Incarceration in America

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A Look at Incarceration

Video by Addie Haney

Timeline by Grace Elkus via Timeline JS. 

The incarceration rates in the United States are the highest in the world, despite only having the third-largest population. There were 1.57 million people in federal and state prison in 2012, according to the Department of Justice. That is more people than the nation’s 1.05 million high school teachers, 1,530,000 engineers and 815,000 construction workers.

This number has extreme effects on the nation in many aspects of society, one of the most important being America’s economy. The average cost of housing an inmate is approximately $20,000 to $30,000 per year. To put this in perspective, California spends 2.5 times more money on housing and feeding its inmates than it does on educating its students, according to a 2008 Pew Center study.

Mass incarceration also disproportionately impacts U.S. racial minorities. African Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated than a white person, and non-white Latinos are almost three times more likely. According to a 2013 Al Jazeera article, 11 percent of black men aged 20-34 are behind bars.

Furthermore, incarceration hits ex-prisoners hard once they re-enter society. Ex-inmates are 50 percent less likely to be hired than those without a criminal record, and children of incarcerated parents are five times more likely than their peers to commit crimes, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

“The age of the individuals that are starting to exhibit those behaviors are getting younger and younger, which is disturbing because that means they’re going to get involved with the court system at a very early age, which is not really what we want,” said Cpl. Chad Laws of the Burlington Police Department and assistant coordinator of the Junior Police Academy.

This project aims to dig deeper into both the lives of prisoners as well as the prison system as a whole, including the prevalence of mental health issues among prisoners, rehabilitation programs in place for both youth and adult prisoners, the increasing number of for-profit private prisons and current opinions and statistics on the death penalty, which continues to be one of the most controversial parts of the criminal justice system. We want to ask the question: Why are incarceration rates in America so high, and what factors are playing a part in those numbers?

Summary by Grace Elkus. 

Infographic by Addie Haney via

Capital punishment debated throughout the years, has limitations despite 60 percent approval rate 


Photo courtesy of

Article by Kate Riley

One of the most controversial but historically integral parts of the criminal justice system and prison industrial complex in America is the practice of capital punishment.

Only 58 countries in the world still regularly make use of the death penalty, and the United States offers one of those remaining societies.

Public opinion polls reveal that about 60 percent of Americans still approve of the use of the death penalty today, the lowest number in some years, but only in some cases, according to CBS News.

Whether or not the death penalty should remain a part of the United States justice system has been debated throughout the years, ever since the first legal execution of a criminal was carried out in 1622.


Graphic created by Kate Riley through ThingLink.

History of the death penalty

When European settlers came to the new world, they brought the practice of capital punishment with them. However, the first attempt of capital punishment reforms did not occur until much later, when President Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill to try and revise Virginia’s death penalty laws.

The bill, which proposed that the death penalty should only be used for such crimes as treason and murder, did not pass but sparked the idea that alternatives could eventually be possible.

“Inmates who come to us have already been judged,” said Jennie Lancaster, former chief operating officer of North Carolina’s Department of Corrections. “Our role is not to judge again. The law enforcement people get all the headlines…Guess where that person with life without parole or the death penalty comes? They come to us. And we live with that person for the rest of their life. We live with their families. We live with the victims.”

For many years, the state of North Carolina did not have a state penitentiary and, many said, did not have a suitable alternative to capital punishment, according to PBS.

The 1960s brought significant challenges to the fundamental legality of the death penalty as prior to this era, the Fifth, Eighth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were interpreted as permitting the death penalty.

“As a person of faith, I’ve never believed in the death penalty,” Lancaster said. “And that comes out of being a child of the 60s.”

Video by Jason Puckett.

Lancaster’s wish came true a few years later with the 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia, a case that eventually voided 40 death penalty statutes and commuted the sentences of 629 death row inmates nationally. The case also suspended the death penalty as then-existing statutes were invalidated.

Click to view. Jux Slideshow by Kate Riley.

But as history revealed, advocates of capital punishment soon got their wish as the Supreme Court opened the door for states to rewrite their own death penalty statutes that would eliminate the issues cited in the Furman court case.

