The Cost of Being Tough on Crime

The "tough on crime" philosophy is expensive, and the recent financial crisis is driving a new discourse of cost, frugality and prudence in incarceration policies.

| April 2015

  • Alcatraz Prison
    Alcatraz Prison sits on a beautiful island in the San Francisco Bay, an isolated and stunning natural location much like those hosting other prisons in America.
    Photo by Fotolia/pyty
  • Cheap on Crime
    "Cheap on Crime," by Hadar Aviram, is an exploration of the repercussions of the 2008 financial crisis on incarceration policies and the prison industrial complex as a whole. From the "tough on crime" policies of the past forty years to the current movement toward fiscal prudence, Aviram offers a rich analysis of the changing incarceration landscape.
    Cover courtesy University of California Press

  • Alcatraz Prison
  • Cheap on Crime

Hadar Aviram draws on years of archival and journalistic research in Cheap on Crime (University of California Press, 2015) to investigate the powerful impact of recession-era discourse on the death penalty, the war on drugs, incarceration policies, prison health care and other aspects of the American correctional landscape. The following excerpt is from the introduction.

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At five-thirty on a San Francisco summer morning, Aquatic Park is still shrouded in menacing darkness. Figures in heavy coats and swim parkas slowly make their way toward a grassy patch overlooking the water, sipping hot beverages and donning their swim gear. Shortly before sunrise, as we listen to a briefing about this morning’s currents and water temperature, we can already see it looming in the dark: Alcatraz Prison, standing proud and somber upon The Rock. Today is race day.

Even after many years of experience in open water races, including several successful Alcatraz crossings, the mile-and-a-half swim course from Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park is a treacherous route. San Francisco Bay is characterized by everchanging tides, uncomfortable temperatures, and murky waters hiding a surprising array of marine life, all of which require careful attention to the race director’s instructions and will later demand resilience and good navigational skills. After the briefing, we all walk along a sleepy Fishermen’s Wharf and board the ferry that will take us to The Rock.



Excitement on the ferry builds up as we prepare to jump. For security reasons, we jump about fifty feet away from the rocks of Alcatraz. The platform is a few feet high; some swimmers are already in the water, stroking quickly to avoid being hit by subsequent jumpers. As I await my turn to jump with a mix of excitement and dread, I enjoy listening to swimmers from all over the world engaging in excited chatter in a dazzling number of languages.

It’s my turn to jump. The coldness of the water, its absolute darkness, stun me for a minute. Despite having jumped into the water in this very location numerous times, the initial shock can only be predicted, not prevented. A thought races through my head: Perhaps this is not my day. Perhaps today I shouldn’t do this. It’s so cold. It’s so hard. It’s so choppy. Another voice tells me: Swim faster, and it’ll be over faster.

After a few hundreds of strokes I look back over my right shoulder. The Rock looms large, close, and threatening in the early morning light, dwarfing my progress. How frustrating this effort to escape must have felt to Alcatraz inmates trying to flee their terrifying place of confinement. Most attempts to escape Alcatraz were thwarted before the escapees managed to even enter the bay, but some inmates managed to go as far as to immerse themselves in the water. On December 16, 1937, Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe escaped under the cover of fog, dove into the icy water, and were never seen again. On September 15, 1941, John Bayless eluded the guards while working his garbage detail; he jumped into the water, but the cold got the better of him and he quickly gave up. On April 14, 1943, James Boardman, Harold Brest, Floyd Hamilton, and Fred Hunter managed to overpower their guards and escape into the water; guards opened fire on them. Some of the bodies were never found. And Aaron Burgett’s body was found two weeks after he jumped into the water on September 29, 1958. One escapee actually managed to make it to San Francisco: On December 16, 1962, John Paul Scott cut through the bars of a kitchen window using banjo strings and an improvised saw. He jumped to the water and swam to shore. With no fancy breakfast, race information on tides, wetsuits, or interval training with a masters team, Scott successfully swam to shore and made it to Fort Point, only to be found by teenagers in a state of severe hypothermia.

But the escapees that most engage my imagination are Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers—John and Clarence—who, on June 11, 1962, carried out what might well have been the only successful Alcatraz escape. Chiseling away concrete from the wall of a utility corridor, disguising the noise by working as accordions played during music hour, they dug an escape route through an air vent. Their bodies were never found. The lore among the open-water swimming community is that Morris and the Anglin brothers made it successfully to shore. I like to imagine them, now old men in berets and old-fashioned suits, sitting at Café Tosca in North Beach, quietly chuckling into the San Francisco Chronicle or the Examiner, congratulating themselves privately on their success.

Why Alcatraz?

