teacher conferences, the anniversaries, the holidays. Loved ones will suffer sleepless nights after receiving the inevitable calls about stabbings, rapes, time in solitary confinement, and the medical neglect in prison.
The ongoing costs to the defendants and to society are high when a young parent is labeled a felon, imprisoned, brutalized — and then released from prison likely unable to find work.
Judges must consider these things when considering the cost of a sentence — to both taxpayers and family members, and also to a family and community inventory that documents the connections and relationships that a defendant has on the outside world. Such an inventory should also include projections about the defendant’s future prospects after serving time behind bars.
The cost of imprisonment isn’t just levied against taxpayers and the horrors of mass incarceration don’t stop and start at the prison gates.
And it’s beyond time that sentencing practices reflect this reality.
Sheila A. Bedi is a clinical associate law professor at Northwestern University law school and an attorney at the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. She is a fellow with The OpEd Project's Public Voices Fellowship at Northwestern.