Gregg v. Georgia overturned the Furman decision and held that the death penalty was indeed constitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

Some sects of society, however, are allowed alternative measures other than the death penalty because of their mental capacity.

Mental health and the death penalty

In 1986, the Supreme Court banned the execution of insane persons and required a strict, adversarial process for determining mental competency in the court cases Ford v. Wainwright.

Later, however, this idea was expanded in the 2005 cases of Atkins v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court held that a national consensus had evolved overall against the execution of the so-named “mentally retarded.” This case concluded that the death penalty would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Thirty percent, if not higher, of our folks need mental health intervention,” Lancaster said. “They’ve never gotten it.”

An October editorial by the New York Times’ staff addressed a more current view of intellectual disability and the death penalty, asking the question of whether or not the issue had been fully resolved by telling the story of Freddie Lee Hall, a Florida man who was sentenced to death for the 1978 murder of a 21-year-old pregnant woman.

Please click to view entire infographic. By Kate Riley.

Infographic created by Kate Riley via

The Florida trial court found that Hall was “mentally retarded” and had been his entire life. However, at this time, capital punishment was not prohibited.

While Hall appealed his sentence of the death penalty, the Florida court rejected the plea due to Hall’s IQ scores. The scores were based on Florida’s narrow definition of mental health, forcing the Supreme Court to revisit its own definition of an intellectual disability.

“The Supreme Court is right to revisit its 2002 ruling, which gave states too much leeway to define intellectual disability. It should take this opportunity to reaffirm the central principle of Atkins and require states to adhere to medical consensus in defining intellectual disability,” said The New York Times editorial staff.

A personal experience

Since 1976, the United States has carried out 1,354 executions nationwide, with the first execution of a woman in 35 years carried out in North Carolina.

Lancaster had many personal interactions with this inmate, Velma Barfield, and will never forget her time getting to know the death row inmate.

“We all knew Velma,” she said. “She was a very positive influence on many of our difficult-to-manage inmates in lockup.”

A Day in the Life Box

The late Donald Cabana, former warden at Mississippi State Penitentiary who worked in corrections for more than 25 years, become involved with issues concerning the death penalty when he was 25 years old.

He was best known for his strict opposition of the death penalty, a hatred that pushed him to leave the corrections system in the 1990s.

“There is a part of the warden that dies with his prisoner,” Cabana often said, according to the New York Times.

Cabana, along with Lancaster, represents a part of the corrections system that is often underrepresented: the staff.

“This is something that you don’t think about or hear about, that we have people on death row,” Lancaster said. “And the point of that is that the state has sentenced them to die. And guess what? The people who have to carry out that judgment are the correctional staff. We are also charged with taking care of these folks. We don’t hire out separate people to work on death row. We don’t go get contractors to come in and say you supervise the death row inmates because we don’t want to know them.”

Death row inmates are often the ones the prison staff gets to know the best, on a potentially deep level, and even in some ways, the two have the potential to develop a sort of friendship. This was true in the case of Cabana, who had a similar experience to Lancaster with his own inmate, Connie Ray Evans.

“Mr. Cabana had gotten to know Mr. Evans; they had become, in a way, friends, (Cabana) wrote in his memoir. Strapped into the gas chamber, Mr. Evans whispered his final words into Mr. Cabana’s ear: ‘From one Christian to another, I love you.’ ‘…What does one say to a man who has told his executioner that he loves him?’ Mr. Cabana wrote.” – The New York Times

Video by Jason Puckett. Interview conducted by Jason Puckett, Kate Riley and Addie Haney.

Other limitations and issues

Race: A 1987 court case, McClesky v. Kemp, decided that racial disparities in court would not be recognized as a constitutional violation of “equal protection of the law” unless intentional racial discrimination against the defendant could be proved.

Juveniles: Stanford v. Kentucky found that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death penalty for crimes that are committed at the age of 16 or 17. However, this was overturned in 2005 in Roper v. Simmons when the Supreme Court ruled that the practice of executing defendants whose crimes were committed when they were considered juveniles was unconstitutional.

