people-on-globeHeather Thompson is a historian who’s writing a book about the Attica prison uprising in 1971, but her research suggests some new ways of thinking about what’s happening with prisons in America today. She argues that what happened at Attica contributed to changes in U.S. laws that have increased the prison population by more than 2 million. Thompson suggests that this increase is having a detrimental affect on the American economy and our society.

I’ve heard lots of discussion about prisons that focus on the poor conditions in which prisoners live. But Thompson takes a different approach; her focus is on how the growing prison system hurts the rest of us. Setting aside entirely the cost of keeping so many people in prison, large-scale incarceration has other social and economic costs. It breaks up families and communities, creates economic incentives for business and communities to maintain or even increase crime rates, and reduces the number and quality of jobs available to those who are not in prison.

The first point seems somewhat obvious: when a parent or spouse is in prison, the family suffers, and when people who might otherwise contribute to community life are in prison, the community suffers. No doubt, some of those who are in prison were not model parents or citizens, but in prison, whatever ties prisoners, their families, and their communities may have had get broken. This happens in part because the private prison system often sends criminals to prisons far from their families, making it impossible for them to maintain relationships that might help them return more successfully to the community when their sentences end. Add to that the loss of any income they might have contributed to the family, taxes they might have paid locally, and prison conditions that encourage mental illness and asocial behavior, and we have a system that seems to be designed not to rehabilitate prisoners but rather to ensure that they will return to prison soon after they are released.