What Explains Connecticut's Love Of Prison?
What New England state incarcerates its citizens at a rate comparable to the deep South? Is it Maine, with its rural sensibilities? Rock-ribbed New Hampshire? Or how about Massachusetts, home of Boston, a large, festering city? Surely it could not be bucolic Vermont? Or Connecticut, land of the civilized, and, presumably free?
I’ve got news for you. Connecticut ranks eleven among the states in terms of prison population. We’re right up there with Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, to name a few. Connecticut’s incarceration rate is more than double that of Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
As of January 1, 2010, Connecticut’s prison population was 552 persons per 100,000 population, ranking us eleventh in the United States, just behind Florida and Georgia, which were tied at 553 persons per 100,000 population. Maine was ranked fiftieth among the states at 168. Massachusetts was forty-ninth at 170. New Hampshire was forty-seventh at 190. (Vermont is a mid-range thirty-fourth at 355, followed closely by Rhode Island at thirty-sixth at 349.)
I don’t know about you, but I am stunned by these numbers. It is hard to understand why our incarceration rates represent a regional outlier. It is harder still to understand why we imprison people at a rate consonant with the deep South and the Southwest, regions with legacies of slavery and frontier violence lacking in this the Land of Steady Habits.
The national average for incarceration rates in 2010 was 455 per 100,000 population. Louisiana tops the charts at 877. All of the top ten states but for Alaska are in the South or Southwest. (One might argue that Alaska has the culture of a frontier, Southwestern state notwithstanding is northern locale.)
Connecticut seems to be waking up to the fact that prison is an expensive luxury the state simply cannot afford. Governor Danel P. Malloy is trying to trim $69.7 million from the state’s prison budget. Three prisons have been closed in the past two years: the 220-bed Webster Correctional Institution; the 700-bed J.B. Gates prison; and, just recently the Bergin Correctional Institution, which housed 900 inmates.
How do you close prisons when we incarcerate men and women with the reckless abandon of a plantation owner on a spending spree at a slave auction? You crowd people together in facilities unfit to house them. According to the union representing prison guards, there are nearly 1,000 inmates sleeping in makeshift beds -- mattresses thrown into hard shells euphemistically known as canoes, on the floors of gymnasiums, day rooms, and even counselor’s offices. As many as 110 prisoners are herded into small spaces served by but one toilet. The prisons are bursting at the seams even as we close them to save money.
I mentioned these figures to a judge the other day as the prosecutor and I were playing let’s make a deal with the life of a client. "We can’t afford to house all the people we want to lock up, judge," I said.
"That’s not my problem," the judge responded. "I am not supposed to think about that. That’s a call for lawmakers."
"Really?" I responded. "Why is it that everyone in the courthouse demands that defendants be held accountable for the consequences of their actions, but no one in this courthouse accepts responsibility for what happens to defendants?" An awkward silence descended in chambers. It almost looked as though even the prosecutor blushed for a moment, or perhaps it was simply the red flush of anger coloring his cheeks.
I suspect that by year’s end, Connecticut’s incarceration rate will have fallen, inching closer to the middle of the national pack. But we still lead the region in incarceration. Even New York State, our neighbor to the West, although not a part of New England, incarcerated far fewer than we do, ranking fortieth in the nation at 303 per 100,000 population.
Why the rage to imprison in Connecticut? Why are we out of step with our near neighbors? Are we more dangerous in Connecticut than folks in surrounding states? Or are we merely less realistic and more self-indulgent? Prison is a luxury we cannot afford.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune
h/t Adam Osmond, All In One Reports, LLC