Innocence: The first constitutionality lawsuit regarding executing someone who claimed innocence was brought in South Carolina in 1993. It is very hard to prove that someone is actually innocent enough to ensure that they are not submitted to the death penalty. Through the years, the overall possibility that someone who is innocent is executed has grown and currently, more than 115 people in 25 states have been released from death row because of innocence since 1973.

Public support: Public support for the death penalty has fluctuated throughout the centuries, as shown by these Gallup poll results provided by the Death Penalty Information Center:

–       1936: 61 percent of Americans favored the death penalty for persons convicted of murder

–       1966: 42 percent of Americans favored the death penalty for persons convicted of murder

–       1994: 80 percent approval rate

–       2004: a growing number of Americans support a sentence of life without parole rather than the death penalty for those convicted of murder

–       2004: 55 percent believe that the death penalty is implemented fairly

Women: Women have, historically, not been subjected to the death penalty at the same rates as men. From the first woman who was executed in 1632 to present-day, woman have constituted only about three percent of United States executions.


Graphic by Kate Riley.

Lack of parental discipline responsible for juvenile crime 

At the Greensboro Juvenile Detention Center, some inmates live in pods which are separated by gender severity of offense. and level of severity. In the pod, each inmate has his or her own room. There are normally around seven inmates to each pod. Photo by Kate Riley.

At the Greensboro Juvenile Detention Center, some inmates live in pods which are separated by gender, severity of offense and level of severity. In the pod, each inmate has his or her own room. There are normally around seven inmates to each pod. Photo by Kate Riley.

Article by Meredith Browne

Nationally, juvenile crime has been on the decline. According to statistics from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the overall juvenile arrest rate was 24 percent lower in 2010 than in 1980.

Out of the 1.6 million arrests in 2010, property crime was the most common category of offense. Although violent crime was the least common, juveniles were involved in 1 in 10 arrests for murder.

An Act of “Savagery” 

Tiffany Long, a 10-year-old girl from Alamance County, had been raped, strangled and consequently beaten to death. Investigators found her body behind an abandoned house. The murder was so horrendous that at least five attorneys dodged the case.

Dorthia Bynum, the primary defendant, was eligible for the death penalty and was only 17 at the time of the incident.

Craig Thompson, Bynum’s attorney for the case, negotiated a plea bargain for his client to be sentenced a minimum of 124 years. After the case, it took Thompson three years before he was able to represent another client charged with first-degree murder.

“One of the things that struck me, the description of the crime scene – they found this little girl’s Hello Kitty backpack,” he recalled. “You have a 10-year-old girl who thinks she’s going off with her friends, with the little Hello Kitty backpack and ends up brutally, brutally murdered.”

Timeline by Andrew Wilson via TimelineJS

Breaking the cycle

In 1998, a few months before Long’s murder, the North Carolina State Legislature voted to alter the state’s approach to juvenile delinquency prevention and justice. The goal was to adopt a program that would treat juveniles according to the seriousness of their crimes, the risks they posed and their personal histories.

The catalyst of change was the North Carolina Juvenile Justice Reform Act, an effort led by Gov. Jim Hunt. In turn, the state has made tremendous strides in improving the juvenile justice system, including a 10-year-low juvenile offense rate and reduction of confinement by two-thirds. The reduction of confinement has saved taxpayers more than $20 million, according to criminologist and N.C. resident James C. Howell.

In counties across the state, Juvenile Crime Prevention Councils galvanize community leaders to reduce and prevent juvenile crime. The Council allocates finances and resources into different programs that will best serve the county’s individual risks and needs. Out of the $23 million distributed to these councils annually, Alamance County’s Juvenile Crime Prevention Council (JCPC) receives approximately $330,000.

Craig Thompson is the Assistant District Attorney for Alamance County. His wife Pam serves on the  Board of Education for the Alamance-Burlington School System as well as the NC Domestic Violence Commission. Despite the fact that the highly elevated degree of violence in the Long case is rare in Alamance County, the Thompsons see a common denominator between Dorthia’s background and other at-risk juveniles.

