Tuesday, January 2, 2001
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Posted on: Tuesday, January 2, 2001

Island Voices
Full cost of Hawai'i prisons is hidden

By Ronald Fraser
Writer on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based nonprofit civil liberties research organization.

Politically popular in Honolulu and Washington, tough-on-crime laws have filled our prisons to historic levels. But at what costs? Part of the price tag for keeping more than 2 million Americans behind bars can be counted, part is hidden. Taxpayers, business people and prison reformers each pay a different price.

Higher taxes. As the prison population goes up, so does the tax bill to build new prisons, hire extra guards, and feed and house more inmates. In 1977, Hawaii taxpayers paid $128 million to operate correction facilities for 4,949 inmates — up from 985 prisoners in 1980. But taxes tell only part of the story.

Subsidized competition. As the prison population goes up, so does the number of workers in prison factories. All 50 states and the federal government operate subsidized prison industries that hire inmates, on average, at $2 to $8 a day to produce goods and services that compete against private businesses.

Hawaii-run prisons employ 254 inmates making textile and furniture products. Nationally, more than 51,000 inmates work in state prison factories, with total annual sales nearing $1 billion. Selling mainly to state agencies, these factories close state government markets to private firms. In addition, Islanders thinking of opening an office furniture business must compete against 14 U.S. Federal Prison Industry furniture plants employing 4,521 inmates.

Pro-prison political action. As the number of state inmates go up, so does the number of prison guards and administrators. By 1999, there were 30,874 federal and 391,015 state correctional employees. To protect their jobs, prison workers form associations that promote pro-prison policies, and resist prison reform initiatives.

Federal and state prison policies are caught in a self-perpetuating cycle. First, tough-on-crime laws have put more than 300,000 drug offenders behind bars. Prison managers then use this cheap labor supply to expand prison factory output at the expense of private firms. To complete the cycle, entrenched pro-prison interest groups have now evolved into a political force standing in the way of common-sense drug law reforms.

As our leaders in Honolulu and Washington are finding out, big prisons have a way of biting back.

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