The Art of Imprisonment

March 2, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

When it comes to putting people in prison, we’re number one. We lock ’em up at a rate five to ten times that of other industrialized democracies (France, UK, Australia, etc.). We've been number one for decades, but the proportion of the US adult population in jail or prison has now risen to one in 100. That’s the finding published in the new Pew report . And Chris Uggen, who knows about such things, says that the 1% figure is an undercount.

Here’s a graph based on BJS figures.

Only a few days earlier – one of those coincidences of the Zeitgeist – the Museum of Modern Art opened an exhibit that included “Million Dollar Blocks.” These are blocks in New York City that the state is spending at least one million dollars on. Not for housing, not for medical care, not for welfare, but to put the residents of that block in prison. The researchers, Eric Cadora and Charles Swartz, took the minimum sentence of each person sent to prison in 2003 and multiplied by $30,000 per year (another lowball estimate). Using the home addresses of these prisoners, they calculated the cost per block.

They teamed up with Laura Kurgan of Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab to produce the graphics. This is Brooklyn, whose million-dollar blocks (35 in all) are in red.

Here’s a close-up of one area.

(It’s in the museum, so it must be art. Anyway, I’m sure these are visually much better in the MOMA exhibit.)

Remember, that’s just for people sentenced in a single year.

I know $1,000,000 isn’t much these days. Still, it seems like a lot of money for a single block.

Nine years ago, in an article for The Atlantic, Eric Schlosser wrote of the “prison-industrial complex.” Like the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned of, it was a way to turn fear into profit.
The United States has developed a prison-industrial complex—a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need. The prison-industrial complex is not a conspiracy, guiding the nation's criminal-justice policy behind closed doors. It is a confluence of special interests that has given prison construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum. It is composed of politicians, both liberal and conservative, who have used the fear of crime to gain votes; impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of economic development; private companies that regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market; and government officials whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population.
Schlosser’s warning, like Ike’s, had little effect.

Hat tip to Henry Tischler, who told me about this. His wife Linda actually saw the exhibit at MOMA.

1 comment:

Brad Wright said...

Unbelievable... that cost per block certainly puts things in perspective.

Good find!