“These kids were failed miserably by their homes,” Pam Thompson said. “People have got to care because when kids don’t think they matter, they don’t matter. And then whatever they do doesn’t matter.”

Craig Thompson agreed.

“They’re simply raised to think any option is okay,” he said. “Whatever feels good, do it. And we’re paying the piper for that now.”

Thompson said he believes that if JCPC and other resources were available for Dorthia, she might have avoided a life behind bars.

Infographic created by Andrew Wilson via

Prevention through System of Care

Crpl. Chad Laws currently serves as the Turrentine Middle School Resource Officer on behalf of JCPC. In addition, Laws is also involved with D.A.R.E. programs across the county and the Junior Police Academy.

While school complaints — comprised of felonies and misdemeanors — to the Division of Juvenile Justice have decreased 24 percent in the past three years, Laws said he has already handled a number of school incidents this year involving parents and their children.

“Parents of young kids will come in and the only way they know how to handle conflict or a situation involving their child is to press charges,” he said.

In handling these incidents as a sitting member of JCPC, Laws tries to steer individuals away from the court system by recommending services that could be helpful to the family. Known as “wrap-around services,” some of the areas of contact include mental health providers and service workers. Other programs funded by JCPC, such as the Dispute Settlement Center, are also recommended to families.

Video by Meredith Browne

Known as the System of Care, the goal is to provide the right kinds of resources to families as early as possible. Laws said Alamance County has been very forward-thinking on utilizing the system’s model, with other counties in the state following suit.

“‘One Family, One Team, One Plan’ is kind of the theory behind it,” Laws said. “You’re wanting to wrap around these families with all of the resources that are available in the community.

As a member of the Board of Education, JCPC Chairman Steve Van Pelt firmly believes engaging kids in school will deter them from getting in trouble with the law. For that reason, Van Pelt sees special significance in JCPC’s Teen Outreach Program (TOP).

Designed as a preventive program, it is run by the Alamance Health Department. Each year, coordinators work with seventh-grade and eighth-grade students from two middle schools that are considered high-risk. According to Van Pelt, Graham Middle School and Broadview School are the two schools that have been considered high-risk for the past few years.

TOP lessons are integrated into the school curriculum, providing students with the opportunity to learn about character development, community service and other ways to be successful citizens. Van Pelt said that if the Council had more funds at their disposal, he would like to support more proactive programs similar to TOP that attempt to engage the community.

“I would like to see more proactive programs like TOP that would be out in the community where we can support programs like that,” Van Pelt said.

Across the board, the county has seen improvements in juvenile crime. For instance, the number of juvenile cases from Alamance County that are referred to the N.C. Division of Juvenile Justice dropped 38 percent since 2004. Additionally, the number of juveniles detained or housed in state-run youth development centers has also decreased.

Despite the improvements, the county’s delinquency and dropout rate still remain higher than the state average.

Infographic by Andrew Wilson via

Troubling trends

A JCPC proposal in February 2013 cited a number of alarming issues that are present in Alamance County juvenile crime.

Despite the decrease in reportable offenses, drug and alcohol use at school has continued to remain high. Van Pelt said the problem has localized itself, typically distributed in one or two areas of the county.

“Between Southern High School and Southern Middle School, that is about two-thirds of our drug offenses,” he said.

Laws also attests to the lack of respect he has witnessed on school grounds.

“The age of the individuals that are starting to exhibit those behaviors are getting younger and younger,” Laws said. “That is disturbing because that means they’re going to get involved with the court system at a very early age — at a young age — which is not really what we want.”

For the last three years, Alamance County has also been above the state average in juveniles under age 12 at their first offense. Pam Thompson maintains that these issues originate from the breakdown of the family.

“It’s not up to your kid to become an adult when they are 12 years old,” she said. “It’s up to you to train them, to become successful, responsible, and to care.”

Power in Unity

Looking to the future, the same vision is echoed amongst those concerned with juvenile crime in Alamance County.

“I think we’ve got a target out here and were trying to hit it,” Van Pelt said. “We’ve all got to be focused on the target.”

