Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Power of a Picture

Media from Missouri this week proves that a good photo of prison overcrowding explains the problem better than reams of data and statistics do.

It started with this article and photo spread from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  The photos show inmates sleeping on the floor of a jail library and under stairwells -- not because there's not enough cell space, but because there aren't enough guards to watch over the new cell block that was supposed to ease overcrowding. The state could afford the beds, but not the staff. That ironic result puts prison budget and crowding woes in a whole new light, doesn't it?

This thoughtful reaction from the St. Louis Beacon looks at the prisoners in the photos not as just a burden on the budget but as -- prepare yourself -- actual human beings who deserve (and need) better:

One can hardly be faulted for thinking that herding dozens of inmates to sleep in a "library" - one sees no books in the photo, certainly - is to treat them not much better than animals. Our opinion of the photo should not change too much if we recall that the ones on the floor are criminals. For criminals are human beings, too. They are also our fellow citizens, however much they have betrayed our trust by breaking the law.
There is a cost here, but it is not so easily measured in narrow financial terms. It is the cost that comes with basically giving up on a segment of the population, which is the message such treatment unmistakably conveys. It says that we have stopped caring about rehabilitating inmates, or treating them with any measure of dignity. These things cost money, too, but maybe not as much as we think. It may end up costing more not to attempt to reform criminals, to give them no hope of making a better life for themselves.
It is a sad commentary on us that what will eventually change the way we deal with criminals will not be the human cost of so many lives lost in our prisons and jails, but the sheer financial bottom line. ...
I suppose one shouldn't complain too much about why we go about reforming our criminal justice system. Any change away from the horrible and unsustainable status quo - the one starkly depicted in the photo of the Jefferson County Jail - is one we should welcome.
As prisons eat up more and more of state budgets, it begs the question:  what are your taxpayer dollars actually purchasing when you pay for more cells, more guards, and longer sentences?  Is all that extra money actually making you safer, or just perpetuating an out-of-control system?