News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Prison: a growth industry in South Dakota

Over the weekend, stories appeared in South Dakota newspapers, such as they are, that the state’s Department of Corrections anticipates a rise in its prison populations. This comes after a few years of modest decline. The upshot is that the DOC will need some money.

Here is the profile of expenditures planned for the DOC:

  • Actual FY2008 budget: $98.8 million
  • Budgeted for FY2009: $107.9 million
  • Original FY2010: $108.1 million
  • Revised FY 2010: $106.2 million

That indicates a decrease in spending for Fiscal Year 2010 of $1.7 million from Fiscal Year 2009. But a larger perspective shows that the Department of Corrections is one of the state’s more lavish programs. It uses 7 percent of the state’s general funds. It employs 6.3 percent of the state workforce.

A report by the Pew Center on the States shows that one out every hundred people in the U..S is in prison, with the total number of people behind bars exceeding 2 million. South Dakota has 3,302 prison inmates.

[As pointed out by the carper-in-chief at South Dakota Politics, the above graph obviously should read "one out of every hundred adults " is in prison. In this country we do not record juvenile detentions.]

South Dakota’s population in prison seems paltry until one examines how much it costs and compares it with North Dakota’s prison population of 1,440. Why South Dakota whose overall population and culture is so similar to North Dakota’s incarcerates more than twice the number of people is an issue that has troubled some legislators for decades.

A DOC report in 2001 gives some insights into the make up of the state prison population. White inmates comprise 73.1 percent of the prison inmates. American Indians comprise 22.5 percent. Native Americans make up 8.3 percent of the state overall population. Put another way, of every 1,000 white people in South Dakota, 2.91 of them end up in prison. However, for every 1,000 American Indians, 10.26 of them get sent to prison.

That does not explain why South Dakota puts more than twice as many people in jail than does North Dakota.

Prisons don’t work very well. I used to be diffident about the death penalty until I started working with some wrongful conviction projects. The number of people wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death is an alarming indication of how just our justice system is. Many years ago when the newspaper I worked for did a series of interviews of prisoners, I asked a convict who was then the prison chaplain’s assistant who he thought were the most dangerous people in prison. The wrongfully convicted, he answered. They have lost all reason to respect and trust the society that put them behind bars. While a few forgive and try to forget why they are in prison, he said, many scheme and plot the revenge they will take once they get out. They feel that they have nothing to lose because they have lost everything already, and revenge is the only thing they have to look forward to. He stressed that the nature of prison life creates more criminals than it rehabilitates.

As a professor, I had former convicts in classes, although we took care not to reveal this to other students. Confidentiality was a matter of university policy to give the former convicts the best conditions under which to realize academic success and not to incite prejudices from the other students. Many of those former convict students had been caught up in the drug culture and college was a part of their rehabilitation. Others had been involved in other felonies. A few ended up back in jail, and I was not surprised. They had attitudes that were troubling, and you could almost predict that they would end up in trouble again.

I have had a number of people in law enforcement and criminal justice tell me that for many people sent to prison, it is like a graduate course in criminality. They confirm what the old chaplain’s assistant told me: prison propagates more criminality than it cures.

I don’t know. Some people need to be locked away to keep society safe and free. Others need some different form of correction. It is just another problem that partisans can bicker about and exchange insults over—and get nothing done.

But it sure is expensive.

1 comment:

Sassy said...

I just read your article and agree fully with your comments. If the legislature and Governor are so concerned about the Corrections budget, they are the only ones who have the power to correct the problem. Everyone just looks at the DOC Budget, but never looks at the total picture, ie. cost of corrections, cost to health and social services, cost to families financial, physically and emotionally. It's bad enough when you lose a loved one to the system, but it is even more devastating when you have a state that makes a business of that misery and promulgates that thinking by issuing sentences that are unfair and inhumane, both for the inmate and the family. Basically what the state is doing is signing the financial and emotional "death sentence" for everyone closely involved. The chaplain assistant is correct. The system is at fault for the "criminality" problem. Wrong and unusually long sentences that don't fit the crime, long sentences that create "institutionalized" minds and sets up the inmates to fail long before they are ever allowed to return to their families. Most of them receive long consecutive sentences where anywhere else in the United States it would run concurrent. There is no rehabilitation in the system now, and definately no habilitation. In a time when every govenment agency is crying about budget, we have a Governor and Legislature that cares very little about solving the problem, only supporting the problem for the sake of creating jobs. It's sad when we stop caring about and protecting "all" of our citizens. Families pay taxes to the state, we struggle to hold things together while supporting our loved ones emotionally and financially, while the system takes advantage of us. I wish someone would look at the whole picture for a change. Rethink the long sentences, make changes and send our loved ones back to us. I'm not saying that prisons are not necessary or that there are some who need to be there, but there are a lot more men (and women) who are serving sentences for crimes that don't deserve the sentence they got. Please, help those who have no voice!

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States