Community members believe that success comes from the cumulative efforts of the kid, the parents and the school.

“Everybody’s got to care because it may not be my kid but that kid can change my future,” Pam Thompson said. “We’ve got to realize that our children are our future and we’re going to determine the kind of future we have based on what we put into our kids.”

A look inside: Life inside the walls of Guilford County Juvenile Detention Center

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Charles Dingle, Program Manager at Guilford County Detention Center. Interview conducted by Kate Riley and Addie Haney.

Life inside article by Kate Riley

Charles Dingle is the program manager at the Guilford County Juvenile Detention Center in Greensboro, N.C. Currently, the detention center houses 17 juveniles, aged 10-17, who have committed crimes from petty theft to attempted homicide.

“We have kids that are here for simply running away from home, so we keep them for a few nights,” Dingle said. “But then we have everything up to murder, arsonist, larcenist, sex offenses, you name it. Everything that you guys would see on TV or in the newspaper.”

The juveniles are separated in the “pods” of the facility by their gender, age and often, the severity of their crime.

One of Dingle’s main jobs is ensuring rehabilitation and everyday programs are effectively implemented for the juveniles, programs that push them to be better once they are released.

However, Dingle said that about 60 to 65 percent of the kids do come back to the detention center – a relatively high recidivism rate.

“It’s just the nature of the business,” he said. “It’s not necessarily that they are committing more charges, but they are violating their probation. It’s really easy for kids to come back into this building.”

The type of household a child grows up in often determines their possibility of ending up in juvenile detention, Dingle said. If a parent sees a pattern of their child committing smaller crimes that might eventually turn into more heinous crimes, the parent is able to bring the child to their detention center to realize what their life could be like behind bars.

“The child will sit down with an officer, and we will see what issue is going on,” Dingle said. “We will let them see the cell, the uniforms, the leg irons, the shackles; they have to understand that if they don’t change their behavior, this is what their life is going to be like.

This program is a free service offered by the detention center, and Dingle hopes it prevents future juvenile crimes.

“We are all about intervention,” he said. “I know some people say ‘Wow, y’all are doing that? You are running yourselves out of business.’ No. It’s just a matter of trying to save these kids, and if we can stop one child from coming here, we know we’ve done our job.”

Graphic by Meredith Browne

Graphic by Meredith Browne

Prison or Mental Hospital? The Debate Continues


Photo courtesy of The Guardian

Article by Kristin Martin

Mental health is widely acknowledged as a controversial issue in the United States incarceration system. A 2005 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that 56 percent of state prison inmates have mental health problems. More recently, NPR reported that 350,000 imprisoned offenders had a mental illness in 2011.

Meredith Allison, an associate professor of psychology at Elon University, said there are a couple factors to this statistic. The first is situational, she said.

“Being in prison can bring on mental illness,” Allison said. “So some of the individuals in prison might be dealing with depression or anxiety at the beginning of their sentence because of the transition from autonomy and being out in the real world to a highly regimented environment in prison. And then that stress tends to ease off over the sentence but then re-emerges close to release.”

And then there are the offenders that already have a mental illness and are imprisoned.

“Just by getting large numbers of people together you’re going to get people with mental illness, but it’s disproportionally seen in the offender population,” Allison said. “Some research suggests that is related to the discharge of people from psychiatric wards, so you get a lot of individuals who are institutionalized, then released and are now in the community and are more susceptible to being questioned by police because they’re disruptive and are re-imprisoned again.”

Video by Christine Williams.

The most relevant mental illnesses include depression and substance abuse. Allison said anxiety is also frequently an issue since it is closely related to depression.

“Prevalence rates are going to be substance use abuse — alcohol dependence, alcohol abuse, marijuana, cocaine,” said L. Alvin Malesky, Jr., Ph.D., an associate psychology professor at Western Carolina University with a history as a psychologist with a prison treatment program. “From there, you’re dealing with everything: personality disorders, to serious mental illness, schizophrenia, things of that nature. The people that I see in my forensic role are typically those with serious mental illness, those with schizophrenia, those with bipolar disorder, thought disorders, mood disorders.”

