Report from the Gulag

If you’re convinced that someone’s out to get you, chances are you’re paranoid–or maybe you just live in Texas. According to a new report by the Justice Policy Institute, a criminal justice research group, one of every twenty Texas adults is either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole. There are more people in prison in Texas than in any other state, and the industry is booming.

“Out of every twenty adult Texans you meet, one is under criminal justice control,” said Vincent Schiraldi, the Institute’s director. “The sheer numbers of people in prison and jail in Texas are signs of a system fixated on punishment and devoid of compassion.”

And no, this is not another predictable diatribe about the sad state of Texas under Dubya Bush. As Schiraldi told reporters, “This is a bipartisan effort. Half of the 1990s growth was during Ann Richards’ tenure.” Some of the prison construction was due to federal mandates ending brutal overcrowding. But just as mindless freeway expansion only generates more traffic, new prison beds are now themselves overfilled in the continuing frenzy of national incarceration for which Texas, our Texas, is the lone star.

If you’re an African American, your odds are even grimmer. Black people in Texas are incarcerated at seven times the rate of whites, and nearly one in three young African-American men in Texas is under some form of criminal justice control. The incarceration rate for blacks in Texas is 63 percent higher than the national rate.

Other numbers to ponder: Texas has the largest prison population in the country (163,190), surpassing the prison population of California (163,067), which has 13 million more citizens. If Texas were indeed “a whole other country,” it would have the highest incarceration rate (1,035 prisoners for 100,000 citizens) in the world, easily surpassing the United States (682) and Russia (685), the next two in rank.

But y’all feel safer now, don’t you? Not hardly. Despite adding more than 100,000 prisoners this decade, Texas’ crime rate has declined much more slowly than other large states. From 1993 to 1998, Texas’ crime rate fell (5.1 percent) at half the national average (10 percent), and the least of any of the nation’s five largest states. Compare only New York, similar to Texas in population. During the Nineties, Texas added more prisoners to its prison system (98,000) than New York’s entire prison population (73,000): that is, five times as many additional prisoners as New York. Yet since 1995, New York’s decline in crime was four times greater than that of Texas. Texas’ current incarceration rate is 80 percent higher than New York’s, yet Texas’ crime rate is 30 percent higher; in 1998, the murder rate was 25 percent higher.

But it isn’t the murderers we’re locking up, anyway. There are 89,400 people incarcerated in Texas for non-violent crimes, more than the entire prisoner population (violent and non-violent) of the United Kingdom (a country of 60 million people) or of New York, the nation’s third largest state.

“If locking more people up really reduced crime, Texas should have the lowest crime rate in the country,” said report co-author Jason Ziedenberg. “The cost of having 1 in 3 young black men under criminal justice control is a steep price to pay for the states’ lackluster crime declines.”

It does not take a criminal genius (or a criminologist) to conclude that the state’s orgy of prison-building is a spectacularly expensive failure, in a state whose politicians never tire of bragging about how little public money they spend. Yet, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, “When lawmakers return to Austin in January, they will be asked to send a $500 million bond package to the voters for the construction of three maximum-security units.”

The First Rule of Holes: when you’re in one, stop digging. – M.K.

The full report, “Texas Tough: An Analysis of Incarceration and Crime Trends in the Lone Star State,” is available at www.cjcj.org.

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Published at 12:00 am CST