Debate Magazine

The Cost of Prison: It's the Humanity, Stupid

By Philosopher's Beard

As has been frequently noted, the cost of incarcerating large numbers of people is exorbitant. The Atlantic for example recently published a nice graphics laden piece comparing (unfavourably) US prison costs per person to college tuition rates.
It's a nice factoid, but let's not let the prices obscure the real cost of the prison system: It's the humanity, stupid.
What numbers like this illustrate is how far wrong the US government's (and thus the American people's) priorities have gone. i.e. university education appears less of a priority than locking up stoners. But portraying this cost in terms of price is misleading. It suggests that the problem with the prison system is not the senseless waste of human life and dignity (compared to other civilised countries), but the price inefficiency of US prisons. The problem is budgetary, especially in these times of recession and government debt. But if only America could halve the costs of keeping so many people in prison, all would be well. For example, if the techno rapture about the scope for electronic tagging is justified, it could replace the bricks and mortar prison for many convicted prisoners with a kind of panopticon surveillance system at a tiny fraction of the cost.
This is the trouble with thinking that the only costs that matter are prices, not human beings; and the only people who matter are taxpayers, not criminals. If society wants to sentence criminals to life in prison because of its paranoia and the only thing holding it back is the taxes it would cost, then technology like this will assuage all its qualms and allow it to 'virtually' imprison even minor offenders for life for less money than the present system costs. What a world to look forward to.The cost of prison: It's the humanity, stupid

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