Schizophrenia is often talked about as prevalent in prisons, but in reality it’s a much smaller subset of the general population, so it’s less likely than depression, said Allison.

“Related to depression and anxiety is suicide,” Allison said. “So there’s the suicide watch, you kind of hear about that in prison. That’s a related concern, but other than that, it’s depression.

It is more likely for a state prison inmate to have a mental illness if he has a substance dependency or abuse problem or had parents who abused alcohol or drugs.

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Infographic by Christine Williams via

The BJS study reported 22.3 percent of state prison inmates received mental health treatment during the year before arrest, but 33.8 percent received treatment after admission. Most of these treatments are through prescribed medications.

“People have felt that [mental health statistics increase] as a result of being in jail, but I think there are other causes that go further in explaining higher prevalence rates,” Malesky said.

Treatment in Prisons

When it comes to treating inmates with mental health problems, the quality of the program varies from from prison to prison.

Malesky said a small local jail isn’t likely to have the proper resources to provide extensive care, while a larger facility might have a psychologist or psychiatrist that can work with the inmates.

“As far as treatment goes, a big treatment is pharmacological intervention,” he said. “That is medication, antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, antipsychotics, food stabilizer medications in that regard.  Also, we seek group and psycho-educational treatments.”

Allison said inmates usually have a psychological screening when brought into prison.

“They should get a psychological screen so that would be, if not a licensed Ph.D. level psychologist then someone with a master’s, someone with some kind of training in mental health,” she said. “They’re just looking for indicators, so suicide, depression, anxiety, substance use, and then referring that person on for help.”

Whether or not the inmate chooses to take it or not is a different issue. Allison said some offenders may not want to down to the mental health unit, but some are relieved to get away from the general population and see a doctor. Therapy isn’t even always guaranteed to help, but for some, it’s the only way to have that option.

“For some individuals, this is their only chance to get access to services,” Allison said. “So the problem is not are they getting it in there, but what are they going to do when they get out. Other individuals really need services and don’t get it. A lot of cases in the media and in books and TV that we can read about clearly had mental illness and it just wasn’t picked up, or they knew the individual had a serious diagnosis but the medication wasn’t getting monitored or taken properly and that kind of thing. That can lead to more disruption and problems.”

Keeping track of prescriptions and closely watching offenders with mental illness can be a costly task requiring millions of dollars and an unavailable number of staff.

After three suicides this past summer in a Washington, D.C. prison, The Washington Times reported that the officers are being asked to monitor, diagnose and recognize mental health issues. The officers said this is simply too much to ask as they are also there for security reasons. The District spent $74.4 million on treatment in 2012, compared to the $50.4 million spent in 2009.

“The police in the District Attorney’s Office are not an occupying army,” said Craig Thompson, assistant district attorney in Alamance County. “And people need to realize that if you put people in jail, yes, that keeps them from crime, but you’ve got to support them. And in some states, it’s grown. New York City, for example, recently published it costs something like $47,000 a year to keep somebody in jail. That’s insane. You can get a really good ivy league college education for $47,000 a year.”

In 2007, CNN ran a report calling prisons the insane asylums of the 21st century. Malesky agrees and said he thinks jails have become the “de facto mental health providers” in many cases.

Infographic by Kristin Martin via

“Of course, hands down, many people are in prison because they need to be in prison because they’ve broken the laws,” he said. “And we need to protect society and they need to be punished. That’s very true, and I’m very supportive of that. But unfortunately some individuals end up in prison and there might have been better diversions or interventions to deal with those specific situations than jail.”

While the number of inmates with mental health problems and amount of needed resources doesn’t subside, there are possible solutions.

Allison thinks screening processes and hiring more staff could help. The Department of State lists jobs postings for forensic psychologists, requiring a Master’s Degree. Turnover is high, meaning even more staff is needed. A strong rehabilitation program could also relieve some of the problem.

