Prison Lobbyists Enable Prisoners to Live Better than Some in Society

By · Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

Carlos was a fellow prisoner who served with me inside Taft’s minimum-security camp. He was assigned to one of the cubicles adjacent to mine and we formed a friendship. Since he knew I spent a lot of time writing about the prison experience, he asked whether I ever wrote about what we as prisoners had as compared to what others in society lacked. I had written about such injustices before, but Carlos’ question inspired me to write my observations again.

I remembered when I was first locked inside a United States Penitentiary, back in 1987. It was just before a holiday, and I was told by others that holiday meals were special in the penitentiary. When I saw the meal, I was blown away. There were many types of dishes, unlimited portions, and extraordinary desserts. The spread for more than 2,000 prisoners looked like a banquet setting in a hotel resort. That was not what I expected to find in prison. I remembered thinking then that many people in society would not be eating or living as well as those of us in prison.

During the more than 21 years that have passed since my imprisonment began, the system has grown by more than 400 percent. Budgets no longer allow for such elaborate meals. Yet we still live better than many people in society. Every day the administrators serve us three hot meals. We have assigned living quarters that may not feel comfortable, but at least we have blankets to keep us warm and a rack to lie upon. As prisoners we have clean bathrooms, recreational facilities, educational opportunities, and access to health care. We may feel isolated and alienated from our communities, but prisoners in the facilities where I’ve been confined enjoy better housing conditions than some in society.

Having been locked inside prison for virtually my entire adult life, I frequently questioned why it was that our leaders appropriated more tax dollars to fund a bloated and ineffective prison system than they used to fund social programs that would help Americans who struggled to secure the basic necessities of life. Although I know I did not have all the answers, my observations suggested that the powerful lobbyists who represented the prison system and its suppliers played a huge role in this injustice.

Prison lobbyists were instrumental in spawning propaganda that called for longer sentences. Their work of deluding citizens into believing that prisons were society’s best response to social problems resulted in increases of tens of millions of dollars to fund the prison system. Those taxpayer resources diverted money that could have been used to fund social programs, health care, education, and programs for the needy. Instead, prison lobbyists convinced lawmakers to deploy those billions in building and operating more prisons. They advocated for legislation that would lock more people inside prisons and let fewer people out of prisons. They sought fewer programs to ensure that those who left prison adjusted in ways that would keep recidivism rates high. Such a cycle would ensure expenditures continued for prison contractors, correctional officer unions, and those who supplied these institutions with billions worth of goods and services.

Our country incarcerates 2.4 million people. As Justice Kennedy said in his keynote speech to the American Bar Association, America confines too many people and they serve sentences that are far too long. My hopes are that President Obama will use his influence to reform this wicked system. Although society needs prisons to isolate those who prey upon other citizens, these limited resources should not confine nonviolent individuals of victimless crimes for decades at a time. The only purpose such absurd sentences serve is to fund the prison lobbyists and the clients they represent. As a consequence of prison expenditures, the cycle of failure continues, and social programs that could benefit the needy suffer.

Americans should call for prison reforms now.

Be Sociable, Share!

One Response to “Prison Lobbyists Enable Prisoners to Live Better than Some in Society”

  1. Linda Pacheco says:

    Mr. Santos,
    I have read some of your articles, and I am still reading your book. I am a student of Dr. Torres and he has mentioned many of your accomplishments. First of all, I wan to thank you for taking your time in reading and writing my comment. In your article, “Prison Lobbyists Enable Prisoners to Live Better than Some in Society,” I agree with you when you say that “limited resources should not confine nonviolent individuals of victimless crimes for decades at a time.” I think that the punishment should fit the crime.
    I have some questions regarding your article. You mentioned that prison lobbyists believe that prisons are the best response to social problems. What do you think would be a better response to social problems?
    I know you have achieved a degree while in prison. Do you think it is fair that prisoners have better opportunities to achieve a degree than some law abiding citizens who cannot afford to pay for college expenses? Do you think it is fair that people in prison do live better (at least have 3 meals a day and have a place to sleep in) than those who are outside?
    Mr. Santos, once again, I want to thank you for your time. I really enjoy reading your book and articles because it gives me the real perspective of the criminal justice system. I honestly wish the best for you and your family and hopefully more prisoners will be able to achieve the same things you have achieved.
    Linda Pacheco