A cautionary tale from New Mexico.
I recently toured the still almost-new Bernalillo County Detention Center (BCDC). It was opened about three years ago and this year saw a new psychiatric wing completed, making its total capacity more than 2,500 inmates.
BCDC was built because the old County Jail Downtown (capacity 1,500) was chronically overfilled and showing signs of age. A Federal Court Consent Decree meant that the city and county had to do something to either increase capacity or reduce census as the overcrowded conditions there were hazardous and comprised cruel and unusual punishment.
The county financed construction of a $45 million jail built 15 miles west of Downtown, out by the solid waste landfill at Cerro Colorado. Initially, the city ran the new BCDC (as it had the old jail) but this past year it turned the facility over to the county to operate.
Our two local governmental bodies continue to bicker over the jail and how it's financed. That would make a good topic for another column, perhaps, but what is of interest to me right now is how BCDC typifies a fundamental dilemma facing our entire society, one we'd better resolve quickly.
What goes on in our jails demonstrates clearly that our uncertainty about how best to deal with crime produces policies and expenditures that actually get in the way of accomplishing our most basic goals of protection and safety.
To put it another way, we seem hell-bent on locking up criminals—even though locking them up frequently is neither a deterrent nor a corrective to criminal acts. We are foolishly spending millions of dollars in completely ineffective ways, ways that are moving us into and not away from a more dangerous society.
BCDC is already bursting at the seams. Not to worry: We have blueprints prepared in advance for doubling its capacity. Once the county’s bonding capacity is available again, we could expand it to handle a total confined population of 5,000!
Of course, we would have to stop almost all other county services to accommodate the effects on the budget of hiring hundreds of new prison guards (if we could find them). Meanwhile, funding the courts, law enforcement and social services caused by jailing so many people would soak up whatever pennies remained after the cost of housing, feeding and guarding the expanded pool of criminals is met.
It’s a steep downward spiral. It wouldn’t take very long for that course of action to either bankrupt the county or to elbow almost every other form of governmental service out of existence.
Libraries? Museums? Health clinics? Community Centers? Educational supports? Affordable housing? All would have to be viewed as luxuries in the face of the voracious appetite for public money that this warehousing of criminals requires. And with each erasure from existence of those quality of life components, our community will become a less attractive place to live and one more likely to spawn more criminals.
The current administration at BCDC recognizes this is not an approach that will work. The philosophy has shifted noticeably since the facility was transferred to the county’s responsibility. Now the effort is being made to find ways to actually reduce the numbers being held. Efforts to promote diversion, alternative punishment, early release, education and substance abuse treatment are underway and will have a beneficial effect in time.
Amazing! For years I naively imagined that was always the goal of corrections. Yet our state prison system still seems to be operating with the polar opposite philosophy: Keep ’em behind walls as long as possible, forget about rehabilitation efforts and hang the expense! This year we are treated to the spectacle of state government creating three new adult prisons—and promising to find ways to fill them all.
This is nuts.
Worse, it doesn’t even keep us safe … neither now nor in the future.
We know that men and women who don’t have at least a high school diploma will have a very hard time staying out of jail during their lives. There simply aren’t many legal ways to make enough money to survive with that kind of educational deficit dragging you down.
This would seem to make it imperative that while we have people locked up behind bars in our prisons we would be using that time to educate them. Literacy, GEDs, high school diplomas, vocational programs and even college courses ought to be made available. Participating in educational programs could be a way to earn good time. It would be a motivator for cooperating and staying out of trouble.
We also, curiously, follow practices that systematically destroy family supports for the confined inmates. When they get out it will be a lot easier to stay out of trouble if they have a network of caring and assistance from their families—but that requires visitation policies far different from those we follow.
We are not doing a good job of turning offenders’ lives around while they are incarcerated. Other states have far surpassed us in their efforts to rehabilitate. The irony is that getting serious about rehabilitation would not cost more money than what we are doing now; it would wind up being less expensive.
We aren’t a wealthy enough state to throw good money after bad the way we do in our prison system. BCDC’s administrators understand this and are working to change. What will it take for the message to get through to the state corrections people?
By Jerry Ortiz y Pino