“I think the focus should be, ‘What can we do to help them?’” Allison said. “That should be the rehabilitative focus, and most academics focus on rehabilitation and not all prisons do. They focus on punishment, retribution, ‘let’s get this person to pay for their crimes,’ and while that’s not unimportant, we want this person to be able to reintegrate into society afterwards and become useful if indeed they can reintegrate, if it’s not a serious, serious crime where they have to spend significant time. Mental health is a big, big problem in the offender population.”

All kinds of rehabilitative-focused approaches should be tried, and these activities, like learning how to interact like others non-aggressively or avoiding substance use, would depend on the disorder at hand, Allison said.

But it’s clear that prison is definitely not the solution.

“Of course it’s not the best situation for them,” Malesky said. “But the question is, it’s an allocation of resources, and there’s been discussions about that, especially in North Carolina regarding mental health care, and so as long as you continue to cut back, and cutting and restricting and eliminating services, then the outcome is that the people are not going to go away. They’re still going to be there, and in some cases be worse.”


Infographic by Christine Williams and Kristin Martin

Prison labor offers additional economic gain, but are the wages fair?


Video and article by Andrew Creech

North Carolina General Statute 148-26 establishes mandatory work requirements for all able-bodied inmates.

“Work assignments and employment shall be for the public benefit to reduce the cost of maintaining the inmate population while enabling inmates to acquire or retain skills and work habits needed to secure honest employment after their release,” the statute states.

Various positions are available to make use of inmates’ skill sets.

Wages for jobs within the prison, such as food service, plumber or groundskeeper, range from 12 cents to 40 cents per hour. This amounts to about $250 to $825 a year.

By using prison labor for these tasks, tax payer costs are lower and the inmates are paid  varying amounts.

Federal inmates have the opportunity to work with Federal Prison Industries (FPI), also called UNICOR. UNICOR wages range from $0.23 to a maximum of $1.15 per hour.

UNICOR manufactures products for government agencies, including military uniforms and weapon systems. Citizens and private businesses cannot order from UNICOR, but they do compete with them for bids, often losing out because they must abide by minimum wage laws, pay a fair wage and worry about taxes and employee benefits.

The Prison Labor Debate

Click to view. Jux Slideshow by Grace Elkus

While the payment from a company for labor is usually at least minimum wage, inmates do not actually see that money. Up to 80 percent of the paycheck is used for taxes and room and board in the prison. A minimum of five percent must be paid to compensate victims of crime. In the end, the inmate only gets 20 percent of minimum wage, with 10 percent of that generally put in a savings account to be given to them upon release.

Private corporations, such as Starbucks, WalMart, Microsoft and Nintendo, among others, have also used prison labor. While the companies generally pay higher than UNICOR, it still is not nearly as high as the federal minimum wage.

Proponents of prison labor argue that the program keeps industries from looking to China as a labor source, while also keeping illegal immigrants from doing the work that should be reserved for citizens of the United States. It also allows inmates to relieve some of the taxpayer burden.

Prison Labor Infographic

Infographic by Andrew Creech

The number of prisoners in America is growing, along with the wallets of private prison corporations  

Article by Nicole Esplin

The history of a prison nation is a little unclear, but it is hard not to question the impact that the increasing number of private prisons has on a growing number of incarcerated citizens.

According to The Atlantic, the United States doubled its number of people incarcerated in the 1980s, and currently incarcerates 445 per 100,000 people, a large increase from the early 1970’s number of 110 incarcerations per 100,000 people.

Expenditures: Inmates v. Students

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Graph courtesy of CNN Money

This increase may be a result of an increasing number of for-profit private prisons.  Ten years ago, there were only five private prisons in the country.  Now, there are 100 that house a total of 62,000 inmates.  There wasn’t one particular event that drove the number of prisoners to increase other than the advent of private prisons and the realization by owners that they could profit from the system.

According to The Center for Global Research, private prisons aim to control the system by paying inmates as little as $0.25 per hour and demanding the inmates either work or be locked up in isolation cells.  To keep inmates in cells longer, “corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself,” a study by the Progressive Labor Party said.