It is precisely its natural isolation, the inhospitable waters that surround it, and the existing structures of the military prison that preceded it that made Alcatraz such an attractive venue for a maximum-security federal institution. And yet, as I swim toward the Ghirardelli towers and Fort Mason, I wonder: Had no one questioned the financial expenditure and the alternative attractive usages of the island? Tourists flock to Alcatraz to see the prison and hear stories of its most famous inhabitants but also to appreciate its natural beauty. In an alternate universe, in which the correctional project was less of a priority, Alcatraz could be home to beautiful picnic and hiking grounds, perhaps a nature reserve, perhaps a vacation resort. But even if institutions like Alcatraz were deemed necessary to incarcerate the “worst of the worst,” our immense investment in the complex web of federal, state, and local institutions reflects our limited collective imagination. Many of the prisons nationwide occupy beautiful, scenic locations; San Quentin’s location on the North Bay shore is a prime example. Other prisons are built amid small towns, where many residents come to accept their existence as an inevitable fact on the ground, assuming their essential role in the towns’ economies and being surprisingly unaware of the thousands of lives lived within those walls, either in remote locations or in close proximity to the life outside. Our constant financial support of the gargantuan machinery and expenditure required by the American punitive project is rivaled by our willful blindness to the way our taxes and bonds are spent in its service.

China Mieville’s The City and the City, a noir-fantasy novel, tells of two European city-states that share the same geographic space but do not have mutual diplomatic relations. Each city’s residents are socialized from infancy to “unsee” any person, building, landmark, or vehicle pertaining to the other city. Like the unseen city in the novel, the carceral machinery is largely invisible to the public that funds its operations. For the past forty years, the number of residents in the unseen city has risen astronomically, to 2.3 million, financed by a public that remains woefully uninformed about and uninterested in its existence. We have created incarceration policies that send eighty thousand people to rot in solitary confinement for twenty-two and a half hours a day. We have created a mind-boggling system of sentencing enhancements whose complicated mathematics have sent people to decades in prison, constructed upon previous offenses, circumstances of the offense, and other add-up factors. We have built back doors through which those who are released from prison may end up behind those invisible gates for technical parole violations, their short stints in our world between revolving door incarceration periods keeping us oblivious to their unseen lives. And we have spent many years paying for these intricate passages and hallways with considerable percentages of our state and local budgets. While we may be dismayed by our own impermeability to human rights concerns, to doubts about the power of deterrence and incapacitation, to the realization that our fellow citizens and residents are behind bars and most of them will return to us, it is particularly puzzling to me that, in a society obsessed with Keynesian cost-benefit calculations, in which questions of ideological values, social responsibility, and public priorities are so frequently framed as concerns about public spending, we have not, until recently, seriously questioned our collective investment in what many have come to call the prison industrial complex.

But recent developments in the correctional world suggest that the tables have begun to turn on four decades of financial support coupled with ignorance. For the first time in thirty-seven years, 2009 saw a decline in the overall numbers of prisoners in the United States. Traditionally punitive states have modified their correctional policies, closing down prisons and reducing their reliance on solitary confinement. In the past seven years, several states have abolished the death penalty or placed moratoria upon executions. Many states are increasingly open to early releases, geriatric and medical parole policies, and modifications of their contract with private prison service providers to allow for an overall smaller number of incarcerations. Conversations about drug legalization have led two states to legalize recreational marijuana use, and politicians of all stripes are seemingly less concerned about advocating such nonpunitive reforms and appearing “soft on crime.”

Rethinking the Prison Industrial Complex

I attribute the increased political and public support for these transformations to the Great Recession of 2008. It should, however, be stressed at the onset that I do not advance a hard causal connection between the recession and all changes in punishment. Some of the shift toward less punitive perspective preceded the crisis, and some of it can be attributed to a combination of factors, of which the crisis is only one. Nor do I argue that current correctional policies represent a distinctive break from the philosophies that characterized corrections before the financial crisis. Quite the contrary: the economic events that have created political legitimacy and opportunity for these transformations have not generated a shift in our overall “tough on crime” mentality. We have not become more attuned to human rights concerns or more optimistic about rehabilitation. In many ways, we are still a society of risk, engaging in selective incapacitation of its underclass, perceiving their oppression and confinement through the same neoliberal frame of reference. And, while some things have gotten better, as this book argues, some things have gotten worse, and some things are doomed to remain the same for some time to come.

My argument, therefore, is that the advent of the financial crisis has given rise to a prominent new discourse of cost, frugality, and prudence, which has permeated our political and public conversations about corrections and has become a powerful rhetoric and motivator in political campaigns and administrative negotiations. I call this new discourse “humonetarianism,” a term I chose because it draws attention to the cost-centered logic behind nonpunitive reforms. Humonetarian discourse is prioritized and prominently displayed at the forefront for traditionally polarizing public conversations, such as the question of death penalty abolition and the future of the war on drugs. An anatomy of campaigns, public statements, and policies shows that this discourse is utilized in a way that disarms the political impasse and allows politicians, policy makers, businesspeople, and taxpayers to find common ground and reach significant compromises in the penal field that were more difficult to achieve without the broad appeal of humonetarianism.


Reprinted with permission from Cheap on Crime: Recession-Era Politics and the Transformation of American Punishment by Hadar Aviram and published by the University of California Press, 2015.






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