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Inmate inflation: We could cut food costs by incarcerating fewer people

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Joel McNally
May 7, 2008

When we were growing up, we had a cliché about the menu for people behind bars. They would get bread and water.


In Wisconsin right now, those who run incarceration facilities are holding the bread and increasing the water. With food prices rising, authorities responsible for the enormous number of prisoners we incarcerate are wondering how much they really have to feed them.


According to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, even with a 12 percent increase in food costs so far this year, the average cost of a meal for those who are incarcerated is $1.11. You really don’t get a whole lot of filet mignon for that.


DOC officials say they’re cutting back on bread and mixing more soy into their mystery meat concoctions. Inmates say their drinks are so watered down, walleyes could be showing up in their milk soon.


No one can be surprised that state and local officials are trying to take their budget problems out on the most vulnerable and powerless people in our society. It’s always politically popular to take things away from those who have the least in our society.


But if rising food prices are creating financial problems for our jails and prisons, there are far easier ways to reduce costs than cutting off food to those we incarcerate. Honestly, why pinch pennies by watering down drinks when we could just as easily save tens of millions of dollars a year?


A couple of years ago, two Republican legislators requested a study of how much money the state could save by providing drug treatment instead of prison for nonviolent drug offenders. The results, documented by Justice Strategies, were startling. At that time, Wisconsin was incarcerating 2,900 low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, many of them first offenders who would not even be prosecuted in other states. Wisconsin taxpayers were paying a whopping $83 million a year to lock up people who really needed drug or alcohol treatment.


Those folks probably would have received it, too, if they had a little more money. For the well-off, alcoholism and drug addiction are considered health problems requiring treatment and rehabilitation. For the poor, addictions are criminalized, resulting in incarceration.


Boy, if we saved $83 million a year, we could buy a whole lot of peanut butter sandwiches for our jails. What the heck, we might even toss in a cookie. We would have plenty of money left over to provide drug and alcohol treatment for everyone we presently incarcerate for their addictions.


The cost of incarcerating a nonviolent drug offender in need of treatment is about $29,000 a year. High-quality, community-based drug treatment with wrap-around support services would cost a fraction of that, about $6,000 a year. Instead of trying to figure out how little we can feed the people we incarcerate, isn’t it time we came right out and admitted the number of people we lock up in this country has become certifiably ridiculous?


According to the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College, London, the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but now incarcerates about a quarter of the world’s prisoners.


Remember when we used to call ourselves the land of the free? During the Cold War, we were the good guys and our archenemies in the world were evil, totalitarian states—the Soviet Union and Red China—that kept their populations in chains.


Well, guess who’s No. 1 in imprisoning its own citizens now.


Incredibly, China, with four times the population of the United States, is a distant second to the United States not only in the percentage of citizens it incarcerates but even in the number of citizens behind bars. The United States imprisons 2.3 million people, compared to 1.6 million in China.


It would be nice if we decided to stop incarcerating such an enormous number of our citizens because of the damage being the world’s largest prison camp does to our own people.


Failing that, let’s stop just because our grocery bills to feed all those imprisoned people are getting too high.


Joel McNally is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is jmcnally@wi.rr.com.

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