Most recently, The Huffington Post reported that after the state of Arizona failed to supply enough prisoners for a private in-state prison owned by prison giant Management & Training Corp., the company threatened to sue the state of Arizona for not incarcerating enough people.

“A line in their contract guaranteed that the prison would remain 97 percent full,” The Huffington Post reported.  “They argued they had lost nearly $10 million from reduced inmate population.”

Arizona state officials renegotiated the deal, and settled the dispute by paying $3 million for empty beds.

Roy Obrien, a former Florida Corrections auditor and halfway house owner, agrees that the power of prisons in the United States has become out of control.

“Prisons in the United States are an industry,” Obrien said.  “Whenever there is money in something for profit, you lose sense of morality.  We have more incarcerated people than any other country, and it dates back to the 80s and the drug wars.  Reagan worked to remodel the prisons to benefit the war on drugs, but now the prison business has turned into a real good profitable business.”

After looking into the financials of prison power-houses, it is understandable why the companies are so focused in locking up prisoners every year.  According to The Geo Group, Inc., a private prison company that runs 65 correctional and detention facilities, it cost the company over $205 million to operate its prisons in 2012.  Compare that to Geo Group’s total revenue for 2012, which was over $1.4 billion, an increase of 40 percent from 2008.


Infographic by Nicole Esplin

And Geo Group, Inc. isn’t the only prison giant.  According to Morningstar Financial’s report on Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the total compensation for company CEO Damon Hininger was over $2.7 million in 2012.

Investing in CCA when the company went public in 1997 would have returned about 63.7 percent to date in 2013.  That’s not a bad rate of return for those looking to make some money, but at what point does this become unethical equity?  It is inarguable that some prisoners should be locked up for the safety of other citizens, but how did the prison system become so dependent on this stream of income?

Change may be in sight for those locked away, as Attorney General Eric Holder is calling for prison reform and a dock in minimum mandatory sentencing laws, which are a large part of putting prisoners away.

Obrien is hopeful that the United States can improve the prison system by paying attention Holder’s opinions and watching how other countries handle prisons.

“Hopefully Holder’s statement trickles down and we drop minimum mandatory sentencing,” Obrien said.

Obrien also urges Americans to take a look at other countries’ prison systems, and research how the United States could do the prison system better.

“One of the most significant countries with a progressive look on drugs is Portugal,” Obrien said.  “Basically, Portugal was spending too much money and not getting a return on Prison labor.  They decided to look at drugs differently and pretty much decriminalized drugs.  They put money in rehab centers and mental health hospitals.  It is probably one of the most progressive countries in dealing with the drug problem.”

But, until the United States private prison corporations start losing money on prisoners, Portugal’s model may not be tempting to decision makers.  For prisoners, Eric Holder’s minimum mandatory sentencing reform is the first step to shorter prison sentences and less time working for prison corporations.


Infographic by Nicole Esplin

Rehabilitation programs help U.S. juvenile crime rates drop to record lows


Video by Jason Puckett

Article by Andrew Wilson

According to the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, law enforcement officers and agencies throughout the country made approximately 60,000 arrests for violent crimes involving individuals under the age of 18 in 2012. That number declined 10 percent since 2011 and is a 36 percent drop since 2003.

Graph courtesy of Databits.

Graph courtesy of Databits.

This marks a 32-year low for the United States.

Compared with trends since the 1980s, youth arrest rates for violent crimes have reached a new low every year since 2009.

By law, violent crimes are considered murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

A large part of the decline of these numbers is due to rehabilitation programs set up by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency.

On a local level the Raleigh News and Observer reported the number of teens under the age of 16 charged with violent crimes has dropped nearly 37 percent in the state of North Carolina since 2002.

In particular, state legislation nearly 15 years ago played a role in the decline of the number of juvenile arrests with the passing of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act in 1998. The program would treat juveniles according to the seriousness of their crimes, the risks they posed and their personal histories.

Junior Crime Prevention Council and Junior Police Academy are two programs that have played a large part in dropping these juvenile arrests. The goal of both programs are to educate local youth about the risks involved around the community, as well as the consequences if they commit the crime.

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