Billion-dollar prisons: why the US is pouring money into new construction

At a time when the US has narrowly skirted a recession, and people around the country are still struggling with the cost of living, a curious number of states have found billions of dollars for one thing: building prisons and jails.

In September, Alabama announced that a new prison, currently under construction, would have a final cost of $1.082bn. The same month Indiana broke ground on a $1.2bn prison. Nebraska is spending $350m on a new prison, while some in Georgia are lobbying for $1.69bn for construction of a jail in Fulton county.

The willingness to spend vast amounts of money on locking people up, particularly in states like Alabama, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, is staggering. It’s also wrong-headed, experts say.

“Any money spent on caging human beings is not money well spent, period,” said Carmen Gutierrez, an assistant professor in the department of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose research specializes in the connection between punishment and health.

“We have decades of research showing that incarceration does not improve public safety, and that it in fact harms individuals who themselves are incarcerated. It also harms their families and it harms the communities that they come from. So the damage outweighs any potential benefit.”

The US has an incarceration rate of 664 people in every 100,000, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, far higher than other founding Nato countries. (The next highest is the UK, where 129 out of every 100,000 people are behind bars.)

That amounts to 1.8 million people incarcerated across the country, but the numbers are not spread evenly. In Alabama, Georgia and other southern states about one in every 100 people is incarcerated in prisons, jails, immigration detention and juvenile justice facilities.

The number of people being locked up has declined, somewhat, since the middle of the last decade, but some facts about incarceration remain the same: not all races are incarcerated equally.

Black people make up 13% of the US population, but 38% of the prison, jail and other detention facility population, according to Prison Policy Initiative data. White people are far less likely to be caged: despite 60% of the US identifying as white, they also account for 38% of incarcerated people.

“Incarceration is a highly gendered and racialized phenomenon,” Gutierrez said. “People who are males make up around 90% of people who go to jail and prison, and people who are black and brown – typically people who are Latino or Indigenous – are making up those who are disproportionately incarcerated.”

The mammoth US prison population can be traced to the 1970s, with Richard Nixon’s “tough on crime” and “law and order” rhetoric, but it really exploded in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president.

The Fair Fight Initiative, which works to end mass incarceration and systemic racism, says there are a multitude of reasons why the US cages so many people – including the disastrous “war on drugs”, mandatory minimum sentences, exorbitant bail and a lack of mental health services.

The tough on crime rhetoric has endured to this day. Violent crime was a huge focus for Republican candidates during the 2022 midterm elections, while Donald Trump has taken to describing big cities as “cesspools of bloodshed and crime”.

Trump, who lives in a spa resort in Florida and generally travels only for political rallies or court appearances, has offered no evidence for his claim.

Despite the raft of research showing incarceration does more harm than good, few states are seriously attempting to reduce the number of people in jail.

In January, Kay Ivey, the governor of Alabama, introduced new laws concerning how inmates could earn early release for good behavior, in a move critics said would lead to more overcrowding in the state’s prisons. Ivey has also been a key driver behind the state’s costly new prison.

“The new prison facilities being built in Alabama are critically important to public safety, to our criminal justice system and to Alabama as a whole,” Ivey said in September.

Alabama, which was ranked as the seventh poorest state by US News, has the fifth lowest household income in the country and is a place where a child born in 2020 could expect to live to be only 73 years old.

It is also one of 10 largely Republican-led states that has declined to use federal government resources to expand Medicaid – a healthcare program for low-income residents – to more residents, which Gutierrez said can lead to people ending up in incarceration, or being re-incarcerated.

“To deny Medicaid expansion in a state is to exacerbate the health and wellbeing issues of poor people who are the ones cycling through jails and prisons due to their poverty and poor health,” she said.

“Folks who are formerly incarcerated, their health status may be determining their likelihood of going to jail and prison in the first place. Because if I’m sick, and I’m not working because I’m sick, and if I have mental illness or a substance use disorder, I’m more visible to the police, I’m more visible to punishment, and that thus increases my chances of being sent to jail or prison.”

In Georgia, which has also opted out of expanded Medicaid, officials are attempting to source $1.7bn for a new prison near Atlanta, with little sign that politicians are considering spending the money elsewhere. Indiana’s $1.2bn facility is scheduled to open in 2027.

One thing most can agree is that conditions in many of America’s jails are dire.

Earlier this year, Atteeyah Hollie, deputy director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, told the Guardian there “are daily horrors that are happening” in Georgia’s Fulton county jail – which the new facility would replace.

The Department of Justice opened an investigation into the jail in July, citing reports that “an incarcerated person died covered in insects and filth, that the Fulton county jail is structurally unsafe, that prevalent violence has resulted in serious injuries and homicides”.

In Alabama, a majority of prisons don’t have air-conditioning, which the Montgomery Advertiser reported made conditions “hell” during a summer where the heat index reached 115F (46C).

Both states have committed to improving conditions, but it is hard to shake the sense that the billions being spent on new prisons and jails would be better used elsewhere.

Jacob Kang-Brown, senior research fellow at Vera Institute, which works to end over-criminalization and mass incarceration, said the funds should be put towards education and affordable housing, and supporting robust access to healthcare.

“The social welfare safety net in the US has been underinvested in for decades. That is part of the reason why we have such a huge investment in incarceration. It’s really a negative cycle,” Kang-Brown said.

As president, Trump signed the bipartisan First Step Act, a prison and sentencing reform bill which expanded rehabilitative opportunities for incarcerated people, increased the possibility of early parole for good behavior and reduced mandatory minimum sentences for a number of drug-related crimes.

At the time, the act was championed by Republicans, Democrats and advocates.

But in the 2022 midterm elections, amid a rise in some forms of violent crime, Republicans began to distance themselves from the First Step Act, while Trump, despite his role in the legislation, would not say whether he still supports it when asked by the New York Times. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s closest rival for the GOP presidential nomination, has said he would repeal it.

“There are a lot of concerns about public safety, and politicians want to throw money at that problem often, as opposed to thinking hard about what that might mean and how to best address those problems,” Kang-Brown said.

“Many people are seemingly more comfortable with investing in law enforcement and prisons to address those things, other than the real kind of investments, like affordable housing, for instance, that can actually improve public safety in a real substantive way.”


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