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.

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