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Getting the Money Out of Prison Reform

The MacArthur Foundation’s $75 million donation toward reforming jails is going to those who designed the failed system.

(Photo: Handcuffs and Money via Shutterstock)
(Photo: Handcuffs and Money via Shutterstock)

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Much has been made about the bipartisan nature of contemporary efforts to end mass incarceration, as everyone from Newt Gingrich and the Koch Brothers to Van Jones and the American Civil Liberties Union, and now even Hillary Clinton, says that the United States needs to reduce the number of people it incarcerates in its own gulag archipelago. If all these people agree, the conventional wisdom goes, surely we can get something done. Are prisons the only thing that can end Washington gridlock?

The most recent entrance in this debate came from the MacArthur Foundation, which announced on May 26 that it would be awarding grants of $150,000 each to 20 municipalities around the country to develop plans “that will lead to fairer, more effective local justice systems.” These grants are part of a $75 million initiative that the foundation has embarked on to reduce mass incarceration.

The MacArthur plan specifically focuses on local jails, and the 20 awardees account for 11 percent of the country’s jail population. The attention to jails is urgently needed: American jails largely house people too poor to make bail for minor offenses such as traffic violations or drug possession. Jails such as those at Rikers Island and Philadelphia – two of the jurisdictions awarded funds – have been the subject of public scrutiny following reports of physical and sexual abuse of inmates. The list of grantees also includes Saint Louis County, Missouri, and Charleston County, South Carolina, two areas where police have killed unarmed black men in the last year.

Part of the foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, this plan is certainly ambitious. “At the end of the day, what we’re talking about is systemic change,” MacArthur’s president Julia Stasch told the Associated Press. To achieve such change, the foundation has “asked the selected jail systems to work with experts, judges, prosecutors, court administrators, police and corrections officials.”

And therein lies the problem. Like efforts by other philanthropic organizations, the MacArthur Foundation has made jail reform something for criminal justice professionals and experts to solve. However, the people who maintain the current system are not those best poised to fix it. You don’t pay a corporation to downsize itself.

What makes municipal jails – and the judges, prosecutors, court officials and law enforcement agencies who filled them – qualified to best shrink the number of people being jailed? These are, after all, the very people who have designed and pursued the failed policies we are now hoping to eradicate.

Meanwhile, the voices of the more than 12 million people who annually pass through one (or more) of the nation’s 3,000 jails seem absent from this process. So too are the voices of their loved ones and most dedicated advocates.

Furthermore, we know why people go to jail, and it has little to do with the jail itself. Jails do not decide who they incarcerate or why. People go to jail because they are poor and can’t afford bail, or because they are poor and suffering from untreated mental illness, or because they are poor and self-medicating, or because they are poor and behave in a way police deem inappropriate. In fact, police power is a core issue here. The police killings of black women, men and children that have gotten such attention in recent months is bolstered by the everyday violence that sees Black, Latino, and Indigenous people pass in and out of American jails at such disparate rates.

There is much to reform about how jails run, but if we want to reduce the number of people inside of them, we need to begin by reducing the scope of police power and increasing the scale of social welfare and health-care protections. MacArthur money, like that of Koch Brothers and others, might be better spent on supporting universal health care, public housing, full employment, and other provisions known to preserve genuine safety. As Marie Gottschalk notes in her excellent new book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, “prison reform” is a largely symbolic gesture outside of substantive social policy to ameliorate inequality.

In the meantime, abolishing bail and pretrial detention would go a long way toward reducing the number of people in prison. So too would an immediate cessation of the various “quality of life” policing practices that have criminalized poverty, sex work, drug possession and mental illness. Such reforms, backed by a more significant realignment of funding priorities, are the only things that will mark steps toward a genuine, lasting decarceration.

Mass incarceration is a complicated system, of course, and it will take many institutions to correct more than four decades of failed policies. It is a significant development to have a philanthropic entity with the resources and prestige of the MacArthur Foundation wanting to help end the devastation of human life called the American prison system. However, how much can philanthropy accomplish? Money can be a powerful motivator, at least when the faucets are flowing. But even the largesse of the MacArthur Foundation has its limits, and the policies enacted or revised now may be with us for a long time to come. We simply cannot afford to leave prison reform to the “experts” who gave us mass incarceration.

Progressives often lament the need to “get money out of politics.” As prison reform makes its way to the center stage of American politics, we will need to ensure that the social change agenda is not determined by financiers, however sincerely motivated they may be. Otherwise, we may find ourselves having to battle prominent foundations as an expression of the larger prison crisis that has long characterized the United States. To paraphrase the poet Gil Scott-Heron, “decarceration will not be incentivized,” decarceration will not be incentivized, decarceration will not be incentivized. Decarceration will not be incentivized.

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