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Slimantics: Mississippi needs a different 'growth industry'

 

Slim Smith

 

It was a March afternoon in 2007. I was sitting in my bunk at Durango Jail, reading a year-old copy of TIME Magazine the crack staff of the Maricopa County Jail system had provided for the reading pleasure of the inmates they had stacked like cordwood into Building 4, A Pod. I was in jail awaiting sentencing for aggravated DUI. I spent 34 days at Durango Jail before being transferred to the state prison on April 2, 2007. 

 

My two-person cell at Durango was cleverly rearranged to accommodate four inmates, but only one of my cell mates was around, the other two having wandered off into the day room, perhaps to play dominoes carved out of the miniature soaps the county provided for hygiene. 

 

I was paying no attention to Paul Chavez, an inmate in his late 30s, who was occupying the lower bunk opposite my bunk. 

 

But as I was reading, I got the feeling I was being watched. You've had the feeling before, I am sure. At first, I just tried to dismiss the idea, but it was a nagging feeling. I looked up from the magazine and across the cell to see Paul, his eyes fixed on me. 

 

"What?'' I asked, puzzled. 

 

"It's nothing really," Paul sighed. "I was just thinking: You don't belong here." 

 

"What do you mean?" I asked. 

 

"Really," he said. "Look around this place. You don't belong here. It's just weird that somebody like you would be here." 

 

"Well, the state of Arizona sure thinks I belong here," I said, returning to my magazine. 

 

Paul was wrong, of course. I did deserve to be there. Three DUIs in a five-year period gets you a one-year prison sentence. 

 

But I knew what he meant. At county jail, I was in what they call the general population.  

 

In general population, you are thrown in with all sorts of offenders, although the most violent of them -- murderers, rapists, etc., -- are housed in the downtown Phoenix jail. 

 

Even so, I had to admit I stood out among my peers in many respects. Paul and I were two of the few inmates over the age of 25. I was well-spoken, courteous, not prone to threats of violence. This also distinguished me from my jail peers, for whom violence almost always seemed to be the first option rather than the last resort. 

 

When I got to Florence West prison, I was in a "yard" of about 500 men, almost all of them sentenced for DUI-related offenses. There were five other prisons in Arizona with "DUI yards." 

 

So here's where the math comes in: 3,000 men in prison for DUIs -- with actual sentences ranging from four months to 14 years -- at a cost to the taxpayers of about $90 per day. That comes to $98.5 million per year just to lock up DUI offenders. That's chump change when compared to what the state coughed up to imprison non-violent drug offenders. And when you consider that many crimes, while not directly related to drugs or alcohol, are committed to support addictions, the costs of imprisonment are higher still. 

 

As the Mississippi Legislature begins its budget sessions, there are two measures you can count on: Education funding will decrease; prison funding will increase.  

 

The Mississippi Department of Corrections had a $350 million budget last year and is expected to go over budget by about $30 million. Legislation will be offered to build new prisons, and it will pass by a comfortable margin. 

 

At some point, you have to wonder if the approach makes any sense. Granted, Mississippians are noted for their religious zeal, especially when it comes to punishing people. But at some point, even the most hard-bitten, get-tough-on-crime advocates must realize the financial insanity of locking up its citizens at a higher per-capita rate than any state in the union. 

 

It's a Tea Party fanatic's worst nightmare, when you think about it. 

 

There's some tepid call for more use of house arrest, some meek advocacy for uniform sentencing guidelines. The better bet is that the legislature will simply cough up the millions of dollars needed to build more prisons. It's Mississippi's greatest growth industry. How tragically sad is that? 

 

In New Jersey, Republican governor Chris Christie proposed a drug court diversion program that would send non-violent drug offenders to rehab instead of prison. Christie, whose status as a Republican hardly qualifies him as a left-wing, soft-on-crime commie, reasoned that it makes more sense to send offenders to rehab than to prison for two reasons. 

 

First, qualifying offenders would receive far better treatment in the proposed five-year treatment program than they would receive in prison, where most of the programs are sort of "going through the motions." That was absolutely the case in my experience. You've never seen indifference until you've sat through a prison-run treatment program.  

 

Secondly, beyond actually helping offenders, it makes economic sense. In New Jersey, it costs the state $42,000 to house an inmate for a year. The cost to the state for one person in the drug court is $11,300. 

 

"You don't belong here," Paul told me that day five years ago. 

 

He didn't know how right he was.

 

Slim Smith is managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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